Inbound marketing vs content marketing: What’s the difference?

If you’ve read even one marketing blog or participated in a single marketing-related Twitter chat in the last five years, odds are you’ve heard the terms inbound marketing and content marketing at least a couple dozen times.

Now, while we’ll be the first to admit that marketers are generally a tad bit obsessed with “buzzwords” and finding “the next big thing”, this time the strategy lives up to the hype. Both forms of marketing have fundamentally changed how we reach, interact with, and sell to our target audience. But, as someone who’s just getting started, it can all seem a bit confusing. And we get it – Inbound and content marketing are incredibly easy to get mixed up.

First, because it seems like both terms are used interchangeably – you’ll find one marketer refers to a strategy as inbound marketing while another refers to it as content marketing. And second, because most content marketing strategies also fall under the umbrella of inbound marketing. A good example of this is what we’re doing right now – blogging, which could easily be categorized as both an inbound marketing tactic and a content marketing strategy.

So, what’s the relationship between the two? And, is there any difference? Well, that’s what we’re going to be exploring in this post. Let’s get right into it!

The relationship between inbound marketing and content marketing

To understand the difference between content and inbound marketing, you first have to understand the relationship between the two. So, let’s start by setting the scene with some background as to why these forms of marketing emerged and became so popular.

Up for a bit of time travel? Great!

It was the year 1998 – Google had just officially launched, the first social networking site was about a year old, and Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t even graduated high school. Basically, it was a time when connectivity and technology as we know it now probably seemed closer to a dystopian sci-fi novel than reality. And in those times, businesses had all the power.

With the absence of social media or search engines as we know them today, consumers didn’t have access to the breadth of information we now have. And as a result, buying decisions were heavily influenced by brands with big advertising budgets and stellar copywriting chops.

So, although there was already a certain level of connectivity thanks to the internet and email, digital marketing was still in its early days. ‍And then technology changed marketing forever. Fast forward to 2005 and the world had changed drastically.

Myspace was dominating the social networking scene, Facebook had just gotten started, Google was expanding its knowledge base rapidly and, the power dynamics between brands and consumers were shifting.

Suddenly buyers no longer had to listen to what brands had to say about their needs, problems, or the best products and services to satisfy them. They were becoming increasingly independent, sophisticated, and extremely opinionated – they knew what they wanted, how they wanted it, and most importantly when they wanted it. Now, let’s hop in our time machine and head back to today the year 2020.  

Technology has greatly advanced in the last 15 years and consumers now have access to an almost infinite amount of choices. Got a problem they can’t figure out? Google has a couple thousand potential solutions. And it doesn’t stop there. With a click of a button, they can also access information about every single one of their options – pros, cons, and experiences from thousands of previous users.

Today’s buyers are powerful and they know it. And you know what else? These buyers aren’t going to buy your product or service just because you put together a glitzy ad. No, these buyers need to be informed, educated, and convinced that a product can solve their particular problem.

What is inbound marketing?

Where outbound was all “push, push and push”, inbound believes in “pull, pull, pull”.

And what this means is that unlike outbound marketing strategies that rely on borrowing your audience’s attention (often via interruption), inbound marketing focuses on “earning it”.

Hubspot (the company that coined the term in 2006), defines this as “a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them”.

So, it’s no longer about “controlling” the buyer journey but rather, encouraging and actively aiding it.

And what this typically involves is:

  1. Understanding who your target audience is
  2. Being where they can easily and organically find you
  3. Finding non-intrusive, genuine ways to attract and capture their attention.  And,
  4. Nurturing the relationship by providing value at every stage of their buyer’s journey (pre and post-purchase).

And here are just a handful of ways you can do this:

      a) Optimizing your website to rank in search engines so you’re visible when your audience searches for a solution you offer

      b) Being active and providing value on social media platforms your target audience is active on. And,

      c) Creating content that answers their questions and provides genuine value as they move along their buyer journey.   

Now (c) is one of the most powerful inbound strategies you can use to grow your business. And we promise we’re not just saying that because that’s what we do.

Social Media Activity

Remember how we talked about consumers changing over the last 20 or so years? Well, one of the main ways they’ve evolved is in how their buying journey progresses.

So, what does a consumer’s buyer journey look like today?

When today’s buyer has a problem, they typically don’t start by looking to a brand or business for a solution. Instead, the buyer journey starts by actively seeking information to educate themselves about the problem they’re having. And, only when they understand the problem do they look for more information about a possible solution.

So just like we said earlier, today’s buyers don’t want to be sold to right off the bat – they want to be educated. And this is where our friend content marketing comes in.

Cause what’s one of the best ways to attract, nurture, and provide value to a buyer that’s already actively seeking information? You guessed it – by giving them the information they’re looking for in the form of high-quality, helpful content.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing in its simplest form is a form of marketing that relies on attracting, nurturing, and eventually, converting your target audience by creating content that is relevant, useful, and valuable at different stages of their buyer’s journey.

Take for instance the post you’re reading right now.

We’ve created a piece of content that’s meant to help, educate and provide value to you at your current stage in your buyer’s journey – the “ early awareness stage” where you’re learning about and searching for information related to a problem you’re trying to solve.

And, we’ve decided that instead of interrupting your buyer journey to say “BUY OUR PRODUCT!!!!!” we’ll support and encourage it.

And we do this out of the belief that when you are ready to buy, we’ll have built enough trust and provided enough value to make us your top choice.

But blogging is just one of the many ways to do this.

Some other types of content marketing are –

  1. Video: An example of this would be creating content on YouTube.
  2. Podcasting: A newer content marketing format that’s been catching on recently
  3. Infographics: These are an amazing way to get people to share your company organically
Types of content marketing

And many, many more.

The great thing about content is that it isn’t limited to a certain medium or format. The only standard by which you judge whatever content vehicle or medium you’re considering is whether or not your target audience will:

  1. Find it
  2. Consume it
  3. Consider it useful and valuable at the particular stage of their buyer’s journey 

And that’s what inbound marketing and content marketing are all about – giving potential buyers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

So, to finally answer the question that birthed this article,

Is there a difference between content marketing and inbound marketing?

Short answer, yes. And if you’ve read this far into this post you probably already know how.

But if you’re still stumped on what makes both different, think about it like this – inbound marketing is the overall framework under which content marketing exists, is executed, and functions.

But more importantly, they’re two strategies so tightly interwoven and interdependent that one wouldn’t survive without the other.

A solid content strategy is one of the “cornerstones” of an inbound marketing campaign and without it, any inbound effort would be essentially handicapped.

Similarly, without the entire inbound marketing framework (where all marketing activities are tailored to the buyer’s journey and behavior), there wouldn’t be the support needed for content marketing to be truly effective.

So now that you understand how content and inbound marketing work together to organically attract and convert your audience, it’s time to finally stop “pushing” and begin leveraging the “pull” of great content.

If you’re a DIY kind of person, we’ve got a pretty great resource on building your content marketing strategy to help you get started.  But, if you’d like to hand it all over to a trusted team with a proven track record for success, you can get in touch.