By Robert Rose published November 3, 2021 Est Read Time: 9 min

Are Inbound Marketing and Content Marketing Still Different in 2021?

For the first time in a long time, I was asked what the difference is between inbound marketing and content marketing. My answer wasn’t as up-to-date as it could have been, so I did a little digging.

Gather round friends, it’s been a hot minute since we’ve talked about inbound marketing.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, my pal and CMI founder Joe Pulizzi wrote an article, Inbound Marketing Isn’t Enough. I was credited as a co-writer. Truth be told, we were on a bit of a rant then about the misperceptions of the content marketing approach.

@Robert_Rose went on a rant 10 years ago about #Inbound vs. #ContentMarketing. Here’s where he stands today via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

At the time, “inbound marketing”, a term coined and popularized, by software provider HubSpot was transforming the marketing industry (with all due credit). Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah identified the transformational power of internet search and social media as a sea change in the way that changed outbound, direct marketing into a more pull-oriented function.

But in 2011, some of the folks there decided that they should attempt to redefine the term “content marketing” as they looked to reposition inbound marketing as something more strategic and higher level.

Well, to paraphrase The Dude from The Big Lebowski, we didn’t abide.

To be clear, neither Joe nor I opposed the company redefining the practice of inbound marketing. Of course, as the inventors of that methodology, they had every right (dare I say, responsibility) to do exactly that. It was the mischaracterization of content marketing that sent Joe and me into our rant – and that 2011 article was the result.

Now, comes the part where the music changes and the overlay on the movie screen appears: 10 years later …

The state of inbound marketing

Truth be told, before I answered my colleague’s question, and started this article, I had to dig to understand the current state of inbound marketing. If I’m completely honest, I hadn’t heard much about it from my clients, which tend to be larger, more global organizations. It wasn’t on my radar.

A quick review of Google Trends seems to align with my experience. It shows the comparison of interest between the terms of inbound marketing (blue line) and content marketing (red line).

@GoogleTrends indicate less interest in #InboundMarketing and greater interest in #ContentMarketing over the decade via @Robert_Rose @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Ten years ago, both terms were on comparable interest levels. Since then, the term content marketing has seen growing interest; inbound marketing has remained relatively static. Our 2022 research supports this: Content marketing has become more prioritized in an end-of-the-pandemic world.

A perceived difference between the two practices certainly appears from this data. But what is it?

Well, for what it’s worth, my take involves HubSpot’s concerted evolution (and perhaps some de-emphasis) of the term as it expanded its product suite. Put simply, as HubSpot launched everything from advertising campaign management, Salesforce automation, help desk applications, content management, and customer service, HubSpot no longer was just a tool to help with top-of-the-funnel lead generation. It is a full-on CRM suite, competing with many other enterprise marketing clouds. It only makes sense that their definition of inbound would evolve and be broader.

Inbound marketing has evolved from its original description in the seminal 2009 book of the same name by HubSpot’s Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shaw. They observed traditional outbound marketing and sales being replaced by a buyer’s search online. Pulling those buyers into a website content “hub” was the key.

As was stated in the book, inbound marketing was “about getting found online, through search engines and on sites like Facebook and YouTube and Twitter …”

Now, in 2021, HubSpot has updated its definition:

Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them.

@HubSpot has expanded its definition of #InboundMarketing to something that sounds a whole lot like #ContentMarketing, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Well, that sounds a whole lot like CMI’s definition of content marketing.

But does it? Is there a difference?

The state of content marketing

No doubt, content marketing as a practice has evolved over the last decade as well.

To this day, we still define content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

But, again, that sounds almost exactly like how HubSpot now defines inbound, which is quite honestly even a bit more succinct.

We have always taught that content marketing was, in many ways, about a marketing practice within products and services companies operating more like a media company. And like a media company, we’ve asserted that building a subscribed, addressable audience is different than assembling a marketing database. While that objective wasn’t in our original definition – it has certainly evolved to be a core objective and differentiator for the practice.

As early as 2011, when Joe and I published Managing Content Marketing, we said that the “job of marketing is no longer to create customers, it is to create passionate subscribers to our brand.” In hindsight, I regret the hyperbole there – and the subtle diss of Peter Drucker. If I were to rewrite that sentence today, I’d say, “The job of marketing is to create customers and create passionate subscribers to our brand.”

In that sentence, we can see the trend of audience-building evolving and focusing on the practice of content marketing. Simultaneously, it also separates content marketing from the current incarnation of inbound marketing.

Put simply: The job of marketing in today’s more expansive, multi-channel, digitally transformed world is to create customers AND create audiences that subscribe to your brand. Both can create wealth for the business.

Difference in the content and its purpose

Further down in HubSpot’s methodology for inbound marketing, they cite examples of the inbound “flywheel” – attracting strangers, engaging prospects, and delighting customers and promoters. They say:

To reach your audience, start by creating and publishing content such as blog articles, content offers, and social media – that provide value. Examples include guides on how to use your products, information about how your solution can solve their challenges, customer testimonials, and details about promotions or discounts.

They say the inbound marketer’s goal is to: “attract new prospects to your company, engage with them at scale, and delight them individually.”

That’s perfectly clear to me. The purpose of inbound has become to facilitate optimized marketing and sales – and, as Drucker said, create a customer.

In other words, as an inbound marketer, you deliver content to help a buyer buy something. It is content that speaks to your brand, your product, your service, and continually engenders trust in those things so that you acquire, keep, or grow customers.

Content marketing is, indeed, different. It’s not better than. It’s not worse than. It’s complementary to inbound marketing. As we’ve said many, many times, content marketing is a multiplier to traditional marketing and advertising. Content marketing:

It’s all just marketing

My favorite marketing definition is from Philip Kotler who said the practice is “the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit.”

That’s the perfect definition. It fits both inbound and content as a qualifier.

If I were to put my answer on a really, really long bumper sticker or in tiny print on a T-shirt, here’s what it would be:

Inbound is a modernized approach to marketing designed to use content across the buyer’s journey to transform prospects into loyal customers.

Content marketing is an approach to marketing designed to use content across the customer’s journey to transform engaged, subscribed audiences into a differentiating business asset.

They work side by side, hand in glove, together as part of the integrated marketing mix. They simply differ in the kind of content that is created, and how that content (and its impact on audiences) creates wealth for the business.

Side note: I purposely used “customer” over “audience” in this definition. Customers are both buyers of our products and services and audiences who engage with brands, recommend them, etc. I explain it more in this article.

For years, both practitioners of inbound marketing and content marketing have been guessing that at some point the terms may not matter. Conventional wisdom is that both practices would just be considered “good marketing.”

It may be that HubSpot’s evolution of inbound marketing into a broader practice has been successful; so successful in fact that it’s simply become the modern methodology for what we old-timers used to call “direct marketing.”

I will argue, however, that content marketing remains a still evolving practice in marketing departments everywhere. As we see media operations become embedded into marketing departments, monetizing audiences in ways beyond simply “creating a customer” is still a new muscle.

Owned media audiences are no doubt becoming a strategic move for organizations. We see:

We see organic builds such as:

A movement is afoot that goes beyond marketing strategy simply being a way to facilitate a buying journey.

In 2021, marketing is expansive, ever-more important. Both inbound marketing and content marketing are incredibly important. Or, as my friend Joe, wrote 10 years ago:

(T)here is no black and white in marketing; it’s all gray. There are no silver bullets. Marketing objectives sometimes need to be solved with a combination of efforts, not by putting all your eggs in one basket.

The good news is, we can learn from both.

Grow your company’s practice of content marketing to deliver more than a buyer. Subscribe to CMI’s free daily or weekly email for tips, trends, and talk about how to do it.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert Rose

Robert is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory, the education and consulting group for The Content Marketing Institute. Robert has worked with more than 500 companies, including 15 of the Fortune 100. He’s provided content marketing and strategy advice for global brands such as Capital One, NASA, Dell, McCormick Spices, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert’s third book – Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been called the “book that rewrites the rules of marketing.” His second book – Experiences: The Seventh Era of Marketing is a top seller and has been called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert’s first book, Managing Content Marketing, spent two weeks as a top 10 marketing book on Amazon.com and is generally considered to be the “owners manual” of the content marketing process. You can follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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