What is Inbound Marketing?

Ashlee Rolkowski on February 18, 2021

[Updated from the original publication by Derek Kinzer]

The evolution of online marketing has made the quest to attract eyeballs (let alone, the right eyeballs) much more difficult than it used to be. With so much noise in too many channels, people are actively trying to reduce the number of advertising messages in their life. Although traditional marketing still has its place, inbound marketing has changed the way potential customers view and interact with brands.

People are looking for answers to their questions, ways to make their lives better and for inspiration. Rather than spraying interruptive, self-serving marketing messages, marketing experts are repositioning their content so it meets the specific needs and desires of their target market. This is inbound marketing.

Inbound marketing attracts prospects, engages them and delights them. This experience prompts prospects not only to buy, but also to spread the word to their family, friends and colleagues.

Inbound marketing is organic, self-sustaining and snowballs over time. It's digital marketing on steroids, and unlike outbound marketing, it doesn’t require interrupting the lives of your potential customers. By designing content that addresses the needs and desires of prospects, brands can build trust and make prospects more responsive to their business.

Inbound Marketing Strategy Aligns Marketing, Sales and Customer Service Teams

The inbound methodology aligns marketing and sales teams so they can work together toward a common goal. The marketing team focuses on attracting high-quality prospects at the point of interest (lead generation), while the sales team converts those qualified leads through engagement and the customer service team delights buyers as they fulfill the purchase. The end result is new customers who are happy and want to share their experiences with others.

The Inbound Methodology

HubSpot, a sales and marketing platform, popularized the inbound methodology. The approach organizes your marketing efforts into three stages: Attract, Engage and Delight.

  1. Attract. This is where prospects encounter your content, enter your sales funnel and interact with your company for the first time. The focus at this stage is providing value to the prospect and building trust. It’s the start of your customer relationships.
  2. Engage. At this stage, you engage prospects that are interested in becoming customers. The focus here is on making the purchasing process easy by removing as many obstacles in the buyer's journey as possible.
  3. Delight. Here, your focus is on generating happiness for customers by making life simpler and continuing to solve their problems. The focus is on helping your customers succeed so your company, in turn, can be successful.

HubSpot likes to illustrate this as a flywheel instead of a traditional funnel. That's because a good inbound marketing strategy is cyclical. Someone is attracted to your brand, then they engage with it and (hopefully) have a delightful experience. So delightful that they start helping attract more customers who also engage with your brand who also become delighted and, well, you get it.


HubSpot's Flywheel

The Three Stages Explained


Before your prospects consider buying from you, they need to know

  1. that you exist (brand awareness) and
  2. that you’re the best company to deliver the thing they need.

The best way to do that is not to tell them, but to show them, through relevantcontent that they find valuable. Brands will often lean on blogging to fill this part of the flywheel, but there are several other content marketing methods that work well in the attract stage.

Know Your Target Audience

Buyer personas used to be the buzz term when it came to defining your target audience. But we've since taken a simplified (and often more effective) approach. We define your target audience using the StoryBrand framework to nail down what your prospect wants, their problem and the value of your solution. No matter the method you use, knowing and defining your audience is a crucial first step in developing an inbound marketingplan.

Focused Messaging

You need to be very clear on exactly what your company provides, how you provide it, and who you provide it for. We believe the most effective way to do that is through a simple messaging framework — which will make your message memorable and engaging to your target audience.

If your message is unclear, you’ll lose prospects. Without focused messaging, your prospects will click the back button and search for a clearer answer somewhere else on the web.

Content Strategy and Blogging

Pillar pages, blog posts, eBooks, white papers and videos are all integral parts of a solid content strategy. It's also critical that your strategy includes SEO optimization so new prospects can find you in their search for clever, informative articles to solve all their problems.

This content should capture the interest of people who are beginning to look for a solution to a problem or research a product they want. They aren’t ready to buy, but by capturing their interest at this stage, you can nurture them through the research process until they’re ready to purchase from you — because you’ve earned their trust through the research process.

On-Page SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) will help ensure your content gets found online. It provides a solid foundation for link-building (off-page SEO) that will happen later.For your on-page SEO, you can focus on things like using proper header tags on all your web pages, including keywords in your headers and meta descriptions and optimizing images for faster load times.

Social Publishing

You can’t forget about social media marketing. Posting on social media channels will help spread your content to the people you want to see it. By sharing information, articles, graphics, audio clips, and videos that your target audience will like, you’ll prompt people to share your content with their contacts, extending your reach.

Paid Advertising

Search engine marketing (SEM), pay-per-click (PPC), social media advertising, and retargeting all help get momentum going when you don’t have an existing audience following your social channels. Paid advertising can help you generate a following and help fill the engagement gap when you first start an SEO campaign and are waiting for your rankings to rise.

Campaign Strategy, Creation, and Management

Effective marketing depends on a well-planned strategy, good execution, ongoing management smart optimization. With these four things, your inbound marketing program will get results.

Website Design

Web design matters. You need a hub where all your great content will live. You also need a place to share stories of how you’ve helped your customers and the background of your company. A well-designed, well-organized website that’s easy to use will accomplish this for you.

Sales Prospecting Framework

Prospecting is another way to share your content with your target market. Old-school prospecting was about cold outreach and multiple attempts to “follow up,” resulting in annoyed prospects. This approach has been replaced with outreach to targeted prospects where your sales team shares truly valuable content. This type of prospecting is not only more effective, it’s also more enjoyable for your sales team.

New call-to-action


Now that you have your audience’s attention and you’ve helped them along the research process, it’s time to start thinking about nurturing and converting qualified prospects. Here are the services we offer to help you at this stage.

Content Strategy for the Middle and Bottom of the Funnel

In this stage, your focus should be to help prospects answer the questions they have at their stage in the buying journey. Good content can help prospects finish their research and make a smart decision (whether or not that decision is to buy from you). Remember, quality content generates quality leads.

The same content types that served you in the Attract phase will do well in this phase as well. The trick is that the subject matter should be focused on potential customers who are closer to a purchase decision. In addition, case studies can really help beef up the content in this stage and build more credibility for your brand.

Landing Pages

Some of the content you create should be gated so that you can capture prospects’ email addresses for the purpose of nurturing. People are reluctant to give up their email addresses, so you’ll need to make gated information ultra-valuable.

Consider making a good portion of your content free to access, which will generate enough goodwill so that prospects won’t be as hesitant to share their contact details later. Good landing pages will help motivate prospects to fill out your forms and click the submit button.

Conversion Building and Conversion Rate Optimization

Getting prospects to take action requires knowledge of conversion optimization and human psychology. People’s natural state is inertia, so you need a strategy for moving prospects to take the next step.

If you’re generating some conversions but not enough, you may need need to optimize your conversion paths. This includes everything from changing messaging to moving buttons on your landing pages. There are literally hundreds of points that can be optimized to deliver higher conversion rates.

Email Marketing and Lead Nurturing

After you’ve captured a prospect’s email address, you’ll want to nurture them until they’re ready to buy. Email marketing is an ideal way to continue delivering valuable information that prospects will appreciate. You can also send customers emails to promote products and services you know they would be interested in.

Email sequences automate the follow-up process, making your sales team more efficient. Utilizing marketing automation with thoughtful email sequences can take your engagement to the next level.

👉 Check out The Guide to Getting More Email Engagement

Sales Templates

Your sales team shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they craft an email. Templates not only save time, they also allow you to easily test and optimize the messages you're sending throughout the sales cycle.

CRM Implementation

Without a CRM, your sales team is flying blind. A CRM will capture information about your prospects and track all the nurturing activities that each experience. At a glance, you can see which prospects are ready to move to the next stage in the buying process.

Lead Scoring

How do you know when a prospect is ready to be sent a case study or next-stage type of content? Lead scoring. Each prospect receives a score, and your nurturing campaigns can be customized to reach differently-scored prospects in relevant ways.

Sales Skills Training

Your marketing team can be top-notch, but if your sales team isn’t sure how to nurture leads, you could experience a breakdown in the conversion process. Brush up on the basics or dig deep into problem areas.

👉 Check out The Customer is the Hero, StoryBrand’s new Sales Framework

Sales Pipeline Analytics and Reporting

The key to success in this stage is to build a sales pipeline you can actually use. This will help you find out where your pipeline is breaking down so that you know what to fix. You can’t improve what you don’t measure, though. So you need to set metrics and establish reporting processes to know exactly how you’re doing at each stage in the sales process.


Delight is about making customers so happy that they tell their family, friends and colleagues how much they love your company. Here’s how you can create real fans.

Feedback Surveys

You won’t really know how you’re doing until you ask your customers. Find out how you can improve and generate new ideas from engaged customers.

Onboarding Email Workflows

Help customers get started, thank them for their purchases, and let them know what they can expect next with automated email workflows.

Content Creation

Never stop delivering valuable content! Content in the delight stage takes the form of product tips, helpful information and knowledge-base answers.

Referral Programs

Are you making it easy for customers to send you referrals and share the love? Craft creative referral programs that will prompt customers to spread the word.

Upsell and Cross-Sell Programs

It’s easier and cheaper to sell to a customer than it is to a prospect. Upsell and cross-sell with strategic programs that offer related products and services that your customers will appreciate.

Is Inbound Right for You?

Inbound marketing is a powerful tool because of its ability to attract, convert, close and delight customers using proven methods like social media marketing, blogs, landing pages and calls-to-action. These aren’t new concepts, but using them the right way may be a foreign concept to a lot of businesses.

If you’re trying to decide if inbound marketing is right for your business, consider these questions:

  • Is your company looking to attract new visitors to your website?
  • Would you like to learn how to convert those visitors into leads?
  • Would you like to convert those leads into lifelong customers?

If you answered yes to any of those questions then we have to just come out and say it — yes, inbound marketing is for you.

Choosing an Inbound Marketing Agency

The inbound methodology has been around long enough that you don't have to look far before finding an agency to help you with an inbound marketing campaign. Most digital marketing agencies use some, if not all, of the methods we've discussed above to attract and convert new leads for your business.

The important thing to remember is that inbound marketing is a philosophy more than anything. Good agencies and marketers will use a variety of methods to achieve your marketing goals and they may leverage the inbound marketing services in different ways.

The right inbound marketing agency for your brand is one that buys into your vision and can help you answer key questions for your customers.Check out our blog about how to implement the inbound methodology and get some ideas of how an agency could help.

Ashlee Rolkowski
Ashlee Rolkowski
Ashlee thrives on the fast-paced environment that is marketing. She gets a great deal of enjoyment out of organizing any and all things and loves helping her clients tackle their unique set of challenges.

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