Naming, defining, and redefining business terminology is a favorite pastime of marketers. 

This practice has its upside: business strategies are complicated. We need a full vocabulary to cover all the nuances of our profession.

The trouble is, business terms have a bad habit of not staying put. It’s easy to get mixed up when terms sound the same and definitions shift. Confusion compounds when terminology bleeds across departments.

Terms like inbound marketing, content marketing and inbound sales are thrown around all the time, but not everyone is always on the same page about what they mean.

If you have a comprehensive marketing plan in place, you are probably using all of these things. While the terms are not worth over-defining, having a clear view of what separates and unifies these 3 concepts can alleviate unnecessary confusion when coordinating with others.

Inbound Marketing Defined

Larry Kim, founder and CTO of Wordstream, says inbound marketing is “when customers come to you.” This simple but powerful concept forms the foundation for SEO, PPC and content marketing. The point is to create content for lead generation and inbound sales (there’s that term). These are sales that take almost no work at the end of the sales funnel because:

  • Customers need your product.
  • They look for different suppliers.
  • They find you with a simple search.
  • They make a purchase.

All you need to do is fulfill their order.

Inbound marketing is any and all activities that bring the customer to you organically. Although PPC advertising is not free, it still can act as an organic filter. When someone searches for a product, those preferred listings (advertisements) answer the search.

All these activities fall under the inbound marketing heading and might be managed by a social media manager or an inbound marketing manager. These managers use a variety of complex analytics to determine what parts of their total campaign are worth the time spent. ROI isn’t the only measurement, but it still makes the list, as does CTR, time on site, lead conversion, traffic, unsubscribe rates and engagement.

What About Content Marketing?

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience–and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” The important part of this equation is value. Does the content create value for potential customers? If the answer is yes, then the potential customers are captured in the first part of the sales funnel. They are aware. Over time, additional content may drive their interest, so when they are ready to purchase, they go to the content provider that opened their eyes to the possibilities. Content marketing is a part of inbound marketing. A content marketing creation team might be composed of freelance writers, graphic designers, videographers and other creative types.

To get an idea of the value of content marketing, simply take a look at some of the best video strategies. The LEGO Movie is a great piece of content marketing. Not only did viewers pay to watch it, but they then went out and bought more LEGO. My Little Pony products have generated a complete subculture for Hasbro. There are conventions, fan meet-ups and lots of fan engagement. As part of a larger strategy, content marketing can consist of:

  • Articles
  • Blogs
  • Books
  • White papers
  • Infographics
  • Videos (long and short form)
  • Apps

Where Do Inbound Sales Come In?

Inbound sales are the goal of an inbound marketing strategy. Kory McPherson, an Inbound Advisor at New Breed, defines inbound sales as “the process of focusing on individual buyers and their personal needs, points of pain, frustrations and goals.”

These are the customers who contact you, not the customers you contact. They have filled out a form, responded to a piece of content or made direct contact. The act of inbound sales is fully automated in many cases. As in the case of most SaaS and ecommerce business, a customer makes the final purchase decision and submits payment without ever talking to a sales representative. However, not all sales processes can be fully automated. Inside sales often entails the touch of a sales representative to qualify and close deals.

Inbound leads are always your best leads — buyers that already know about your product, have seen the value and are nearly ready to buy. All you need to do is close the sale.

The Synergy of Inbound

When great content is part of a larger inbound marketing strategy, you generate more inbound sales. Inbound sales don’t have the predictability of outbound sales, but they are often a more consistent source of income, and they help build brands. Outbound sales close regularly, but they rarely create the brand advocates you get through a consistently great inbound marketing strategy. Put these components together to create a strategy your customers cannot ignore. The results can be amazing.