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Why Inbound Marketing is Incomplete Marketing

Written by and published

A few years ago, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shaw published a book called Inbound Marketing. The book’s title was promoted as a new industry term that represented the evolution of online marketing.

Outbound techniques like email, advertising and sponsorships were labeled as ineffective and expensive. Inbound techniques like on-site SEO, content creation and social sharing were marketed as the most cost-effective way to reach new customers.

At the time, I remember thinking that surely the industry would see through this inbound gimmick. SURELY they would see that “inbound marketing” was a self-serving term made up by the founders of a marketing software company to sell their product and attract more venture capital. SURELY they would recognize that writing high quality content and establishing a strong social presence already had names: content marketing and social media marketing. SURELY people would see inbound marketing for what it truly was: incomplete marketing.

I waited for the new term to go away, but it stuck. It stuck because HubSpot did a truly masterful job of educating a new market. They purposefully marketed to people that were either fresh to Internet marketing or hungry for a new and effective way to create site exposure – people who were more salespeople than online marketers, companies that had been burned by ineffective agencies and agencies that were trying to attract those burned companies, and novice online marketers that never quite figured out how to properly leverage what they call outbound marketing.

There’s nothing cheap about inbound marketing

One of the biggest selling points of inbound marketing is its supposed cheapness. After all, it’s free to start a blog and start promoting it on Facebook and Twitter.

But as Scott Holdren pointed out in 2009 in his article Inbound Marketing Mania, both inbound and outbound marketing can be cost-effective. And in many cases, outbound marketing produces better ROI.

Let’s take a look at how “cheap” inbound marketing really is.

If you were to rely on just software and low-wage, inexperienced writers and community managers, it’s a fair assumption that you can expect the following:

  • Mediocre, ineffective content that rarely gets shared or produces conversions
  • A lack of social authority and influence
  • Social postings with poor grammar
  • Social postings that could create a public relations nightmare

Nobody wants that. So you need to hire educated, experienced and influential people. Those people are not cheap. Depending on the size of your company and its needs, that can easily equal hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And even after that, their activities still may not result in high ROI.

The truth is that many companies (especially SMBs) can spend much less on setting up an effective and ongoing PPC campaign than hire a team to manage their content writing and social media outreach. Not only will it be cheaper, but the conversions will be significantly higher.

The idea that software alone is all a company needs to effectively market its site, as HubSpot execs seem to have suggested to Dan Lyons in a customer anecdote, is simply misleading. And using newspaper ad spend as a comparison metric is irrelevant to the conversation.

HubSpot hypocrisy?

HubSpot’s inbound marketing philosophy eschews traditional and paid marketing. Here’s an excerpt from Inbound Marketing:

“Marketers use a combination of outbound techniques including email blasts, telemarketing, direct mail, TV, radio, and print advertising, and trade shows (or expos) in order to reach their potential buyers. The problem with these traditional marketing techniques is that they have become less effective at spreading the word as people get better at blocking out these interruptions.”

Halligan, Brian; Shah, Dharmesh (2009-10-02). Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs (New Rules Social Media Series) (p. 3). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

PPC is also treated as outbound marketing, unless used to gain keyword and landing page intelligence. So one would assume that if inbound marketing is the panacea of marketing, the marketers at HubSpot would practice what they preach. The opposite seems true.

HubSpot uses PPC

HubSpot says PPC is great for determining keywords that work. If the Spyfu or SEMRush report on HubSpot’s ad spend is correct, then they’re either really confused about what keywords work best for them or PPC is an effective marketing strategy that they’re willing to pay thousands of dollars for each day.

HubSpot has a sales team and does telemarketing

If you’re an SMB or agency, there’s a very good chance you’ve been contacted by a HubSpot salesperson. And by contacted, I mean interrupted by their outbound marketing team.

HubSpot promotes press releases

Paying for and submitting a press release seems very outbound to me. However, HubSpot partners with a press release company and promotes the use of it in their software.

HubSpot helps you track your print and radio campaigns

If your marketing philosophy says print and radio campaigns are basically useless, why would you provide a way to easily track the success of those campaigns? Is it to prove that they suck? Or is it because, if done well, they can be quite effective? I’m thinking the latter.

HubSpot includes email marketing tools

Sending the same email to thousands of people? Not so inbound.

And yet HubSpot incorporates tools to allow its customer to send targeted outbound email marketing.

HubSpot sponsors conferences

Getting leads from trade shows and conferences is yet another frowned-upon outbound tactic, a needle in the haystack approach that wastes money.

But that doesn’t stop HubSpot from sponsoring conferences like Confluence.

So what’s going on here? Either outbound marketing tactics work, or HubSpot likes building features and blowing their VC money on marketing costs that make no sense to them.

The truth is, there is no one way. Inbound marketing is no better than outbound marketing, and what works for one company may not work for another. HubSpot takes advantage of a variety of options underneath the umbrella of Internet marketing – inbound and outbound.

Inbound bandwagoneers

You’re going to be seeing and hearing a lot more about inbound marketing in the future. This is especially true now that SEOmoz is in the process of very publicly moving away from SEO and shifting towards the term “inbound marketing” in their marketing message. is the best example of this.

Personally, I’ve resisted using the term since it was first introduced. We’ve never used it in our marketing copy and I’ve never used it in a presentation. Perhaps I’ll change my mind and start using it if that’s what the industry as a whole starts to use. I mean, I still want to make money – principles be damned!

Regardless, the point is to keep doing complete marketing. Use whatever works for you and helps you make money. In most cases, you’ll find that it’s a combination of different strategies and tactics – outbound and inbound.

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32 Responses to “Why Inbound Marketing is Incomplete Marketing”

  1. Mike Pantoliano

    I’ll write here what I said on Facebook:

    At best ‘inbound marketing’ is a term that simply groups together a bunch of tactics that already had names. Semantics. At worst, it’s a marketing philosophy that if truly believed, is incomplete (as Jon Henshaw said) and overly simplistic.

    Loved this article. I hope it gets read like crazy.

  2. Great article. Thanks for writing it. We believe in transparency at HubSpot and like to put things out in the open.

    A few thoughts I’d like to share:

    1. Although HubSpot deserves some credit for popularizing the term, we’ve deliberately tried to stay away from owning it. We just find it to be a convenient label for a collection of things (like SEO + social + CRO etc.). No such label existed to talk about this stuff.
    2. You’re totally right that HubSpot does do outbound marketing (though it’s a relatively small portion of our mix). When we talk about marketing, we position classical outbound techniques as generally being less effective (and more expensive) over time. Not that they’re completely useless — just that they don’t work as well as they once did, and that this trend would continue.
    3. Our general position is: Find a mix that works — and actually measure your results.
    4. Though much of this stuff is “obvious” to many of us in the industry, we talk to thousands of businesses for which this is relatively new. They’re continuing to spend heavily on paid programs and not seeing a return. They need a better way. We don’t suggest that they stop all their paid programs immediately — we suggest that they mix in some inbound into their spend and start building up that expertise (either internally or through agencies).
    5. Regarding email, we do indeed have an email application — but we’re oriented around sending messages to opt-in subscribers (and we’re strict about not allowing in paid lists) — we watch this stuff closely. And, much of the functionality in our email features is oriented around sending messages to targeted *segments* of people in the database (based on their profile and activity).

    One note on HubSpot (which is a for-profit company, and growing fast). We’re passionate about what we do, but we are VERY careful not to suggest to people that software automagically does inbound marketing for you — it doesn’t.

    Having said all that, you’re right about the recent Dan Lyons piece. It does over-simplify in a couple of areas (realize that he’s a brilliant writer, but relatively new to marketing — and HubSpot). He’ll get better as time goes.

    • Jason Corrigan

      I find it very interesting the representatives from HubSpot feel the need to even address this article.

      Seeing as how Ravens Tools and Hubspot compete in the same market, it makes no sense as to why HubSpot would go out of their way to address any negative comments or ads and in doing so, validate their claims.

      A big rule in marketing is that those who are on top, do not attack down or address any attacks.

      Google doesn’t stop and tell everyone watching the “Bing Challenge” how great Google actually is.

      McDonalds doesn’t pop up on Burger King’s content to let people know their burgers are actually very tasty.

      Yet, this is done every time someone posts an article on how HubSpot is not as legit as their profess to be.

      • While I do agree with many of Jon’s points I do tend to side with your position Jason. It is not in good taste to bash the competition, but I guess it works in politics so it is obviously effective.

        I think that the author has plenty of positive content to post and by doing so his prospects will be more likely to turn an ear towards what he is saying. Even though I tend to agree with Jon’s position on the inbound marketing thing I still think that there is some value in the concept and HubSpot is doing well for lots of clients according to the testimonies I have read. That’s my 2 cents….

  3. Michael Myles

    Very well stated. While I’m not sure that I’m with you on the ‘busting’ of HubSpot, I see your point. What marketing professional ACTUALLY believes that they shouldn’t use a varied approach to marketing. Clearly companies were having before ‘Inbound Marketing’ was the craze (think Blue Nile,, and Ebay).

    You are totally right about PPC being ‘Outbound’ marketing. Weren’t there phrases that we used before ‘Inbound Marketing’ that made sense? How about ‘direct response’ advertising? Isn’t that just ‘Outbound’?

  4. I’ve never really quite understood what HubSpot was … I mean I knew it was a software marketing company, content creator, but it was also a marketing hustler …

    You have to give it to them, though: they’ve done a superb job of owning the phrase “inbound marketing” … whatever that means. πŸ˜‰

  5. Bill Bean

    Well said, Jon. Like you I applaud the marketing efforts of HubSpot and their success. The term is merely a buzzword that describes, however adequately or inadequately, certain types of marketing tactics. It will pass. Unfortunately, some SMB’s see the label as synonymous with digital marketing or internet marketing, which is an incomplete understanding.

  6. Thanks for writing this.

    Anyone with a little bit of experience can see through HubSpot’s pitchβ€”but you’re rightβ€”they focus on people new to the game. So, after you’ve spent $3k-20k a year on their tool you have….nothing. It’s like giving a guy off the street a hammer and calling him a home builder. Tools don’t accomplish much in the wrong hands. I say less tools, simpler tools, more action. Take that $3k and drive some traffic, figure out keywords that convert, enroll in a seminar and educate yourself…anything but more tools!

    This nonsense is similar to a talk I heard Seth Godin give to a group of small digital agencies at a Google Engage event….He basically said outbound is dead, only do inbound marketing…I couldn’t help but think

    “W-T-F! Yodle, Reach Local, and Orange Soda do what we do, and they built massive businesses with…wait for it….. TELEMARKETING!”

    I’ve seen inbound marketing work, but only in conjunction with a more holistic marketing approach. Marketing dogma at its best.

    • Jason Nelson

      Excellent points KJ. Tools don’t do the work for you. You still have to do the work and get the results (even if you’re paying hundreds or thousands a month for tools). While some tools do hold a lot of value, there are a lot of companies getting into the tool business as it’s a more scalable product to sell.

  7. Everything works, but you should ask your self “what is my ROI”. If you have a marketer that cannot show you an ROI then find someone who can.

    Good points on how they don’t practice what they preach. However they are probably making a nice buck.

    By the way we just did a site redesign for a client using hubspot. Very disappointing, it was like updating a static HTML website.

  8. We provide marketing services in the Golf Industry and have found the best ROI to be email marketing. Inbound Marketing is great for companies that are looking to build a brand but when you have clients spending money they expect to make money. Fact is outbound marketing still works and should be a part of the overall marketing strategy.

    Good job of pointing out where Hubspot’s marketing dollars are being spent. I get blasted almost daily with email marketing, I have received telemarketing “follow up” calls and see that they are very active with PPC.

  9. Jason Bean

    Jon, throwing down the gauntlet! I always found it interesting myself that many of the ways I hear about the efforts of “inbound marketing” companies is through the maligned “outbound” marketing efforts of those same companies.

  10. Matt Higbee

    Thanks for the article.

    It seems there is always going to be some new nomenclature we will all have to learn. It really all boils down to this: get people to your site.

    Thanks for pointing out that it is really more than just inbound marketing. A site really needs to focus on what is effective for them in their internet marketing efforts and be wary of the newest and latest when there is no ROI.

  11. The interesting thing about PPC these days is in many cases it works better if tied to content and an opt-in, rather than trying to make the sale immediately.

    So even then it’s content marketing that transforms an outbound prospect into an inbound one. Personally, I prefer “content marketing” over “inbound marketing,” simply because without content inbound strategies don’t really work.

  12. Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of your post. Inbound is a great channel but it needs to co-exist with both outbound and nurturing programs. They all feed off each other. In fact one of the big benefits of a strong outbound program is that it drives inbound. All the voicemails left, tradeshow appearances, ads, etc. lead to people searching for your product. Inbound or organic may take credit for a search that results in a sale, but why did the prospect search in the first place? It could have been the result of a voicemail a telemarketer left or a PR campaign. A holistic approach to marketing will ALWAYS work.

  13. Tanner Petroff

    This is a great read and points out something that is probably obvious to most marketers that have been around more than a few years. Just as SEO and CRO are parts of inbound marketing, inbound marketing is just a part of marketing in general. Always test and measure new strategies and figure out what is going to work best for your business. I’m not personally attached to whatever label you decide to give your marketing, but in the end it’s all marketing.

    Great post. Will probably get a few people riled up. πŸ™‚

  14. Danny Ruiz

    I agree with most of the article, but find that nothing everything is being explained.

    My company uses a tool similar to Hubspot (Act-On Software) and are very happy with it. Act-On told us we would need to provide contact lists like from and their tool would help nurture them with marketing campaigns. That is a combination of outbound/inbound and it works great for us. The leads with a high score – we call! The leads with a low interest, we continue to “nurture.” More should be explained.

  15. Great ideas here. Although an exact opposite post could also be true: “Why Outbound Marketing is Incomplete Marketing. ”

    You summed it up best with the last paragraph: “Regardless, the point is to keep doing complete marketing. Use whatever works for you and helps you make money. In most cases, you’ll find that it’s a combination of different strategies and tactics – outbound and inbound.

  16. Tod Hirsch

    Jon, I think Hubspot has always exaggerated the ‘outbound is dead’ points in their marketing narrative to simply make a point and create a rallying cry. They know that a good marketing program may include some outbound.

    The bigger point that Darmesh is making is that the marketing *mix* is radically changing – especially for B2B marketing on the web.

    You can trace this way back to Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing when he talks about how the web is a *different medium where the buyer is in control*. If the buyer doesn’t like your pitch, they just hit the back button and they’re gone. In this type of environment, outbound is much less effective.

    Marketers need to adopt a greater mix of inbound, low interruption types to marketing that get the permission of the buyer to market to them.

    This is the principal change in the marketing world and Godin identified it way back in 1999!

    Will trade shows go away? Will TV advertising go away? No, of course not. There will always be a need for brand awareness/demand generation types of marketing. The mix is changing, that’s all.

    Keep Calm and Evolve

  17. Paula Skaper

    John, congratulations on a brilliant piece of inbound marketing in this post, carefully crafted to return in the SERPS for the terms inbound marketing and Hubspot. Tho’ loudly you protest, you’ve followed the formula well. I wish I had thought of it!

    While I agree that it’s foolish and ill advised to recommend dumping ‘outbound’ altogether, it’s equally negligent to suggest to any business in this day and age that they can build a sustainable marketing model that doesn’t include inbound strategies.

    For my money, if the term inbound helps my clients understand that online marketing is more than any single tactic and provides a common language around which to have the conversation, then it serves a very valuable purpose. And if the Hubspot software gives me the tools to tie leads and sales to their source, to give clients an all-in-one tool that helps guide their in house efforts so that we as an agency can focus on delivering our best possible value with limited budget and resources. I’m ok with that. At the end of the day, I don’t care what you call it. I’m frankly grateful to Hubspot for spending the money to make the terminology commonplace. And not in the tiniest bit threatened by the oversimplification you gripe about.

    With close to a quarter century in online marketing, I’ve seen everything you can imagine sold through hype, smoke and mirrors – including PPC, SEO, and email. They each had their day in the panacea spotlight.

    Funnily enough, I’ve never been short of work in all that time. There always seems to be a market for someone who a actually knows how it all works, and doesn’t need an instruction manual to put the pieces of the puzzle together πŸ™‚

  18. Simon Hawtin
    1. Great piece on the importance of holistic marketing.
    2. Awesome that the Hubspot founder was the first to comment.
    3. Nice inbound marketing…I’m off to check out Raven! πŸ˜‰
  19. Martin Oxby

    Very interesting write-up, took time out at the start of my day and worth my while – definitely a conversation starter πŸ˜‰

    To me, personally, ‘inbound marketing’ seems to mean people being attracted to your company or you personally in such as way as they would be interested in investigating pursuing your products/services further – i.e. ‘marketing’.

    Anything that is not ‘going to the customer’ in a saleperson kind of way is ‘inbound’. PPC and indeed SEO to some degree, unfortunately crosses both divides – it is inbound because it relies on searches (taking PPC in Google Results as the example) and people still choose whether to click and come to you – they are not on the phone – but the whole point of SEO and PPC is to ‘go where the market is’ – that’s the point of keyword research, to find out where your potential market is in order to gain exposure and be part of their decision making process.

    But that’s just my opinion πŸ™‚

    My last comment would be that simply relying on any one (or even two) lead generation methods has always been a bad business principle – and it always will be, because you don’t spread your business risk.

    So we as a web development and SEO agency gain leads from

    • Our own SEO (be bad if we didn’t) – ‘inbound’
    • Social Media (predominantly Twitter) – ‘both in/outbound’
    • Referrals (also both as we encourage referrals)
    • Face to Face Networking (traditional ‘outbound’)
    • Our Existing Client Base (is this *either*?)
    • from other online communities we are involved in. (Surely even this is ‘outbound’ as you go to the community, where the people are)

    and this year, I’m hoping to go more ‘outbound’ and look at e-mail marketing. We are not sales people so I don’t think we will be cold calling, but I wouldn’t exclude anything.

    So I agree with your closing comments that you need to do both inbound and outbound marketing and those that don’t fit nice definitions. In all this I am a strong advocate of great SEO and sometimes PPC is appropriate, but to run any business properly you need a variety in the sources of your leads, so don’t get tied to just one or two.

  20. AJ Kohn

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the term Inbound Marketing because I don’t find it very descriptive.

    And why create yet another term in a crowded marketplace that includes Internet Marketing, Digital Marketing, Search Marketing, Content Marketing, Search Engine Optimization, Social Marketing, Influencer Marketing, Viral Marketing and on and on and on.

    We as marketers seem far too susceptible to … marketing.

    The fact of the matter is when you go to the dentist and you’re in that chair and they ask what you do for a living, none of the above terms are recognized.

    “Digital Marketing? What does that mean?”

    “Search Marketing? So you work … at Google?”

    Inbound? I wouldn’t know how I’d start explaining it in a soundbite that would make sense to someone outside of the industry.

    I’m a MARKETER and I’ll use any and all techniques as appropriate based on the needs of that client. Sometimes organic search isn’t the best use of their time and energy. Sometimes pursuing business development and partnership integration is the best strategy. Or I might tell them that Facebook lookalike audiences is the way to go because their users are hard to find out in the wild.

    No cookie cutters!

    I admire what HubSpot has been able to do because they’re telling a story that resonates with their current and prospective users. It’s just not my cup of tea. But I’m not their target market. And that’s okay.

  21. Jon, you are right and Dharmesh gave some answers too.

    There is a trick: some creative people start a new trend completely different of current trends. Apple did that. Think different when the trend was Microsoft. HubSpot has created its new (reverse) trend. Inbound marketing! (What is it? It is what you are NOT doing right now. Join our trend and learn more)

    And folks like to follow trends. Look at twitter. Who is the most famous on twitter? HubSpot? No, the singers and celebrities.

    About 1000 marketers participated in HubSpot first seminar 2011. And 2800 marketers participate in 2012. (A280 % increase!) Who are they? Folks who want to join the new trend. And it will increase…

    This is a good part of the debate. And you can come here and write negative about HubSpot and we write comments for you, tweet it in our social media channels and so on. Its another reverse trend. WE DON”T LIKE HUBSPOT! (How is it? πŸ™‚ )

    Finally, imagine our many leads come to hire us (as agency) to help them implementing inbound marketing but they do not have any budget. Why? They have paid for HubSpot upfront for one year! And the software doesn’t do anything by itself.

    Should I start a new reverse trend too?

  22. I don’t mind the term “inbound marketing”, but then again I completely ignore the definition of the term proffered by its coiners. πŸ™‚

    My very literal (re-)interpretation of inbound marketing is that it consists of measures undertaken to generate digital visits – that is, to increase the amount of inbound traffic to a website. This gets around trying to define “outbound” or “inbound” by media type (TV, for example, isn’t only used for online traffic generation).

    But nomenclature aside altogether, executing any given marketing strategy – as you point out – costs money. And those types of marketing that are seemingly inexpensive and provide a great return on investment will inevitably provide an increasingly lower return on investment over time, as any cost-effective strategy is of course attractive and so will be increasingly used, generating more competition and requiring greater expenditures.

    This is, for example, the case with SEO, where at one time simply hosting a mediocre blog and optimizing your title tags could give you a not insignificant edge over your competition. Now successful SEO in all competitive industries requires significant technological and human resources, as well as well-executed and ongoing content development and social media efforts in a supporting role.

    All of this to say you’re spot on with your main point. A successful web marketing approach is going to be crafted to the specific requirements of that site at a particular point in time, and so by necessity will draw on multiple traffic sources – whether one classifies them as “outbound” or “inbound”.

  23. Joel Chudleigh

    Great article and well timed. Things have been getting a bit carried away with this term.
    I think that Dharmesh’ response says it well – marketers should do what works and that we need to set our own rules for each business that we market based on metrics that will lead to growth of that business over time.
    We frequently recommend PPC, which I believe is very much an inbound marketing channel (I think there is much confusion between inbound and content marketing), to clients on a limited budget as it is more effective in the short term, but only if the site is well built and the offering is strong.
    PPC can often trigger the beginnings of social and SEO through simply driving the right people to the site and making it easy for them to share, comment and link to.
    I took a look at Hubspot last year and was really impressed. It is not a tool for experienced marketers who already have their solutions to various requirements but for a small business owner or marketer who is looking for direction it is very very good.
    In my experience content marketing is effective in the long term but it is often too heavy a gamble for small businesses on low budgets when used in silo as it can take too long to start generating a real ROI.
    Also; in the defense of Hubspot, we are in a period of significant change in marketing, I know that I have made decisions that I have had to reverse of late and am just fortunate that they were not publicly documented. I guess many others have also had to, so perhaps Dharmesh and Brian’s opinions may change on things that they publicly declared, but that’s OK as it is not easy to act as an oracle at the moment but they definitely got the general current of change correct.

  24. I have long disliked the term inbound marketing as well. I always was under the impression that HubSpot DID own and had trademarked the word, but Dharmesh indicates otherwise in his comment and I trust he knows better than me.

    The term I always have tried to use to refer to this type of activity is earned media. There is a big place for earned media in every company marketing mix. However, there’s a reason why it’s called a marketing mix; because you are mixing several activities together.

    A proper marketing mix involves bringing in earned, owned and paid media to bring in prospects across all buying spectrums. To say that only one piece of the mix is appropriate is selling your growth prospects short.

    That isn’t to say that you can’t have the most traction through one channel over the others. Young companies with minimal budget for marketing and advertising need to rely heavily on earned media (or inbound marketing if you fancy) to draw in prospects in a cost effective manner. For some companies, that may be their only marketing activity and they may end up being successful. But that is not easily repeatable.

    Bottom line is that it’s downright irresponsible to preach that only one type of marketing works, when there are many ways to build a business.