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Puzzled by Content Marketing vs Inbound Marketing?

Puzzle pieces that do not fit together

Know that you are not alone. You are definitely not the only one puzzled by distinguishing between the terms content marketing and inbound marketing. It is a question I hear often. Playing such marketing buzzword bingo at your next management or trustee meeting is a waste of time for you as a busy change maker. Let’s piece together the answer to this puzzle.


Rising Interest in Both Content Marketing and Inbound

There’s no doubt that the terms content marketing and inbound marketing are the terms du jour. Google Trends shows both phrases have enjoyed a sustained and steady increase in search interest over more than a decade — with content marketing clearly in the lead.



What is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is providing useful content — useful to the person, the audience you’re reaching — and related to the services or products you provide. It tells people what they want and need to know in ways that are credible, trustworthy, transparent. You are helping people understand what kind of work you do and you need to make that visible to the target audience. The content can take any form: digital on the web or social media, or offline in print, direct mail, or broadcast media. My favorite definition of content marketing is from an early practitioner, Copyblogger:

“Content Marketing means creating and sharing valuable free content to attract and convert prospects into customers, and customers into repeat buyers. The type of content you share is closely related to what you sell; in other words, you’re educating people so that they know, like, and trust you enough to do business with you.” [Emphasis added.]

How widespread is interest in content marketing?

With few exceptions, Google Trends indicates interest in content marketing is consistent and widespread across the United States.



What is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is focused on using the internet to attract leads to your business. Inbound is often contrasted with outbound marketing, which is described as intrusive and using only traditional channels such as print, direct mail and broadcast advertising.

The HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah are credited with coining the phrase inbound marketing and widely promoting the concept (and their software) in the book Inbound Marketing. (Check out HubSpot’s fun infographic on the History of Marketing.)

How widespread is interest in inbound marketing?

Note that Google Trends shows a significantly lighter interest in inbound nationally with a concentration in the Massachusetts area (home of HubSpot) and pockets clustered in software / technology regions.



Which Approach (and Which Term) is Best for You?

Some marketers use the two phrases interchangeably, and arguably, in practice the two approaches are often indistinguishable now. But there are times when using one or the other term can work harder for you. Here are some tips to help you decide.

  • If outbound, interruptive, traditional advertising is common in your field, then inbound marketing can sound like a fresh and appealing option to your team.
  • If your organization is still a reluctant marketer, the well-established education focus of content marketing can be most comfortable.
  • Content marketing is commonly seen as focused on customer retention and satisfaction, whereas inbound marketing is seen as skewing towards sales and lead generation. Your business priorities may make one or the other term more appropriate at this point in time.
  • If you have a board member enamored with the term inbound marketing, go with it.
  • If you have a board member enamored with the term content marketing, go with it.

The answer to the puzzle of whether to use the term content marketing or inbound is that there is no one right solution. Unless there are others around you who care, use either – or neither – phrase. Don't let the jargon and terminology get in the way of the power of effective marketing to advance your mission. Effective marketing is focused on your audience and their needs and presents information in the manner and channels they prefer — or more simply — it focuses on who, what, where to communicate.


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