Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing: What's the Difference?

Inbound Marketing Graphic featuring people standing on the magnet

You may have heard about inbound lead generation and outbound lead generation, but do you know the difference between the two?

There are quite a few, from who initiates the original contact and chooses the interaction medium, to common methodologies, costs, required skills, and longevity of associated efforts.   

Understanding the key characteristics and benefits of these marketing strategies will help you better target your intended audience and nurture them throughout the sales funnel flywheel—ultimately, resulting in sales and creating dedicated customers who drive referrals and even more sales.

What is outbound lead generation?

Sometimes referred to as "interruption marketing" or "interruption lead generation," outbound lead generation is the traditional form of marketing, whereby a business seeks out the attention of the potential customer in a variety of ways. They can include common advertisement techniques, sales initiatives, public relations and more.

In outbound marketing, the business initiates and chooses the first interaction with potential customers. Businesses may also choose to directly target consumers in other ways, such as paid ads, cold calls via the telephone or in the form of unsolicited emails, and targeted mail products.

The level of success a company has with outbound lead generation campaigns vary. But one reason why firms continue to rely on this method in place of a more modern approach is because of familiarity and to increase brand recognition. Consumers may not know that a public relations strategy is considered an "outbound" sales tactic, but they generally understand the purpose of it. Indeed, they see it every day in the form of highway billboards, social media posts, mailers, on TV, and inside their newspapers and magazines.

Outbound efforts do have a shelf life, however—with the exact duration dependent upon those of the related techniques deployed. This includes the length of time a particular ad, cold call or email campaign runs, as examples. Consequently, these are high-cost, short-term endeavors with ultimately, short-term gains.    

Maximizing focused messaging and knock-out aesthetics are critical to success, therefore strong copyediting, graphic design and strategic skills are imperative.    

In summary, commonly used outbound tactics include:

  • Cold Calls
  • Billboard Ads
  • Newspaper & Magazine Ads
  • Commercials
  • Social Media Ads
  • Mass Email Blasts
  • Direct Mail

While outbound lead generation is still around today, many consider it a less-efficient strategy, as more and more become numb to these disruptive tactics, going so far as to block telemarketers, filter spam and other unsolicited emails, skip through commercials, and throw out their direct mail without ever opening it. On the other hand, some companies consider this a tried-and-true strategy and are hesitant to explore alternatives.

What is inbound lead generation?

The polar opposite of outbound, inbound lead generation puts the potential customer first, attracting them through thoughtful content production, search engine optimization, and social media marketing. Content can be produced for a variety of platforms, including websites, emails, podcasts, video and more.

It’s also the potential customer who commences and selects through which medium the original interaction occurs—more and more, via pointed, typed or verbal inquiries in online search engines.

Inbound marketers provide valuable answers to these questions on behalf of clients by blogging, optimizing keywords and key phrases, content offers, social media posts, and more.

Such efforts, in contrast with outbound, possess much greater longevity—actually growing with time, hyperlinks from potential customers and other entities recognizing the inherent value, word-of-mouth referrals, and more. Thus, low-cost, long-term gains are synonymous with inbound strategies.

Implementation demands specialists trained in the inbound digital marketing methodology, SEO, content and design creation, and strategic best practices. It also involves patience, as it may take time for content to mature and rise in search rankings.           

In summary, common inbound tactics include:

  • SEO-Based Blogging
  • Keyword & Key Phrase Research
  • Social Media Posts
  • Targeted Emails to Segmented Lists
  • Content Offers
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Podcasting & Video


Inbound has evolved with the public’s shopping behavior and other socioeconomic trends, appealing to those who prefer to research companies online and develop relationships with businesses before purchasing a product or service. Built for the long game, inbound strives to plant roots that grow with a customer throughout the sales process. The bottom line: Inbound marketing is more targeted, cost-efficient and is intended for contemporary buying habits.

Can I use both inbound and outbound lead generation?

Of course.

While many agencies specialize in either inbound or outbound to provide their clients with a better experience, there's nothing inherently wrong with deploying both strategies.

So, how should you integrate both options? Well, in a perfect world, you would have separately implemented inbound and outbound tactics and pinpointed the benefits of each.

As we've discussed, inbound marketing campaigns need time to mature. If you want to build brand awareness more quickly so people are familiar with your company as soon as they come across a piece of content, perhaps consider a more direct approach. One option could be direct marketing via billboards, broadcast ads or public relations campaigns.

On the other hand, a traditional outbound approach may benefit from a more targeted, content-based approach. A company can utilize the best inbound practices, including SEO and targeted search, to attract customers who may later evolve into evangelists. This type of strategy would be more cost-efficient while potentially increasing your brand awareness over the long haul.

As you can see, there's nothing wrong with marrying both concepts. While the benefits of inbound lead generation garner most of the attention today, outbound remains a viable lead-generation strategy. For those who can afford to, utilizing both is optimal. And if the cost seems unsustainable, outbound can be implemented initially, then slowly pulled back as inbound takes hold and begins earning quality leads organically.

If you are implementing an outbound marketing strategy, consider the fundamentals of inbound to improve your outbound efforts.

Originally published Nov. 17, 2017. Republished June 28, 2018 &. March 9, 2020.

Contact Morey Creative Studios, with offices in New York and Philadelphia, to launch your inbound marketing journey and Grow For Good.