Inbound Marketing: 

2020 Master Guide & Playbook

Stop chasing leads. Flip the script and attract high-value prospects to your brand like a magnet.

This comprehensive guide will introduce you to the inbound approach. Learn how to utilize traditional and modern advertising methods to execute an elite inbound marketing system.

Use the menu below to navigate directly to a section of the guide.


What is inbound marketing? (intro definition)

Inbound Marketing is a modern methodology that attracts clients/customers to your brand using content, media, search engines, events.

Contrary to an outbound marketing methodology; proper inbound marketing pulls customers towards your product/service.

The essence of an inbound marketing strategy is delivering meaningful content that your most reliable consumers actually want in timely, relevant contexts. Through implementing the inbound methodology, you will:

  • Establish your business as a valuable resource for consumers, earning their trust and attracting them to your brand
  • Engage effectively with prospects on their preferred channels and guide them towards becoming sales-ready leads
  • Delight your customers, instilling brand-loyalty and encouraging them to become your biggest advocates

The history and origin of Inbound Marketing

The advent of digital consumerism towards the end of the 20th century marked a change in buying behavior—interruptive advertisement methods (print, billboard, and commercial advertising, cold-calling, door-to-door sales) were no longer as effective at capturing consumer attention as they had been in the past.

As marketing and consumer behavior scholar S. Umit Kucuk notes, “the democratic architecture of the Internet empowers consumer voices… this enhances the consumer’s ‘right to be heard’ … ‘right to choose… ‘right to be informed’… and [their] ‘right to safety.’” Through buyer-to-buyer and buyer-to-firm interactions (such as those mediated through social media or online review channels), digital consumers are able to express their opinions and research competing products in the decision-making process, exerting direct influence over how companies operate and market their brands. Kukuc explains that a balanced, healthy market hinges on empowering buyers while eliminating their vulnerabilities, and points to several urgent issues for policy research to investigate to ensure that the rights of digital consumers are protected.

An era of digital consumerism

In exercising these rights of digital consumerism, buyers have become “really good at ignoring” traditional marketing tactics, and instead take advantage of the internet and digital communications to shop and buy with greater autonomy. In kind, through search engines, social media, and reviews channels, buyers now exercise their rights to be informed about and choose the products they buy for themselves, rather than make decisions based solely on which brands have the most pervasive advertising campaigns.

While graduate students at MIT in the early 2000s, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah observed these trends and realized that a new age of consumers called for a new age of marketing. Whereas conventional marketing, aimed at maximizing household penetration through “interrupting” consumers with non-stop advertising, a new, more suitable method should focus on the needs and interests of prospective buyers, helping them along their buying journeys and attracting them to a relevant brand more naturally.

On this premise: that helpful, targeted marketing rather than forceful, superfluous advertising is better suited to earning the trust, respect, and business of modern consumers, Halligan and Shah founded HubSpot in 2006. The principle of their “inbound” methodology is simple and reasonable: “people don’t want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by sales people—they want to be helped.” Inbound is about providing interested consumers with resources to inform their decisions (thus, drawing them to your brand as a trustworthy source of information), building empathetic relationships with them (encouraging them to choose your brand), and continuing to provide helpful service even after they have become your customer (instilling brand-loyalty and inspiring them to promote your brand through digital and word-of-mouth reviews).

Championing this new attitude of attracting, engaging, and delighting digital consumers, Halligan and Shah began teaching businesses to adopt inbound marketing campaigns through the HubSpot platform of services and software, and published the seminal guide to Inbound Marketing in 2009. From 2007 to 2010, HubSpot grew from $250,000 in revenue to over $15 million, and posted a revenue of $513 million in 2018; HubSpot’s success speaks resounding volumes to the effectiveness of inbound marketing strategies, and should encourage any business looking to grow its brand to develop its own inbound approach.


The inbound marketing methodology

Traditional marketing campaigns have become both ineffective and cost-inefficient in the digital age in large part because they invest large amounts of a brand’s capital into projecting widespread advertising onto audiences that include consumers who are unlikely to ever become site-visitors, prospects, leads, or eventual customers of the brand. What makes an inbound campaign so effective is that it targets those buyers who are most likely to have legitimate interest in a brand’s offerings.

Contrary to an outbound marekting methodology; proper inbound marketing pulls customers towards your product/service.

    Professional Buyer personas

    A successful inbound strategy focuses its efforts on reaching the consumers who have the greatest potential to take interest in your offerings. In the inbound language, these ideal customers are represented as buyer personas, and establishing the buyer personas your campaign should target will help you to better-understand the behaviors and concerns of your customers (both actual and prospective). These personas include demographic information, sales data, and details about personal interests and expectations that give insights into what interested consumers are after. Considering the most relevant buyer personas allows you to tune your content and the context in which it’s delivered to the specific interests of the consumers most likely to become prospects, leads, and customers for your brand.

    The Buyer’s Journey

    An inbound marketer seeks to guide their target personas through their buyer’s journey from a helpful, empathetic standpoint. The buyer’s journey describes a consumer’s processes of research and decision making that lead to their eventual purchase decision, and can be understood to occur along three general stages:

    1. Awareness Stage: the buyer recognizes that they have a need, opportunity, or even a problem they’d like to solve

    2. Consideration stage: the buyer gives definition to their problem and begins exploring potential solutions

    3. Decision stage: the buyer begins comparing offerings from competing brands, products, or services, and eventually settles on their purchase decision.

    The thoughtful inbound marketer thus aims to provide information about their brand that their buyer personas will find useful in their awareness stage, encounter during their consideration stage, and through effective engagement hopes to earn their trust and business in the decision-making stage.

    The stages of the buyer’s journey can be further understood in the context of a traditional marketing funnel, with each stage corresponding to different levels of the funnel—in inbound, this correspondence between the buyer’s journey and the marketing funnel is sometimes referred to as the “marketing machine.” During the awareness stage of the buyer’s journey, think of your personas as first being visitors to your brand, and then leads who are conscious of a needed solution. As they explore your content in the consideration stage, your personas become market-qualified-leads (MQLs), and convert to sales-qualified leads (SQLs) if they determine that your brand may offer the kind of solution they’re looking for. Once your persona enters into the decision stage and begins weighing the pros and cons of competing offers, they become a legitimate opportunity for your brand to secure their confidence. Finally, if your inbound strategy is successful, your persona will decide that your offering is the right choice and will make a purchase as a customer.

    The seller’s Journey

    As an inbound marketer, your goal should be to escort consumers down the marketing funnel from visitors to customers as they progress through the three stages of their buyer’s journey. To understand what the journey might look like for your buyer personas, it is crucial to consider your personas’ perspectives, asking:

    • how might personas determine their objectives, and how do they describe them?
    • what sources do they typically look to for information and what are the stakes that incentivize them to take action?
    • once your buyers have decided the categories of solutions that appeal to them, what metrics do they use to evaluate competing offers and what do they expect from a solution?

    Establishing the buyer’s journeys for your personas gives you a glimpse into the research and reasoning processes motivating potential consumers, informing your content strategy and allowing you to position your brand as an attractive option for your personas to consider.

    The inbound marketing flywheel

    The essential goals of an inbound marketing campaign are to “attract new prospects to your company, engage with them at scale, and delight them individually” with relevant content delivered in the right contexts.

    Strangers begin their buyer’s journeys as visitors to your brand, attracted through blog posts, social media, and website design that features SEO keywords your personas might use in researching potential solutions to their problems. Once on your site, these visitors are then converted to leads as they navigate your landing pages and calls-to-action (CTAs), and share their contact information with your firm. Communication channels such as chats and emails allow you to further nurture your leads, bringing marketing and sales teams together to assess their market- or sales-qualified readiness in your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) workflow as you close them into customers. If you continue to delight your customers, you may then inspire them to promote your brand through their social media posts, product reviews, and via word-of-mouth. Taken together and applied continually, these modes of interaction form the inbound marketing flywheel.

    As the model suggests, the relationship between these modes is cyclic, rather than linear: a successful inbound strategy attracts visitors who find your brand through research or recommendations, actively engages with them to guide them towards making a purchase, and continues to delight them, earning their loyalty and inspiring them to recommend you to their networks—inevitably attracting new visitors to keep the flywheel turning.

    To attract the consumers who are most likely to be legitimate prospects for your brand, keep in mind the buyer personas you’ve synthesized. Think of the challenges consumers might face, or goals they might have in mind for which your offering would be a meaningful solution, and develop content that situates your brand as an option. This may include broadcast or online advertising, videos, blogs, or social media posts about a particular aspect of your industry, delivered along the channels your buyer personas use most. Adopting best SEO strategies will earn visibility for your content, so that your personas will come across it naturally in their research. The goal is not yet to sell your specific product, rather, you here strive to position your brand as a reliable resource for your buyer personas to turn to for information about their problem or the industries in which they are interested. Once a visitor knows they can trust your brand to help inform their buying experience, they are more likely to become a qualified lead for you to nurture. To engage with your leads, design your landing pages to be accessible and informative.

    Communicating with leads through live chats or chat bots can help them navigate your site and answer any questions they have relating to their goals or problem-at-hand. Calls to Action (CTAs) such as forms signing up for newsletters or offering access to relevant guides in exchange for contact information both provides your leads with valuable resources and helps you flesh out your CRM database; you can then follow-up with individualized or automated messages along whatever communication channel (e.g. phone call, email, or other messaging channel) your leads most prefer. You might entice a qualified lead who has downloaded a guide for one of your products to sample it with a free trial or offer them a discount if you see that they have items lingering in their online cart at checkout. Through thoughtful engagement, you can nurture your leads through their buyer’s journeys and encourage them to make a purchase with your brand.

    To delight your customers, follow-up with them after their purchase via individualized or automated communications inviting critical feedback on their experiences navigating your content and website, communicating with your bots and team-members, and their enjoyment of their purchase. This direct user-experience information will allow you to continue to refine your content strategy and service workflows, as well as identify how your offerings satisfy the goals consumers have in mind when they come to your brand. Cultivate brand loyalty in your customers through email marketing that provides content that they might be interested in such as updates in your industry, tutorials or guides, other related products, or discounts or promotions that can lead to future purchases. You might invite them to write a review for your site or products, or to participate in a social media campaign, posting content of them enjoying their purchase with a relevant hashtag or mention. In this way, you not only ensure your customers will be delighted with their buying decisions you also encourage them to promote your brand to their own networks, thus attracting more prospects to your brand.

    PART 3:

    Inbound vs outbound marketing strategy


    To understand how and why the inbound methodology has emerged as the premiere marketing strategy in the digital age, it’s important to take a look at traditional “outbound” marketing tactics as a point of comparison. As the names “inbound” and “outbound” suggest, “inbound marketing focuses on drawing potential customers in, while outbound marketing is about outwardly pushing a business’s offering.”

      Outbound marketing is high cost; low yield

      Outbound marketing strategies deploy forms of “paid media” to buy consumers’ attention, including cold-calling, mailed, print, billboard, radio, or television advertisements, pay-perclick or website display ads, or paid emails (the digital consumer might often find such emails in their “spam” folders). Social media advertisements that may be presented to a specific demographic but aren’t targeted in response to the behaviors of particular buyer personas fall into the outbound category as well. The average costs for some traditional advertising channels range as follows:

      ■ Radio: up to $1,000 per spot

      ■ Newspaper: up to $2,500 weekly per ad

      ■ Television: hundreds of thousands of dollars for a prime-time national spot

      ■ Magazines: over one hundred thousand dollars for a full-page ad

      ■ Yellow pages: $1,000 per month for a half-page ad

      ■ Trade shows: thousands of dollars for a booth

      Since buying ad space quickly adds up, many outbound campaigns are only able to push their messages in a few channels, rather than in multiple channels that may appeal to specific buyer personas.

      Often considered a traditional “cost of doing business,” it’s no surprise that these tactics can easily siphon the majority of a marketing budget. Moreover, since the outbound methodology aims to broadcast such a wide message in the hopes of snagging as many consumers as possible, rather than building one-to-one relationships through meeting the specific needs consumers have, “it’s difficult to quantify anything beyond the number of people reached… [a business] can’t measure how many people have taken action once they see or hear [an] ad.” That said, digital marketing agency Square 2 Marketing estimates that the average cost for an outbound campaign deploying these traditional advertising tactics is $346 per lead.

      While large firms might have the budget to burn for marketing, it seems fair to say that small businesses with less capital to risk would do well to be wary of these costly marketing tactics. Furthermore, without collecting consumer experience data on a per-case basis to track which channels result in actual purchases, an outbound campaign would struggle to measure the effective ROI of its marketing efforts, which is a critical metric to the success of a business at any scale.

      Why inbound marketing can be better

      The inbound methodology marks a change in marketing tactics, as a brand presents itself as a welcoming resource for legitimate prospects to find themselves as opposed to casting wide nets of interruptive advertisements in the hopes of finding viable customers. In response to consumers’ actual behavior instead of projecting demographic generalizations, an inbound campaign can allocate its budget along the channels its personas utilize most, and can focus on earning consumers’ trust and building relationships through lead-nurturing.

      As opposed to the paid media that makes up the primary component of traditional advertising, inbound marketing attracts and engages prospects with “owned” or “earned“ media. Owned media includes brand-generated content such as its website and landing pages, blog and video channels, and social media accounts — the defining principle of an inbound marketer’s owned media is that ”you choose what to publish, how to publish it, and when.” Square 2 Marketing breaks down typical costs for deploying owned media in an inbound marketing campaign:

      ■ Website: between $2,500-15,000 to build, depending on complexity

      ■ SEO: free if self-run, or $500-5,000 monthly to outsource to an SEO agency

      ■ Targeted pay-per-click (PPC) advertising: $500-2,500 per month; not a necessity

      ■ Social Media Marketing: free if self-run, or around $1,000 per month to outsource

      ■ Comprehensive campaign package: $3,000-10,000 per month to outsource all of the above to a digital marketing agency

      Already, the differential between traditional outbound advertising costs and those necessary for a strong inbound marketing campaign is apparent: however large your firm and marketing budget may be, an inbound campaign is orders of magnitude more cost-efficient. Furthermore, because owned media of these forms is easier on the budget, inbound marketers are able to target the diversity of channels that their buyer personas find most familiar. For example, if your personas are active across all major social media channels, you can advertise or make your content accessible on these channels at relatively low cost.

      The new age: using inbound and outbound marketing together

      Although firms with tight budgets may find more success growing and promoting their brand through strong inbound campaigns than starting off with expensive outbound tactics, the two methodologies can readily complement each other in the hands of a careful and strategic marketer. After all, “inbound and outbound marketing are really two sides of the same coin: inbound brings prospects of to you, while outbound brings you to prospects.”
      While outbound marketing on its own is not the most efficient way to attract prospects or visitors in the awareness stage of the buyer’s journey since “it can be alienating and intrusive for buyers who are used to dictating the speed at which they educate themselves,” the prospects who do engage with outbound media may already be sales-ready. This is to say that when a prospect clicks a paid advertisement or stops by a trade show booth, from their interest you can reasonably infer their status as an SQL and begin nurturing them through the inbound marketing machine. As such, if a lead comes to you from an outbound media source, they may be “warmer” than leads you attract solely through inbound tactics.

      Similarly: instead of wide-scale, demographic-based advertising, using the inbound approach of figuring out relevant buyer personas, the SEO keywords they use in research along their buyer’s journeys, and the media channels they frequent, and then taking out an ad spot in a traditionally outbound media outlet may be another effective way to merge the two methods. Since you did some preliminary inbound research and identified the media channels your personas usually enjoy, you’d have a high likelihood of attracting legitimate prospects with your ad and hopefully would mitigate some of the harsh reception to a typical interruptive ad. What’s more, you might even attract other consumers who share interests with your personas and frequent those same media outlets. In this instance, your traditional outbound tactics are softened with inbound personalization.

      As consumers more and more reclaim their buying autonomy from traditional advertising tactics—conducting their own research to inform purchase decisions and exchanging feedback on their experiences with each other and with brands, outbound marketing strategies become increasingly antiquated. What’s more, outbound advertising campaigns are extremely expensive, and can quickly exhaust even a robust marketing budget. Ultimately, since buyers have grown weary of and good at ignoring interruptive advertising, adopting marketing practices that are better suited to digital consumerism is imperative to successfully promoting your brand.

      PART 4:

      how to develop an inbound marketing strategy


      Now that the fundamentals of the inbound methodology and its advantages over traditional outbound tactics have been established, all that remains is discussing how to plan and execute a successful inbound marketing campaign. This guide will overview a long-term campaign-planning process and highlight leading inbound marketing companies, useful software, and other analytical tools that facilitate the best inbound campaign practices.

        Identify your audience (buyer personas)

        The first step to identifying your target audience is to bring your marketing, sales, and customer service teams together to audit your current and ideal consumer bases. As a team, discuss the kinds of consumers you have already served, or those you believe your brand could serve best, and what behaviors your sales and services teams have noticed in your customers. These internal surveys should provide helpful answers to the following queries:

        • What types of consumers engage with our brand, and what motivates them to make purchases here?
        • What technical, demographic, and personal info about our prospects do we have?
        • What are successes and failures have past marketing campaigns had?
        • What are some frequently asked questions from prospects? from customers?
        • What feedback on our products and brand-at-large have we received?

        Bringing everyone in your firm onto the same page at the onset will ensure a common understanding of the importance of buyer personas to your inbound marketing strategy, and will facilitate brand-wide best engagement and delight practices down the road.
        You can then survey consumers themselves to verify and refine the information you’ve compiled, and tailor both your product offerings and content strategies in response. Be sure to survey consumers from different demographic or persona groups, consumers who are at different stages of their buyer’s journeys, and consumers in a few relevant markets, including your own customers, consumers who have made purchases with your competitors, and consumers who have not made a purchase decision.26 After reviewing whatever data on an interviewee that you have access to, focus on being transparent and direct in your surveys to acquire as much concrete, helpful data as you can.
        You might begin with questions that will help you draw a rough sketch from relevant demographic or lifestyle information such as:

        • Gender-identity (female, male, non-binary, transx, etc.)
        • Age
        • Ethnicity
        • Educational background
        • Employment status (industry, experience, income, goals, etc.)
        • Family status (marital status, family size and composition, etc.)
        • Living environment (homeowner, renter, sub/urban, rural, location etc.)
        • Day-to-day (weekday/end routine, hours at home/work, etc.)
        • Lifestyle (hobbies, activities, travel, media consumption, etc.)

        That said, buyer personas are more specific than the vague picture that demographic details paint. Some personal, consumer, and industry information that penetrates deeper into the buyer personas you’ll be building might include:

        • Purchase-decision research methods (online, referrals, in-store comparisons, etc.)
        • Preferred shopping channels (online, in-store, bulk/wholesale, etc.)
        • Ideal expense ranges for particular types of items
        • Preferred technology use (laptop, smartphone, etc.)
        • Preferred communications channels (phone, email, social media, etc.)
        • Measures of brand-loyalty or brand-diversity (favorite brands in industry, memberships to loyalty programs, top shopping channels/brands, etc.)
        • Daily frustrations and purchase-decision frustrations
        • Personal projects, goals, and aspirations
        • Industry-specific challenges and values Industry, brand, or product-specific FAQs

        After conducting thorough internal and consumer surveys, you are ready to review your data and begin building your buyer personas. Using data analytics tools such as Google Analytics to incorporate site-traffic and conversions data, as well as reviewing purchase data from your firm, competitors, and across your markets and industries allows you to further validate and refine the information you collected in interviews. Analyzing survey, consumer interaction, and purchase data together should give your teams insight both into who your target audiences are and what content and channels prove comfortable, accessible, and effective for them.

        You’re now ready to build the buyer personas for your inbound marketing campaign! It is helpful to choose an explanatory nickname for each persona, such as “Intellectual Abby” or “Frugal Fred,” that you can identify with their corresponding profiles. Each persona should also contain a description of relevant demographic and personal information, as well as a narrative overview of their lifestyle and consumer behaviors, preferences, and attitudes. It might also be helpful to find an image to assign to each persona, either pulled from stock images that fit your descriptions, or from a customer who is willing to share. Finally, your buyer persona profile should include a list of identifiers that will cue your team on some main personality and consumer-behavior traits that they can reference as they generate content and communicate with prospects or customers.

        Plan a content strategy and execute inbound marketing services

        Your next course of action is to identify the marketing triggers that motivate your buyer personas to begin their buyer’s journeys. Marketing triggers include “events and pain points that cause [buyer personas] to search for information about your product, service or industry” and crafting your content strategy with these triggers in mind allows you to meet your prospects at their needs and interests. For example: upon purchasing a new house, a homeowner may realize that they need to install new lighting throughout their space, and begin researching the best options for high-energy lighting—a lightbulb distributor should thus consider moving into a new home as a marketing trigger for its buyer personas towards which it can target its content strategy.

        With your personas and their motivations in mind, you should now begin figuring out how your personas conduct the research that informs their purchasing decisions. This process typically involves conducting keyword research to identify the SEO keywords and keyword phrases that your personas query in search engines, using tools such as Google’s Keyword Planner or SEMrush’s keyword dashboard to compile a list of keywords with “relatively high monthly search volume and a medium to low competition level.” When a consumer queries a search related to your product, brand, or industry, if your content contains these competitive keywords it will rank higher in the search engine results the consumer receives—strategically incorporating these SEO keywords will thus give your content higher search engine results page (SERPS) visibility as the search engine parses your content, and this visibility will naturally attract your buyer personas to your content. At any rate, add to your list those keywords and keyword phrases that seem most pertinent and viable for your brand and your budget—you will be tailoring your content around this list.

        Before you begin generating content, it’s important to establish some well-defined goals for your content strategy. Using the SMART framework for goal setting can help ensure that your ambitions are crystal clear and will provide a useful metric along which you can assess the efficacy of your campaign. Audit your current levels of traffic, leads, and sales, and identify which channels or conversion paths yield this baseline. Then, determine ranges for: how many site-visitors you’d like to attract, how many visitor-to-lead conversions you’d like to inspire, how many leads you’d like to reach, how many lead-to-customer conversions you’d like to nurture, and how many customers you’d like to secure. Compare these metrics to competitors in your industry with tools offered at Marketing Grader or SEMrush to see if your goals are realistic.

        With your SMART goals defined, conduct an audit of the content you currently have in circulation. Pare the effective content that has generated successful lead conversion from that which is superfluous or has low conversion rates, and identify what bits you want to retain in your new inbound marketing campaign; likewise, assess any upcoming events and initiatives (such as webinars, promotional offers, special sale periods, etc.) that you’d like to highlight. In both instances, take stock of the substance and targets of each piece of content and each event or initiative you have in your arsenal, as this audit will inform your strategy going forward—what pieces inspired leads? which content has low click-through rates? Looking ahead, develop a schedule or timeline for publishing your content that specifies what and when you plan to publish.

        Now that you’re ready to outline and publish your content, you’ll want to generate materials that help guide your prospects through each phase of the inbound marketing machine. For example: to attract consumers in the awareness stage of their buyer’s journeys you might publish industry-specific information through social media or blog channels; to engage evaluation-stage leads you might offer guides or free trials to your services, serving to both inform their research and situate your brand as a strong candidate for earning their business; to secure and delight qualified leads in the decision-stage, you might offer a chat- consultation or a discount for their future purchase. In any case, having content for each stage is crucial to a successful inbound content strategy since even if “you have great top-of- funnel content but you have nothing to offer leads in the middle and bottom of the funnel, you won’t be very efficient at moving leads through the sales cycle.”

        Your strategy should also include the brand- or product-specific advertising with which you intend to attract your target buyer personas, tailored to the channels you’ve identified as the most effective for each persona. Moreover, you’ll want to coordinate with your design team to ensure that the landing pages and pillar pages that your posts, ads, or search engine results page link to are appealing, navigable, and informative for your buyer personas, as the content of these pages will ultimately be what connect your prospects with your brand and leads them further along their buyer’s journeys.

        Download The complete inbound marketing 2020 master guide.