In the English language, we have many terms that carry a similar meaning. We call these synonyms.
For example, if you were to look up the word “priority” in the thesaurus, you would find terms like “importance”, “precedence”, “urgency”, “significance”, and “primacy” as possible alternatives.
You wouldn’t necessarily use all of those words interchangeably, but there may be times when the alternatives are truer to the meaning you’re trying to convey than the word you started with.
If you were talking about someone you love, you might be more inclined to say that they are “significant” to you instead of describing them as a “priority.”
If you were describing a business strategy that you believe is essential to your success, you might say that it’s “important” instead of calling it a “priority.”
But in either of those scenarios, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to name it a priority.
If you called your spouse a priority, however, they probably won’t think you’re much of a romantic. They should be a priority, but you shouldn’t call them that.
In business, if you called a specific strategy a priority, it would either suggest that you’ve already implemented it, or that you’re going to make adjustments to put more of your time, energy and resources into it.
It’s astounding what a difference a single word can make.
What are we talking about?
We’re talking about the importance of terminology.
Even in marketing, there are a lot of synonyms. The terms “content marketing” and “inbound marketing” are the perfect example.
In some ways, they are interchangeable, and can even mean the same thing to some people. But depending on who you ask, they might know what content marketing is, but not inbound marketing. It could also work the other way around.
Some would even argue that they are two different things entirely, and their blood pressure begins to soar as they think back to the heated discussions they’ve had with other marketers.
Personally, I prefer to keep things simple, and I don’t need two different terms to describe a specific marketing practice. But as the debate continues to evolve, it seems there are those who feel we’re really talking about two separate entities.
So what are the differences between content marketing and inbound marketing? Let’s begin our exploration.
What is Content Marketing?
According to Content Marketing Institute:
Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.
I like that definition. It’s a very concise and straightforward.
But what about Inbound Marketing?
Let’s let HubSpot handle this one:
Inbound marketing is about using marketing to bring potential customers to you, rather than having your marketing efforts fight for their attention. Sharing is caring and inbound marketing is about creating and sharing content with the world. By creating content specifically designed to appeal to your dream customers, inbound attracts qualified prospects to your business and keeps them coming back for more.
I don’t know if you noticed this, but it feels like there’s a little more personality to this description. But you can definitely see the parallels between this definition and the one I just quoted for content marketing.
So what’s the difference between these two forms of marketing?
That really depends on who you ask.
There’s an interesting article on HubSpot called The Difference Between Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing (and Why It Matters) by Joe Chernov, VP of marketing at InsightSquared.
He explains that content marketing is essentially a subset of inbound marketing. This is what he had to say about the difference between inbound and content:
Marketers should think in terms of ‘and’ not ‘or’ when it comes to the content/inbound relationship. Success relies on both. Content may help fuel your inbound engine, but there are similarly valuable inbound projects – like technical SEO, freemium trials, interactive tools – that may exist outside of the content marketer’s scope. If you aren’t availing yourself of the full spectrum of inbound practices, you are limiting the potential impact you can have as a marketer or marketing leader. In other words, your inbound initiative should be a superset – inclusive of your content assets, but not limited to them. There are implications for organizational structure, roles and responsibilities, as well as skills procurement.
Basically, what Joe is saying here is that content marketing is really just one aspect of inbound marketing, which encompasses other marketing practices.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s keep digging.
There’s an article over at Square 2 Marketing called Content Marketing Vs. Inbound Marketing: What’s the Difference? This one was written by Mike Lieberman, co-founder of Square 2 Marketing.
He had this to say about the inbound/content relationship:
But it goes much deeper than this. Inbound marketing is a metrics- and results-driven methodology, so you want content to drive results. In essence, your content marketing is going to be tightly integrated with your conversion strategy. Inbound produces results by using content to turn website visitors into leads, so the focus is on optimizing that content and that conversion experience.
We can see that Mike and Joe are basically in agreement on these points. They both see content marketing as being a smaller part of inbound marketing.
Okay, let’s get one more perspective on this.
Helen warns us in advance:
You’ve just unwittingly stepped into one of the fiercest marketing debates today. While both inbound and content marketing are relatively new practices, they’ve both won some serious proponents (and probably a few detractors) during their years in use.
I think she’s absolutely right in saying that there’s a bit of a debate around the terminology, but I respectfully disagree on the point that content marketing is a relatively new practice. The term may be new, but the practice is not.
But let’s join her for her conclusion:
However, there are a few very distinct differences. In my professional opinion, the worst thing you can do is adopt inbound or content marketing at the total exclusion of the other. If you’re doing inbound, don’t dismiss pay-per-click advertising simply because it doesn’t fit into your model.
Similarly, content marketers shouldn’t try to improve their communication and transparency with the sales department simply because it’s not often discussed in content marketing circles. The only way to determine what’s going to help you exceed your KPIs as a marketer is research, testing, and the ability to pivot quickly. Fail fast, and improve quickly.
Well, that didn’t really clear anything up, did it?
I don’t think inbound marketers are in the habit of excluding pay-per-click from their strategy (I’ve ghostwritten enough posts on the subject to know), and I don’t totally understand the point about content marketing and sales integration (likely because of too many double negatives). Marketing teams and sales teams should be communicating or they will have a hard time working together. Achieving synergy between the two can help companies get better results overall.
But I do like what Nesterenko says about research, testing, and pivoting. These are some good points to dwell on.
Not surprisingly, Content Marketing Institute’s founder Joe Pulizzi has also shared his thoughts on the content/inbound difference several times.
One of his more recent posts on the subject is called Why Inbound Marketing Should Take a Back Seat to Current Customers.
In it, Joe quotes David Meerman Scott’s definition of inbound marketing, which is as follows:
…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.
Joe goes on to explain that most marketing professionals see inbound as a top-of-funnel activity. In other words, he thinks it’s mostly concerned with introducing people to your business or brand, not on nurturing and delighting your existing customers.
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.
It seems Joe is willing to accept the definition of inbound marketing as defined by HubSpot and David Meerman Scott, but sees the inordinate focus on bringing in new customers as a critical flaw of the marketing practice.
So, is this difference really important?
As I said at the beginning, I prefer to keep things simple. I don’t need two different terms to describe the same thing. If I’m working and collaborating with others, I want to be on the same page as they are.
I can accept that there might be a marketing hierarchy of some kind – that content marketing is an offshoot or subset of inbound marketing. But I also wonder if this isn’t a bit of an afterthought. I wonder if the definition of inbound marketing was conveniently changed so that it could be positioned as being a more holistic and encompassing marketing practice.
I also don’t totally understand how posting to social media could be called “content marketing”, as Mike Lieberman from earlier seems to think, and some inbound marketers will tell you. Not only does it have to be serial in nature to be content marketing, it should ideally be on a platform you own as well, where you control the experience.
When you really think about it, the opposite could have also been possible. Advocates of content marketing could have said “hey, actually inbound marketing is a subset of content marketing” and the debate would rage on.
Are we really talking about the same thing when we say “inbound marketing” and “content marketing”? According to the experts I just quoted, we aren’t. The two practices are similar, but not the same.
Here’s something to think about.
Since we are talking about words, I thought I would point this out.
For there to be inbound marketing, there has to be an opposite counterpart. And there is – it’s called outbound marketing. And really, the difference between inbound and outbound can get confusing pretty quickly, because if inbound is a formula for attraction, that means there’s no promotion involved. But, as HubSpot said, inbound marketing is about creating and sharing content. Sharing is a form of promotion. At what point does inbound become outbound?
Meanwhile, what’s the opposite of content marketing? Advertising? Anti-content marketing? No content marketing? Hollow marketing? There isn’t really a clear opposite, is there? There isn’t an antonym for “content”, except for maybe “nothingness”.
On a practical and philosophical level, content marketing is about the consistent creation of value and building of trust that leads to a profitable customer action. The opposite of that isn’t good for anyone, including the marketer.
So maybe the experts are right. Maybe inbound really is different from content. Perhaps it’s incorrect to see them as being the same practice, and perhaps both are valuable and valid in their own ways.
So long as there is a holistic vision for bringing in new customers and retaining them, you have a strategy that’s going to help you create a more profitable business. There’s a higher price tag attached to customer acquisition than customer retention, so keeping customers needs to be a priority as much as attracting new ones.
So you might be wondering what I think about this debate.
At Outsource Blog Content, we prefer the term “content marketing” over “inbound marketing”, because content is really what we do.
I’m not here to cast judgment over what anyone believes. If you feel more comfortable with the term “inbound marketing” and all that it entails, then you’re better off sticking to what you know best.
But communication can break down pretty quickly between marketers, as evidenced also by what I said earlier about posting to social media, or even a one-time video campaign being a form of “content marketing.” That’s not how I think of content marketing, nor is it what the good people at Content Marketing Institute are saying.
In an ideal world, we would settle this matter and come to an agreement that enables us to move on with our marketing duties and lives. I can’t see that happening any time soon, but I will say this – both inbound and content can be powerful strategies in today’s online (and sometimes offline) world.