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The Difference Between Content Marketing & Inbound Marketing

Jakk Ogden
The Difference Between Content Marketing & Inbound Marketing

It's fair to say that the world of marketing is a melting pot of divergent and distinctive thoughts and opinions. While certain aspects of promotion and publicity can be considered cold hard facts, some facets are very much open to interpretation by individuals and agencies working within the industry.

When it comes to determining the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing, everybody seems to have their own point of view. Some believe they are the same, others think they couldn’t be more dissimilar while a select few don’t have a clue.

Even though the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing might never be agreed upon, it is possible to define and separate the two, right here, right now.

Content Marketing

First of all, let’s use the Content Marketing Institute’s explanation of what this ever-present and popular tactic actually is.

“Content marketing is a marketing technique 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.”

Generally, content refers to written word editorials such as blog posts, feature articles, email newsletters, case studies and e-books. However, it can also include visual pieces of work such as images, infographics, animations and videos.

In the past, quantity was just as important as quality. But today, a high standard of content is essential, as consumers needs to be engaged, interested and well informed if they are to change their browsing and purchasing behavior. But just one blog or video won’t suffice, as prospects need to be encouraged and guided toward making a decision or taking action through regular and consistent content marketing.

However, this is neither the time nor place to explicitly sell your products or services. Content marketing is all about effectively communicating with consumers and delivering relevant information, which makes the buyer more intelligent.

Inbound Marketing

Now, let’s look at inbound marketing, which Hubspot describes as:

“Instead of the old outbound marketing methods of buying ads, buying email lists, and praying for leads, inbound marketing focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product, where they naturally want to be. By aligning the content you publish with your customer’s interests, you naturally attract inbound traffic that you can then convert, close, and delight over time.”

Sound familiar? In many respects, this definition could easily be talking about content marketing, as inbound marketing is all about promotion through informative mediums like articles, infographics and newsletters. However, understanding and comprehending inbound marketing is a lot easier when you look at what its in contrast to.

The opposite of inbound marketing is outbound marketing, which in a traditional sense includes cold-calling, direct paper mail, television commercials and newspaper adverts. These approaches were all forms of one-way communication, which attempt to reach out to prospects and make them aware of a brand or product.

Inbound marketing still endeavors to extend an olive branch of information to an expectant audience, but then pulls this valuable connection in and can deliver more appropriate content that consumers will truly benefit from.

The Difference Between Both

Now then, these two definitions give us a better grasp of what content marketing and inbound marketing both mean. And yes, they are extremely similar and could be regarded as the same thing. But there is still a difference.

Essentially, inbound marketing is the overall philosophy, strategy and approach of providing your audience with something informative and valuable. Content marketing is the collection of tools, tactics and techniques that make this objective possible.

Therefore, inbound marketing and content marketing are not identical. However, they aren’t polar opposites either, rather two marketing processes that work together toward a common goal. Both have the same intentions and objectives, but their essential qualities are dissimilar.

If you compare them to a piece of flat pack furniture, it starts to make more sense. When you buy a new bed frame, desk, wardrobe or bookcase, you will be given all of the raw materials, an instruction manual telling you how to put it together as well as a list of required tools.

The instruction manual will have directions about what pieces need to go where, blueprints of each assembly stage and a picture of what the finished product should look like. This is inbound marketing — a detailed plan of action or technical outline that helps you reach your goal.

But in order to achieve this objective or build your new flat pack furniture item, you need to put the right pieces in the right places using the right tools. Although each section or component is included, you might need to go to the shed for a screwdriver or visit the store for a new spanner. This is content marketing — the pieces of the puzzle are mediums like blogs, infographics and videos. But then they need to be published or distributed in the most appropriate places using the right tools, such as social media and SEO.

Marketing Insight and Opinion

As mentioned previously, opinions surrounding the difference between inbound marketing and content marketing is mixed. However, in its annual State of Inbound survey, Hubspot put forward this question to more than 3,500 marketing and sales professionals. The five options were:

1. They are synonyms

2. Content marketing is a subset of inbound marketing

3. Inbound marketing is a subset of content marketing

4. The two are fundamentally different

5. Don’t know

Around 60 percent of front-office professionals, particularly marketers, believe that content marketing is a subset of inbound marketing, which reinforces the aforementioned flat pack furniture analogy. Opinion was fairly evenly divided between the other options, but did not come close to the viewpoint that content marketing is simply an aspect of the larger inbound marketing umbrella.

According to Hubspot:

“Marketers should think in terms of “and” not “or” when it comes to the content/inbound relationship. Success relies on both. Your inbound initiative should be a superset — inclusive of your content assets, but not limited to them.”

Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing Conclusion

Overall then, there is a difference between content marketing and inbound marketing. However, the dissimilarity is not so big that they need to be considered completely separate entities. In fact, they are two marketing approaches that should work together and operate in unison to deliver favorable results.

Content marketing can attract and retain customers, build brand identity, increase exposure and improve reputations. But at the same time, it needs the strategy and philosophy of inbound marketing to be truly effective, influential and successful.

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Jakk Ogden is the managing director of UK-based content writing agency Content Hero. An entrepreneur with an uncanny love for Boardwalk Empire and Golden Age comic books, you can connect with Jakk on Twitter @jakkogden and follow Content Hero on Twitter @content_hero.
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Can certainly be a bit difficult to clearly define and understand the differences between those but you've managed to do the job well with this article. I've just shared it on Twitter.
Jakk Ogden
Rob @ Womplify
Thanks Womplify!
Robyn-Dale Samuda
Great insight Jakk. The 2 terms are fundamentally referring to the same thing. You can't talk about one without the other. They're both used to increase brand lift and eventually grow sales. As online marketing matures, one term will fade out of use while the more popular one remains.
Jakk Ogden
Robyn-Dale Samuda
Thanks Robyn-Dale, couldn't agree more.
David Zen
Top article, thanks!
Jakk Ogden
David Zen
Cheers David!
Good and informative article Jakk, and it's a distinction I have had to make numerous times for clients.
Jakk Ogden
Rob Wilson
Thanks Robby! Always nice to have feedback. Indeed, the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing is a mystery to some. Hopefully others will find my piece as useful as you did. Cheers!