People often ask, “What’s the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing?”
It’s a good question – particularly because there exists a not insignificant number of people who think the terms are interchangeable.
So, let’s clear this up from the beginning – they’re not.
The term “inbound marketing” refers to a set of processes, tools, and technologies that work in unison to drive targeted traffic to a business’s website, convert that traffic into leads, and those leads into customers. It is a process and results-driven methodology, designed to help organisations sell their products and services online.
(The inbound marketing methodology. Image source: incisive-edge.com)
But here’s the confusing bit – you can’t do inbound without content.
Content is the very lifeblood – the core pillar, if you like – of inbound marketing.
Still, content marketing is not inbound marketing, rather a subset of it.
Still confused? Ok – let’s break the terms down even further.
What Is Content Marketing?
The Content Marketing Institute defines the practice as:
“Content marketing is 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.”
In other words, content marketing is all about using content to market products and services.
Today, whenever there’s talk about “content marketing”, it’s usually content that’s created for online marketing purposes that people have in mind. Strictly speaking, content marketing can also be used in the offline world – brochures, posters, and any other print media are all types of content that are used for marketing purposes. However, in 2017, generally (and for the purposes of this article in particular), it’s digital content – blog posts, videos, SlideShares, infographics, eBooks, etc. – that most people will be referring to when they mention “content marketing”.
(Image source: searchengineland.com)
This content will be SEO optimised, designed for and targeted to a very particular audience, visually compelling, and highly shareable.
Left alone, content will produce brand lift, drive website traffic, and render a business more visible and discoverable in online search. However, when this content gets plugged into a strategic inbound marketing process, it becomes central to building and optimising an integrated B2B marketing funnel. That is to say that it will go beyond generating traffic, and be the core element used to capture leads, nurture them, and eventually convert them into paying customers.
But in order to do all this, the content itself needs support from the diverse marketing tactics that fall within the scope of the broader discipline of inbound marketing.
What Is Inbound Marketing?
Inbound marketing is a more complete marketing methodology when compared to content marketing. While content marketing primarily – perhaps even exclusively – relies on the creation and publication of content to attract new visitors to a business’s website, inbound marketing takes a systematic approach to turn those visitors into leads, and then helps nurture those leads until they become sales ready.
Throughout this journey, inbound marketing uses processes, tools and technology to provide real-time data and insights that are generated from marketing efforts, which are then used to continuously improve performance and results.
So what are these tools, technologies and processes? Here’s a short list of the sorts of things an inbound marketing agency will use when developing strategies for B2B clients.
- Calls-to-action (CTAs): Buttons or images integrated into the content of a website (or email) that entice users to click to take them through to pages with special content offers.
- Gated content for contact capture: Special content offers – such as high-value eBooks, research reports, case studies, white papers, webinars, etc. – that require users to fill out a form in exchange for access. This form will usually require the visitor to surrender contact information, such as name, email address, phone number, etc.
- Landing pages: Specially designed web pages where visitors will be able to sign up for the special content offers.
- Customer relationship management (CRM) system: Online platforms that are used to store, access and share contact information once captured, and then to manage lead/customer interactions and correspondence throughout the customer lifecycle.
- Email marketing integration: Once a visitor has downloaded a piece of gated content, or has subscribed to a website’s blog or newsletter, they become a lead. Leads are best nurtured via email. The inbound marketer will use email as a direct form of contact to try and build up a relationship with the lead, ply them with additional content offers, and move them further down the sales funnel.
- Marketing automation: Large companies may have many dozens if not hundreds or thousands of leads to manage via email. Marketing automation software enables inbound marketers to create automated yet personalised email workflows that enable what is essentially hands-free lead nurturing. Marketing automation can also be used to deliver smart or personalised website content to specific website visitors.
- Retargeting: Visitors who come to a website but do not make a purchase can be re-targeted with tailored content and ads as they venture off around the web. Retargeting uses cookie-based technology to “follow” these bounced visitors, and subsequently entice them back to the business’s website with specially-placed content offers.
On top of the above, inbound marketing also involves strategies such as competitor research, SEO and keyword optimisation, influencer marketing, social media marketing and web design. Importantly, the approach is agile, results-driven, with all tactics subject to ongoing experimentation and optimisation as the strategy progresses.
Why Content Is the Core Pillar of B2B Inbound Marketing
Content is central to inbound marketing. All the various inbound marketing tools and technologies mentioned above are designed to make the content a company creates and publishes, work harder at achieving its goals.
Without content, nobody would ever visit a website – for there would be nothing to see and nothing to learn. And so content is created in order to first attract targeted visitors (ideal buyers), and then provide them with rich, educational information that aligns with their interests and solves their pain points. From here, more content is used to nurture the relationship, until eventually the target views the business’s services and/or products as the only true solution to their problem – at which point they make a purchase.
This process – known as the buyer’s journey – can be illustrated as a funnel.
(Image source: digitalvidya.com)
Content is used at every stage of the buyer’s journey to move leads through the sales funnel.
Most content marketing strategies begin with a blog, which is used to attract visitors to a business’ website through the provision of interesting, industry-relevant, well-researched, highly-engaging and highly-shareable articles that appeal to certain types of internet user (i.e. the business’s ideal customers).
This is top-of-the-funnel or ToFU content. It gives strangers a reason to visit a business’ website, and is used to gain online presence, position the company as an industry authority, and engage targeted audiences often through offering advice or tips that will help them solve their problems.
Middle-of-the-funnel (MoFU) content bridges the gap between the initial intrigue created by ToFU efforts and the final sale at the bottom of the sales funnel. MoFU content is extremely important to B2B companies, due to the fact that B2B sales cycles tend to be long and complex – meaning that inbound marketers need to spend lots of time (often weeks or months) nurturing relationships.
In the first instance, certain pieces of MoFU content will be gated – meaning that visitors will have to fill out a form (surrendering their contact information) in order to access it. Only when this information is captured, is a lead generated, at which point the prospect can be exposed to the full thrust of the business’ inbound marketing efforts. A download will indicate to the inbound marketer that the prospect is actively researching what the business offers – and is thereby firmly in the consideration stage of the buyer’s journey.
(Image source: slideshare.net/HubSpot)
With the contact captured, the inbound marketer will subsequently supply the lead with additional MoFU material via email (often with the help of marketing automation technology), which will help them evaluate the business and its solution, and develop an affinity for it over any competitors.
While ToFU content is optimised for the broadest possible reach amongst a business’s target audience, the purpose of mid-funnel content is to deepen the connection that was initially made at the ToFU stage, and speak specifically to the needs of those closer to making a purchase. Typically, MoFU content will take the form of white papers, eBooks, webinars, and case studies.
There is some cross-over between mid and bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFU) content. At this, the decision stage of the buyer’s journey, the prospect will have taken the decision to make a purchase, and it is the job of the inbound marketer to ensure that the custom is not lost to a competitor.
Case studies are a great tactic to use at this stage of the journey – supplying potential customers with resources detailing how similar companies have achieved great successes using the products and/or services being sold are naturally very convincing. eBooks and white papers, too, can help seal the deal, as can infographics, free trials, discounts, demos, and even FAQ articles and how-to blog posts. It will all depend on the business in question, the campaign, and indeed the nature of the lead itself.
Importantly, it is content, as ever, that is central to the strategy.
Even when a new customer has been won, the content can’t stop flowing. Keeping customers engaged with the brand is essential to ensuring repeat purchases are made, and that the customer is encouraged to spread the good word about the continued service the business offers.
Often, potential repeat buyers can be targeted with additional MoFU and BoFU content to recycle them through the inbound marketing funnel.
However, customers will also gain from the receipt of personalised content that reminds them of the benefits they are enjoying. For instance, if they are saving money using a particular SaaS or FinTech solution, a weekly report, detailing exactly how much, will continue to delight them – and make it all the more likely that they will re-subscribe when the time comes for renewal.
Generating Content with Limited Resources
Although the results can be great and the strategy proven, creating engaging content is hard, time-consuming, and a drain on resources. Yet content is an imperative for a fully-optimised inbound marketing strategy.
Growing businesses with limited resources are usually pressed for time even at the best of times, but there are still a number of things that can be done to get a solid content marketing strategy underway, ready to be plugged into a broader inbound marketing programme.
Turn Your Staff into Content Creators
If you don’t have a dedicated editorial team at your disposal or the budget to outsource – as many companies don’t – what you do almost certainly have is a ready team of experts well-versed in the very topics that your target audience cares about.
Get them writing. If each member can be organised to spare just an hour a day creating blogs, articles, eBooks or even infographics, it won’t be long before you’ve built up a cache of great content that can be used to start drawing new prospects into your inbound marketing funnel. Over time, you will identify the best content creators, to whom can then be turned to spearhead the initiative going forward until you reach the point where you are ready to hire a dedicated marketer in-house, or outsource to an agency.
There’s no absolute law that says you have to create all the content you use for marketing purposes yourself. Curating content from third-party sources is a great option for growing businesses with limited resources.
You won’t be able to publish anyone else’s work directly on your own website (not without their permission, at least) – however, what you can do is start turning your social media accounts into great sources of the latest industry news, where you also have the opportunity to add commentary and engage with commenters.
Invite Guest Contributors to Post on Your Site
There are many, many great writers out there who have valuable things to say about your industry who are looking for platforms through which they can share their words, knowledge and opinions. Your blog and your website can very easily be one of them.
Invite guest contributors to pen posts for your blog page, based on guidelines that you set out, and often all that you will have to allow in return is a link in each post that leads back to a website of the writer’s choosing. Another great benefit of allowing guest posts on your blog is that the writers will bring their own following with them, exposing your website and your business to entirely new audiences.
Recycle and Repurpose Content
One piece of content can go a long way indeed. In the first instance, if you’ve written a blog post, then ensure that you’re sharing and promoting it across all of the social channels available to you (and that your staff are doing the same). In addition, you can publish the same post on third-party platforms such as Medium or LinkedIn Pulse to ensure the greatest exposure.
If you’ve invested time into creating a piece of longer-form content – such as an eBook, white paper, or research report – consider how you can use that one piece to fuel a number of separate blog posts (perhaps one for each chapter) without having to conduct any additional research. If the long piece was data-heavy, it will also be worth turning the figures into a visually compelling infographic, which will be highly shareable on social media.
Inbound marketing is imperative to online B2B success, and content is imperative to inbound marketing. At some point, therefore, you will have to either hire in a dedicated marketer for your business, or outsource.
Outsourcing will usually be the more cost-friendly option, and the benefit will be that you will gain access to content marketing expertise – content marketers not only know how to write, they know how to write for the web, which is important. You will, of course, have to provide some guidance and direction to the content creator, for you will naturally have a deeper understanding of the subject matter – but, over time, the writer will learn, and it won’t be long until you’ve developed a good partnership that consistently produces great content that can be used to create great results.
Over to You
Content is and always will be the core pillar of successful B2B inbound marketing. Great content will serve at every stage of the buyer’s journey, and move those leads through the inbound marketing funnel. The only difficulty comes in finding the time and resources required in order to create the content. There are a number of ways in which this can be overcome, however, and be it through mobilising staff, guest posts, or outsourcing, this is exactly what modern businesses must do in order to compete in today’s inbound-oriented world.
Julia Payne is co-founder of Incisive Edge, a marketing agency, specialising in inbound marketing and recently voted by CEO Monthly, Best B2B Tech Inbound Agency in the UK.
Post produced in partnership with Julia Payne, founding Director at Incisive Edge.