Outbound vs Inbound Marketing: What's The Difference In 2019?

Opinion: If you're debating inbound vs outbound marketing, you don't understand how your customers buy from you.

Inbound was about "not interrupting". Outbound was about reaching potential buyers (before someone else does). But these are not opposites.

This division has been created by martech brands and driven teams to adopting a set of tactics within tool - an artificial limitation.

I say that having been part of that brand-and-philosophy-building machine. Before joining Atlanta-based Hull (and the account-based marketing, SDR-powered martech ecosystem here), I managed the inbound.org community for HubSpot for four years - over 165,000 "inbound professionals". From both these positions, I've seen the inbound vs outbound marketing arguments.

My conclusion? They don't make sense.

Whenever a new trend, tactic or technique comes along, we try to bucket them within yesterday's concepts. "Is conversational marketing inbound?". "How do I use intent data for outbound?".

What matters is the buyer and the buyer's journey (which is changing). At some stage, sales must reach out and marketing has to engage leads. Content, outreach, email, whatever... at some stage, someone has to "interrupt". The question is whether it is a welcome interruption or not?

This is neither inbound marketing or outbound marketing. It is engaging the customer where they are in the buying journey.

Here's how and why we've derailed the concepts of inbound and outbound marketing, and what we need to think of instead...

Inbound marketing isn't all inbound

Inbound marketing has struggled without an exacting definition. Is all email "inbound"? Are pop-ups inbound? What about retargeting ads?

It seems there is consensus around the idea that inbound marketing "is not interruption marketing".

In the mid-noughties, it was suggested the way we were selling didn't match up with the way people were buying. People appeared to research brands & products and opt-in (vs. opt-out) of marketing & sales.

That's quite a jump to what we see today. "Content marketing isn't interruption marketing". Yes, there's a place to educate, inform & build relationships. But don't hold it up as irrefutably inbound and not an interruption. Most of the time, it definitely is.

No, I don't want to see your pop-up.

No, I don't want to read your white paper thinly disguised sales pitch.

Most content is caked in a thousand interruptions. Cookie consent. A pop-up. Auto-playing video. And now a chat bot is trying to talk to me. And now another pop-up.

Whilst websites and "inbound" assets are becoming gradually more horrible experiences, platforms are becoming the environment of choice for all of your target audience.

(Side point: it's true platforms are also incentivized to charge for taking people off their platform, but that doesn't answer why your website is a significantly better experience. Why would I want to spend time there?).

We thought inbound was the mindset. Instead, we've turned it into yet another channel to interrupt people. And the (deluge of crap) content is the biggest culprit - Doug Kessler puts it best.

So what about the alternative?

Outbound is not fully outbound either

If your inbound strategy can't land accounts, then sales has to go and pull them in. Inbound didn't get there first. Gotta hit that quota.

Coming from the world of inbound.org, it was this post by Jason Lempkin that hit this home for me - Outbound Always Works

And you've probably seen the Predictable Revenue playbook from Aaron Ross.

But this isn't a license to recklessly spam anyone.

All the outbound tactics get a terrible reputation for teams who load up lists of prospects and blast messages at them till kingdom come. Not hitting quota? Don't worry! Just load more (MOAR!) prospects!

Heck, Jason shared his "real" email address over breakfast at Point9 Founder Summit this year. It's deliberately obscure precisely because outbound has broken out of any sense of control for him and any other recipient.

Volume-based, activity-based outbound burns out relationships. And when that's exhausted, teams resort to other forms of manipulation (at best; coercion at worst) - we've all seen those killer templates, conniving questions, and "break up" emails from people who we never wanted to hear from in the first place.

Outbound always works? Ehh... isn't that just a sweeping statement to say "there's a chance someone says yes if you ask enough people enough times".

Is there a smarter way?

First, understand how your customers buy

The entire debate here misses the heart of the challenge - how do people buy what you sell?

Whatever the tactic...

Whatever the board slides...

Whatever the thinking in your head...

Inbound vs Outbound Marketing misses the point.

It depends how your customers buy.

Sales and marketing aren't made to work apart. Different functions within marketing aren't made to be isolated. The buying journey isn't supposed to be broken up.

At some stage, sales has to reach out.

At some stage, marketing has to engage.

You need to unite around your customers and your potential customers and engage them at where they are (and aren't yet) in the buying journey.

And the modern buying journey is changing.

Crucially, you don't have control over all buying experience any more.

  • Buyers open your emails (maybe, but also...)
  • Buyers talk & ask questions on social
  • Buyers try multiple different products
  • Buyers visit your website
  • Buyers read reviews
  • Buyers have conversations with your team
  • Buyers try parts of your product

If you build walls within your team, you'll never be able to track, understand & react how your buyers buy. You miss out.

Who is driving the inbound vs outbound narrative?

Most of the discussion around "inbound marketing" or "outbound marketing" (and similar themes like "account based marketing") are driven by tool vendors and their agency partners.

(Yes, I realize this is ironic coming from us. Hang in there...)

This isn't wrong, but be aware that each vendor has a worldview and their software enables tactics within that worldview.

HubSpot is meant to attract & nurture leads. There's a set of tactics you're confined to within their product.

Terminus is meant to engage target accounts with ads. There's a set of tactics you're confined to within their product.

Salesloft is meant to enable a sales rep to engage a given lead or prospect. There's a set of tactics you're confined to within their product.

Can you use HubSpot for "outbound" ? Of course. Can you use Salesloft for "inbound" ?. Why not?

But the narrative around each is around what creates this division and isolates teams within the tactics possible within the products they choose.

So be aware - as the way people buy begins to change, you need to have the tools, teams & data to interact. Your tactics need to update.

"Conversational marketing" marketing took off, but apparently that's part of inbound marketing too. Does that mean every inbound marketing tool suddenly supports conversations? Nope.

If your mindset is entrenched in "inbound vs outbound marketing" and picking sides, you'll miss this shift. And shift happens.

You need a new, flexible way of thinking.

  • Tactic agnostic: relevant to past, present & whatever future tactics behold us
  • Tool agnostic: doesn't matter what your stack looks like today or tomorrow
  • Team agnostic: doesn't depend on a certain team size, shape or skillset

Here's my favorite.

Peter Herbert's Fit-Intent-Engagement framework

The simplest framework for thinking beyond inbound vs outbound marketing is Peter Herbert's Fit-Intent-Engagement framework.

Fit: Are they a good, serviceable potential customer? Do they match your ideal customer profile?

Intent: Are they in the market to buy the type of thing you're selling?

Engagement: Have they interacted with your brand and product? How much?

This is a tactic-agnostic, tool-agnostic, team-agnostic means of thinking about B2B buyer's journeys.

Stone cold outbound marketing might be about chasing a list of accounts without any previous engagement or intent to buy. Even if they're a great fit potential account, it'll be an uphill struggle to get them interested in the first case.

Inbound marketing works here too. Inbound is about progressively engaging leads as they work through the buying journey. Great! But they might not be a good fit company or show intent to buy.

Inbound can suffer from poor-fit leads. Outbound can suffer from reaching out to cold accounts. Both can struggle to identify clear intent to buy.

The common thread through all of this is data. Data brings the context around customer fit, intent to buy, and their engagement - data informs who you might be able to sell to and why.

Data also informs how you might be able to engage leads and prospects from a target account.

Inbound marketing was always about aggregating data about a lead, then nurturing through to sales.

Outbound marketing was always about aggregating data about a target list of prospects & accounts to reach out.

The smartest teams & fastest tactics today focus on using data to enable their teams to engage best-fit, ready-to-buy accounts; using data to sell to people the way that they are buying.

Teams, tools & tactics follow your data

In The Complete Guide to Customer Data the first three guides in the series focus on defining the data you need. Then, and only then, do we move onto discuss tools, teams & tactics.

Customer data gives the complete context of your buyers.

Customer data is the lifeblood of every customer-facing team.

Customer data enables you to create more engaging (read: high converting) 1:1 personalized customer experiences.

At some point, sales must react out. Your sales enablement and sales triggers needs to be in the context of where your buyers are in the buying journey.


At Appcues, the sales team organize their deal stages based on the key actions leads have (or haven't) taken in their free trial. All their sales outreach ties to helping people get value from their product and move through the buyer's journey.

At some point, marketing must nurture leads & accounts. Call it "interruption marketing". Call it "lead nurturing". But marketing needs to create content and trigger ads, chat, email and more to reach & enable buyers at their point in the buying journey.

At Oz Content, the marketing team use highly targeted mid-funnel content sent to just the most relevant leads for a given niche topic based on their company profile and engagement so far.

By inviting just the most relevant leads, they can make their mid-funnel content ultra-focused and maximize engagement with those accounts (they see leads invite their entire teams to each webinar). This also lays up sales for easy outreach. "Is {niche} topic [which you've just attended a very focused webinar on] a challenge in your company?"

As a sales & marketing team, you need to map out the steps in the buying journey and figure out how to engage your best-fit target accounts who show intent to buy along in the buying process.

How to get started with data-driven marketing & sales

  1. Define your ideal customer profile. If you follow our process, you'll have a clear outline of your customer data model, how you can qualify leads, and target your outreach. This defines fit.
  2. Draw your customer journey map. Identify the moment's buyers engage with your brand & product, and the signals of buying intent
  3. Explore how other teams are using their data to leverage new growth opportunities in our library of most popular playbooks.
  4. New to customer data integration? Checkout our getting started guide.

How do SaaS teams use Hull?

Looking for data-driven marketing ideas? See our complete library of common use cases from all these companies.

Explore Hull Playbooks
Ed Fry

Prev 'Ed of Growth at Hull, working on all things content, acquisition & conversion. Conference speaker, flight hacker, prev. employee #1 at inbound.org (acq. HubSpot). Now at Behind The Growth

If you've questions or ideas, I'd love to geek out together on Twitter or LinkedIn. 👇