Online marketing vs inbound marketing – what is the difference and why does it matter?

I get this question a lot from prospects and clients. It’s a great question because the answer leads to some important distinctions that should definitely be considered when pulling together your marketing strategy.

Online Marketing?

Online marketing is a channel defining term that was born out of the birth of the web. Initially, it was all about banner ads, mostly extensions of traditional advertising efforts. Today, online marketing is far more sophisticated with numerous opportunities to grow brand awareness, brand goodwill, site traffic and e-commerce sales.

Online marketing activity includes such things as SEM, affiliate network partnerships, display ads, email blasts, content marketing, website design and optimization, social media marketing, mobile apps/ advertising and video advertising.

Inbound Marketing?

Inbound and online marketing use a lot of the same marketing tactics, spawning some confusion between the two. The reality is, Inbound Marketing is a much deeper form of online marketing, heavily focused on generating leads and converting them into customers. Adding to this difference is the fact that Inbound Marketing necessarily needs to work very closely with the sales team and in fact, often changes the sales approach in the process.

Inbound Marketing helps buyers at each phase in the buying cycle with messaging and content that is useful to them so that when they are ready to buy, a relationship has already been formed – in a better position to win their business.

Core Differences?

In general, there are 5 areas where Inbound Marketing goes deeper in terms generating qualified leads and turn them into a customer vs online marketing

  1. Buyer Personas

Target audience descriptions used in online marketing are good but do not go deep enough for the purpose of Inbound Marketing. At the core of any inbound marketing effort are Buyer Personas; detailed descriptions of your ideal customer based on keen insights gained from a variety of sources (research, existing customers, etc…). Buyer Personas normally include such things demographics, goals, pain points, job title, motivations, information sources and role they play in the buying decision.

Most businesses work off of 3 to 5 buyer personas. The distinction between these personas is critical to your inbound marketing playbook because all activity is driven off a focus on a particular buyer persona.

  1. Content Strategy

Inbound marketing content strategy is a mapping of content needs against each of the buyer personas at each stage of the buying cycle. It also specifies content form (i.e. white paper vs e-book vs webinar, etc…) based upon nature of content and buyer persona insights. It is critical that any content strategy be fully documented and refined over time – too many organizations fail to do this.

  1. Integrated Campaigns

Online marketing can take on an integrated approach as well, but the difference is in focus. Rather than focusing on a marketing/ promotional message, inbound marketing campaigns start with a “content offer”, something of value to a Buyer Persona at a given stage in the buying journey. A content offer needs to be valuable enough that a prospect is willing to share their information with you to get it. To maximize audience reach of any content offer, a variety of online marketing tactics such as a blog, SEM, SEO, Email and Social media posts should be employed.

  1. Lead Nurturing

Once a lead is generated, the goal is to manage the relationship effectively through each phase of the buying journey – a very targeted approach! All of this lead nurturing activity should be a natural extension of every integrated inbound marketing campaign. Leads are not simply handed off to sales until marketing team qualifies them.

  1. Sales Integration

Once a lead is qualified, they are handed over to sales. When this happens, it is critical that the sales team continue to nurture the lead in the same fashion as the marketing team. Marketing and sales need to be working off of a common inbound marketing playbook to maximize sales success.

Why Does Distinction Matter?

Inbound marketing has emerged as a powerful, more modern and profitable way to grow sales when certain business conditions are met, given fundamental changes in buyer behavior in today’s markets.

If the following conditions apply to your business, you are an ideal candidate to drive your business to new heights behind the power of Inbound Marketing:

  1. Does your business focus on generating business leads? Leads enable you to get to buyers earlier in the buying process so that you can nurture that lead along the buying process and be in the best position to convert them into a customer.
  1. Is the buying process a considered one? A considered purchase is a buying decision that is actively researched (educational in nature, not simply researching for best price) before a purchase decision is made and often has more than one person involved in the decision.


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