What is inbound marketing? Just a sexier version of SEO?

Forbes recently reported that the Cambridge-based SaaS company HubSpot has completed a $35 million round, bringing their fundraising total to an impressive $100 million.

HubSpot’s founder Brian Halligan is credited with coining the term “inbound marketing,” which seems to have gained relatively widespread adoption (at least within the marketing sector).

According to Halligan, “Inbound Marketing is marketing focused on getting found by customers.”

So, inbound marketing is just search engine optimization, right?  After all, the major difference between today and yesterday (when “outbound marketing” was the taste du jour) is that more people are using search engines to find products and services.

According to Halligan, it consists of three components:

(1) Content – Content creation is the core of any Inbound Marketing campaign. It is the information or tool that attracts potential customers to your site or your business.

(2) Search Engine Optimization – Search engine optimization makes it easier for potential customers to find your content. It is the practice of building your site and inbound links to your site to maximize your ranking in search engines, where most of your customers begin their buying process.

(3) Social Media – Social media amplifies the impact of your content. When your content is distributed across and discussed on networks of personal relationships, it becomes more authentic and nuanced, and is more likely to draw qualified customers to your site.

So according to Halligan, inbound marketing is based on content, SEO and social media.  It sort of makes sense although I’m still not convinced it is anything different than a holistic approach to SEO.

To see if I could gather a little more clarity around how inbound marketing is any different than SEO, I gathered the following definitions:

This is a process by which you build and distribute valuable content that enables new customers to find out about your business without direct involvement on your part. – Aj Kumar, Entrepreneur.com

This seems pretty similar to “SEO” (on a side note, isn’t creating and distributing valuable content is the very definition of “direct involvement”?)

Inbound marketing is about helping yourself get found by people who have made the choice to learn a little bit more about your industry. Permission marketing is based on content that attracts and nurtures prospects, as opposed to commercials, spam, billboards or phone calls that interrupt them. - Isaiah Adams, Inbound Marketing Blog

The definition of “inbound marketing” seems tantamount to SEO.  I’m not entirely sure about the second point: it seems as though “permission marketing” is synonymous with “interesting content.”

Inbound marketing involves getting found by your potential customers through search. – Some person on the WordStream blog

I sort of liked how this guy actually just admitted that inbound marketing is SEO.

After spending some time reading a variety of perspectives on “inbound marketing,” here are some things I think:

  1. There is a lot of preoccupation with channels (e.g. social, direct mail, etc.) in the various representations of “inbound marketing.”  I think some of this is due to the fact that Halligan’s original definition used channels to distinguish between “inbound marketing” and “outbound marketing” and most of the other representations are just variations of his original definition.  That being said, there is plenty of spam on search engines and social media just like there is plenty of good content on TV and print.  Getting dogmatic about channels always seemed a little close minded to me.
  2. Inbound marketing isn’t that different than holistic SEO; it just sound better.  SEO sounds technical and conjures images of a nerdy guy modifying title tags; inbound marketing makes me think about a sharply dressed executive with a creative team, thinking about how to change perceptions.  That being said, there isn’t much difference.  Good SEO is about structuring things properly, creating good content, building authority and getting cheap traffic.
  3. The most difficult things about inbound marketing are, in order of difficulty: 1. Creating good content; 2. Getting people to write about your content (and link to it); and 3. Engaging on social media without being annoying and spammy.  Consequently, a solution would focus on solving those problems but most inbound marketing solutions seem to primarily focus on facilitating activity (not optimizing it).
  4. In Tom Taulli’s Forbes article, Hubspot Nabs $35 Million to Revolutionize Marketing” (I think the word “revolutionize” is a little reckless), Halligan talks about how they were inspired by Apple: “Apple realized that the best approach was to make a device that was simple for mere mortals.”  I think that’s pretty important because Apple differentiated from existing products based on design; they didn’t necessarily introduce a completely new product into the market.  Similarly, HubSpot’s differentiator seems to be their design (and educational overlay throughout the UI).  The idea that they are actually enabling an entirely unique and new form of marketing just seems a little overblown to me.

What do you think?

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