By Joe Pulizzi published April 13, 2016

Why Inbound Marketing Should Take a Back Seat to Current Customers

inbound-marketing-current-customersInbound marketing, as a phrase and a movement, has almost been as popular as content marketing over the past decade.

If both phrases were tradeable stocks, and you purchased $10,000 worth of “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” in June 2008, inbound marketing would be valued at $490,000. If you owned content marketing, you would be a millionaire (per Google Trends March 29, 2016).

Click to enlarge

Regardless, both approaches have arguably dominated the marketing conversation for the past five to 10 years. Unfortunately, if you are focusing all your efforts on inbound marketing as your primary marketing strategy, you may be missing a large opportunity. Let’s discuss.

What is inbound marketing?

As David Meerman Scott writes in the foreword for Inbound Marketing (by HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah), “Inbound marketing is about getting found online, through search engines and on sites like Facebook and YouTube and Twitter …

“In other words, inbound marketing is about developing marketing activities that ‘pull’ people into your site, generally through compelling content creation, rather than those that go out and interrupt prospects with advertising messages.”

Inbound marketing is developing marketing tactics that pull people into your site through compelling #content Click To Tweet

More recently, HubSpot has expanded the inbound marketing definition to include more than the top-of-the-funnel activities into a methodology that includes awareness through post-sales relationship-building (moving it closer to the definition of content marketing). Still, the majority of marketing professionals see “inbound” as a top-of-the-funnel activity.

What’s the inbound problem?

Following an inbound marketing approach, for most organizations, is actually quite sensible. The problem is that far too many enterprises and small businesses focus on inbound marketing as the primary strategy (bringing in new customers), and loyalty and retention initiatives (focusing on current customers) as secondary.

Let me use an example:

I recently had breakfast with the vice president of digital marketing at a large B2B manufacturing company. As we broke down his goals and initiatives, the underlying focus was clear.

After years of content creation about just products/services/features/benefits, the organization has moved more resources to top-of-the-funnel activities. These include a large SEO/SEM team; a content creation team for white papers, blogs, e-books and webinars; a newly launched marketing automation team; and better integration and lead nurturing between sales and marketing.

For a large B2B organization, the change management needed to make all this happen was quite impressive.

Then I asked this question: “What types of activities do you have around customer loyalty/retention/up-selling/cross-selling, etc.?”

I’m sure you already know the answer. Outside of customer service, major account representatives, and post-sales product collateral, the organization ignored loyalty and retention marketing.

Starting with current customer experience

Robert Rose, CMI’s chief strategy officer, evangelizes three experience timetables for content marketing:

  • Amazing awareness experience
  • Remarkable nurturing experience
  • World-class loyalty experience for current customers

I believe the third experience – focusing on loyalty and retention – is the most critical when thinking about the opportunities around content.

Recently, I was flipping through my notes on the book Managing Business-to-Business Marketing Communications by J. Nicholas DeBonis and Roger S. Peterson — an excellent book — and the key highlight of the book is the following:

The fundamental principle of marketing is that it is exponentially more profitable to keep existing customers than it is to acquire new ones.

It is exponentially more profitable to keep existing customers than it is to acquire new ones via @RSPBBG Click To Tweet

The rule of thumb is that it costs five times as much to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one. According to Harvard Business School, an increase in customer retention by just 5% can lead to an increase in profits of 25% to 95%. Although new business is always an important driver to any business, more companies seem to neglect the MOST PROFITABLE marketing strategy – keeping and growing your current customer base.

An increase in customer retention by just 5% can lead to an increase in profits of 25% to 95% via @HarvardHBS Click To Tweet

It is your current customers with whom you already have awareness and a current relationship. It only makes sense to focus first on their informational needs and pain points and to maximize the revenue opportunities from current customers before taking an inbound approach. Only after you perfect the loyalty experience and turn customers into evangelists should you look at other parts of the buyer’s journey.

Getting inspiration for loyalty and retention

Here are a few brands that recognize the value of loyalty and retention in their marketing strategies:

John Deere delivers The Furrow magazine to 1.5 million customers on a monthly basis, in 40 countries and 14 languages.

TD Ameritrade’s thinkMoney magazine is targeted to the brand’s active traders. It’s found that high-volume traders who engage in the magazine trade five times more than those who do not.


Slack, a digital communication tool, uses its YouTube channel not only to introduce its product but to host how-to video guides, strengthening its relationships with customers using the product.


Weight Watchers sends a weekly e-newsletter to its customers with helpful tips on food and fitness.

Weight Watchers

My purpose in writing this article is not to get you to shy away from inbound activities, but to put your goals in perspective. Our opportunities with current customers are significant. Don’t ignore current customers at the expense of top-of-the-funnel activities.

Want to learn more ways to build loyalty with your customers? Subscribe to the free daily or weekly CMI email.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

Other posts by Joe Pulizzi

  • Marcus Sheridan

    I’ve always felt that Inbound (or Content M.) had 3 main purposes: Find, Retain, Recruit. So just as organizations need to focus on the customer relationship side of this Joe, many also forget they could be experiencing amazing gains on the recruiting/HR side of their business if they had the right approach. Frankly, I think the biggest issue here goes back to semantics: We called it “Marketing” from the beginning (Be it INbound or Content). And because we did (and there are many reasons why it had to be said that way), we immediately shifted the focus away from the customer retention/relationship side of the coin. As we all know, words matter, and in this case, the word “marketing” has caused many organizations to miss incredibly obvious benefits to great content.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks my friend…I do agree with you, but I’m just seeing too many organizations forget the “retain” part of the equation when it comes to marketing. Hope all is well and see you in a few days.

      • Peter Caputa

        Agree with you, Joe, that HubSpot’s definition of inbound has always been too focused on acquiring customer.

        A nice side effect of great content is retention. But, there are more purposeful ways of use-ing content for retention purposes.

        Perhaps we should all be talking more about how to do that more frequently. A lot of the same approaches and technology can be used for both.

        • Joe Pulizzi

          Thanks Peter…been too long my friend. Hope you’ve been well.

  • Anne Janzer

    Preach it, Joe! This is, in essence, the topic of my book Subscription Marketing. As long as marketing is incentivized and judged by net new leads and conversion, it’s a tough argument to make. But I’m seeing a gradual shift in marketing practices, bit by bit, so I’m optimistic.

  • Kazuo Watanabe

    Well articulated the difference between CM and IM. Also extremely timely article when the book “disrupted” has just published.

  • vbhagat

    Joe – interesting post. One topic you’d don’t cover is that happy, loyal customers also have a significant impact on new business acquisition. Historically that occurred via word of mouth, but increasingly savvy marketers are getting those customers on the record at-scale via strategies like user reviews, which results in a large and authentic base of content which can be used in sales and marketing for acquisition and upsell.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Excellent point!

  • joewaters

    For me, I’ve always seen inbound marketing as using digital tools to become a magnet for opportunity. Top of the funnel stuff. While both content marketing and inbound marketing are both audience centric, CM is about creating a dedicated marketing asset that is clearly focused on the “idea” of what your organization is about. And unlike inbound marketing, it can be a standalone asset that that can operate independently.

    For those interested, I tried to explain myself with a post and infographic here:

  • SmackMacDougal

    What the jargonists are calling “inbound marketing” is really nothing more than direct marketing. The jargonists have been fooled easily by the replacement of traditional methods through automation that leverages computing and the Internet.

    What David Meerman Scott calls inbound marketing the rest of the proper business world calls search engine optimization. What Joe Pulizzi calls inbound marketing — “bringing in new customers” — the rest of the jargon-laden business world has called customer acquisition. The practical business world merely calls it selling.

    Also, the rest of the practical business world defines inbound marketing as order takers and sales reps fielding in-bound telephone calls from would-be customers.

    What Joe Pulizzi calls “retention marketing”, the rest of the practical business world calls repeat business. Even jargon-crazed dummies in the 1990s called that customer care.

    What Joe Pulizzi Calls “content marketing”, the practical business world calls it direct marketing copy. With computerization, the practical business world will come to call it content optimization.

    The latest faddy jargon cannot replace reality of business. Practical executives and business owners want sales at the lowest expense.

    In the reality of real world business, there are only these kinds of marketing:

    Selling, Advertising, Business Development, Promotion

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi…thanks for the comment. You are correct that there is a lot of jargon…I agree. But marketing has indeed changed because the power has shifted from media companies and brands with big marketing budgets to consumers having more power. They can afford to ignore everything we put out, including our selling information, advertising efforts and PR efforts, unless they deem it as valuable to them. Those initiatives don’t work as well as they used to in the past because our audience can choose to ignore at will.

      Those brands that want to build loyal relationships with prospects and customers need to think differently about how they communicate – to sell more, to save costs and to create more loyal customers.

      Appreciate the comments. jp

      • SmackMacDougal

        “But marketing has indeed changed because the power has shifted from media companies and brands with big marketing budgets to consumers having more power.” ~ Joe Pulizzi

        What? Marketing has not changed at all. The purpose of marketing today is the same as it has been right from the beginning days of free markets, free enterprise commerce.

        Why does anyone or a company do marketing? Marketing is done for only these purposes:

        ✓ Gain sales from new customers
        ✓ Gain sales from past customers

        Over time, firm operators learned that forging reputation in the minds of past customers and would-be customers, which is the correct meaning of branding, as one of the best ways to keep customers and have those customers recruit new customers through word of mouth.

        As with any aspect of business, to enhance profits, firm operators strive for greater efficiency. Automation — computerization combined with telecommunication — is achieving efficiency in marketing, which is the same method being used everywhere else in business.

        Efficiency gains are leading toward the holy grail of marketing — personalization. Personalization would let sellers make unique offers to each would-be customer, instantaneously. Personalization is a kind of super-intelligence virtual face-to-face selling.

        Further, owing to accelerating factors (computerization, globalization, urbanization), not only do food and clothing require smaller percentages of incomes of Americans but also there is an ever growing field of new producers and products. What you wrongly perceive is a shift of power from media companies lavished with big revenues placing ads on three-network TV and big city newspapers to consumers is really an ever expanding field of out-of-borders producers and their selling agents vying for every last discretionary dollar to be spent.

        “[Consumers] can afford to ignore everything we put out, including our selling information, advertising efforts and PR efforts, unless they deem it as valuable to them.” ~ Joe Pulizzi

        First, it is buyers who acquire property — right of ownership — in purchases and sales — and not consumers. Putting that aside, would-be buyers — shoppers — are spending like never before. Consumer credit as a percent of income is at an all-time high among Americans. Worldwide, owing to capitalism, over the last 30 years or so, hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty into working-class lives.

        Second, would-be customers have been ignoring bad advertising and irrelevant advertising since the beginning of advertising. What you wrongly perceive as the sudden ability to do so has been there from the beginning. For decades, ad men studied top-of-mind recall and copy testing precisely because of most would-be customers ignore most advertising most of the time.

        Commercial reality and the knock-on effects into marketing (selling, advertising, biz dev, promo) is far different from what you believe you perceive, Joe. Would-be customers have more intel than ever before. There is more advertising than ever before. Would-be customers see more advertising than ever before. There are more products on offer than ever before. Would-be customers are more mobile than ever before.

        Thus, ever tougher competition — more venues, more ways and more players of buying and selling — is driving product sellers to become better at selling.

        In spite of ever tougher competition, alas, the field of marketing still is a magnet for mediocre thinkers and charlatans who misled producers into bad spending decisions.

        It seems that almost all that you believe about the commercial world and how everything is unfolding is false.

        Good luck!

        • Joe Pulizzi

          I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Thanks.

          • SmackMacDougal

            You can think all that you want. No one can stop you. You can’t dictate to someone however, Joe.

            Facts will remain and you will be wrong as long as you believe what you believe, Joe.

            Better luck next time.

  • Jeff Korhan

    Good points about customers that I think get lost in these digital times. I just finished the book Quench Your Own Thirst, by Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams brewer) and highly recommend it. He built a billion dollar business by listening to customers, pretty much one at at time, and he still does today. In fact, it was one conversation that helped him realize he was “craft brewer” back when small breweries were called micro-breweries. Thus, the now booming craft brewing industry had a new name. The best ideas usually come from customers!