The Fallacy of Inbound Marketing

Guy Kawasaki, marketing guru and chief evangelist at Apple, once famously said “if you have more money than brains, you should focus on outbound marketing. If you have more brains than money, you should focus on inbound marketing”. But is Inbound Marketing being over hyped? And how easy it is to execute?

Outbound marketing, for sure, has flaws. Direct mail, email, telemarketing, and other outbound techniques are intrusive and interruptive. Prospects feel violated by unsolicited messages from advertisers. This lowers the response rates which increases costs. Marketers have been dulled into accepting this state of affairs. A direct marketing campaign – even one with just a few percent response rate – is often considered a success.

Inbound Marketing, flips the outbound marketing paradigm. Rather than intrusively seek customers, it gets prospects to seek you. As a result, the quality of leads is better. The conversion is higher. And ROI is greater. It is this promise that makes Inbound Marketing appealing.

The idea behind Inbound Marketing is simple – and was first articulated by Seth Rodin, in 1999, in his seminal book “Permission Marketing, Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers”. The strategy is to get permission to initiate a relationship by providing prospect with something desirable for free. Companies like HubSpot, Marketo have commercialized and popularized this concept.

With Inbound, you start by creating compelling original content, seeded it Blogs, Social Media, optimize it for Search Engines. The target audience finds this content. And in return for consuming it, volunteer information regarding their identity and needs. With this give and take, prospects implicitly give permission for marketing. The end result is an inbound communication or a non-intrusive, highly targeted outbound solicitation.

Sounds simple. But does this work in real world? And how difficult is it to execute. There are 3 caveats you should be aware of, before you jump into this inbound marketing world.

First, high quality content is central to inbound marketing. Without it, everything falls apart. But it is extremely hard to create, compelling, original content. You need skilled content developers. You need original beat of ideas. Most of what you see today on the web, masquerading as content, is just rehash of stuff written by someone else. We are in one giant echo chamber re-tweeting, re-posting, what others have published.

Second, even with original content, breaking through the media clutter is extremely hard to do. There are tens of thousands of blogs out there. People simply do not have the time to read another blog. Search Engine Optimization is hard – everyone wants to be at the top of the search result. Few succeed. Just search for “Cloud Computing” on Google. Microsoft does not even show up on first page and IBM is at the bottom of the page.

Finally, even if you succeeded in getting eyeballs for your original content, the process of nurturing those eyeballs into a qualified lead is slow and gradual. Unlike outbound marketing you have limited control on the time for that relationship to mature into a quality lead. So most likely, with inbound marketing, you will end up with a small, trickle of leads that – sure – will respond and convert better – but may not be enough to meet your marketing and sales targets.

This isn’t to say – Inbound Marketing should not be tried. But one needs to be clear about the pitfalls and challenges. If you have strong in-house content development skills, and you are not under the gun for quick results, and are looking at limited number of high-ticket sales, then inbound marketing could be a viable strategy. But if you are looking for high-volume sales – as in new donor acquisition or new subscriber acquisition for magazines, or home refinancing leads – then outbound marketing will most likely be the technique of choice.

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