WTF is Inbound Marketing Anyway?

This post started out as a tweet, then a comment on, but neither really allowed me to vent enough so its ended up here on my blog – (which is unloved to say the least).

It is in reference to this thread at which has been getting some heat on whether to include a PPC category on site.

These are the comments that caught my eye:

Buying ads is outbound IMHO. I was even surprised that we got an advertsing category here.” – Tad Chef

Not that I hate on paid search, but erm… the site is called PPC is paid media, which is the polar opposite.” – Ian Howells

Now frankly, Im in disagreement with both of the above.  PPC is absolutely a part of inbound marketing by my standards.  My definition of inbound revolves around being somewhere with the answer when someone is looking for it, NOT sticking an advert for a product or service in front of their faces.  That absolutely includes PPC!

Lets say you are looking for a specific product on google, that potential sales cycle was initiated by the user searching for something.  You pop up with a relevant ad.  How is that NOT inbound?  The fact that you paid for it doesnt remove the fact that you are getting your link in front of someone when they are actively searching for their product.

Granted, if for instance you are doing some really creative PPC and getting your brand out there on weird random queries, then that would be branding – NOT inbound.  If you are buying banner adverts, that would be branding, NOT inbound. If you are affiliate marketing, that would be performance marketing, NOT inbound.

But for god’s sake: if Im advertising a product through the medium of adwords, when someone is searching for that product, why is that NOT INBOUND??

I’m interested on other peoples take on the below, so feel free to leave a comment!


Martin MacDonald
Expedia EAN 😉



42 thoughts on “WTF is Inbound Marketing Anyway?”

  1. Hey Martin!

    I appreciate the mention but you are too optimistic about PPC ads. In the early days I used to click Google ads but by now they are often as spammy, pushy and low value as other ads. Thus I block Google ads along with other annoying and distracting types of advertising.
    That said it doesn’t mean PPC is “evil” or dirty or something. PPC is just not inbound like. It is not SEO either. We need that distinction. Other than that the inbound philosophy gets diluted.
    People hate ads bu they love inbound techniques like quality content.

    • Most people dont know the difference between paid ads and organic listings. Im afraid thats a fact, and certainly in any decent industry the cost per click has driven spam rubbish out of the listings imo. You can certainly do PPC in a non inbound way, but when its part of the sales cycle (ie. advertising relevant pages) then I firmly believe its “inbound”

      • It’s an interesting (if academic) distinction. By definition it’s “inbound” marketing when the consumer/purchaser is actively seeking the content/product/service. It’s “outbound” (or “interruption marketing”, Seth Godin’s better phrase) when you’re forcing your way into the consumer/purchaser’s awareness. Most forms of advertising sit on the interruption side, I can see how PPC pretty much straddles the line, with aspects of both.

        But aside from whether or not should include a category for this stuff, I can’t see why it matters so much… It’s not as if this is the only borderline example – what about (opt-in) emails, Facebook ads, etc. There are many things that have aspects of both – so what?

    • Actually, quite the opposite, PPC has a sustained cost that SEO tends not to have (or less of it) making only serious advertisers stick around. Nowadays I tend to find PPC more relevant than organic results very often simply because if you pay for my one visit, you’ll probably care about me more than if I’m the result of some long tail search.

  2. For me there’s far too many multiple uses for PPC for anyone to say “it’s not Inbound”. For example.

    1) If I write great content and then pay for Stumbles, or AdWords to give it some initial viewers and lift is the project still an Inbound project?

    2) If we say PPC isn’t Inbound we’re essentially saying “if you spend any money on a project it isn’t Inbound”. Which is only going to continue to paint the misconception that what we do is “free” and lower the overall value proposition of our industry.

    3) Some people will always click paid adverts over organic. If you ignore the channel completely (to just do “inbound”) you will miss out on traffic and potential sales. By forcing it in a separate category it doesn’t help grow that part.

    • My answers, for anyone interested:

      1) No, one tactic doesn’t change the overall project. There’s cost associated with any project – I think the difference here is the specific goal from the start is to snowball into inbound/non-paid traffic. Stumbles/Adwords here is a means to an end, not the end.

      But, when people say PPC, this isn’t what they mean in the vast majority of cases. Limited, initial pushes to launch an asset isn’t how Goog makes millions off Adwords. They bank that hard because paid search, by and large, is a continuous cycle of buying and monetizing individual visitors as best you can.

      2) I don’t think anyone’s trying to say that. I think people *are* saying that channels where you pay for each and every direct visitor/impression are not inbound channels.

      3) I don’t think anyone is saying ignore the channel – the discussion was why have a pretty explicitly “outbound” channel as a topic on

  3. OK….following on from the twitter argument.

    I disagree with the standpoint that inbound is “all free channels” and think inbound should be any marketing that isn’t disruptive which includes PPC (remarketing less so) but excludes things link email marketing

          • My reply to this is I paid for the ad and it was put in front of somebody for their search = relevant and useful, they have an option to click on it, or any other number of organic results

            With email, the email arrives in your box and you have to physically delete it, much more intrusive, and where as I agree a double opt in ideal a lot of companies don’t work that way and even if they do, the email still might be unwelcome, for example, Groupon thought it was fine to send me 6 or 7 marketing emails a day…How is that not annoying? How is that “inbound” that is pure outbound disruption marketing

  4. Inbound isn’t “free”. The distribution is.

    Inbound is on the path to finding something, not an unwelcome interruption. It’s contextually relevant.

    PPC so far as SERPs PPC is on the inbound aside because it’s contextually relevant. Retargeting, the same story. Unwelcome banner ads that have no relevance or context to what you’re doing is the uncomfortable “outbound” we’re trying to move away from. Fair?

    I wouldn’t say it’s straight black and white, but a medium of different tones. 50 shades of Inbound anyone?

    On the category, LOL… we can make ‘Advertising’ into ‘Advertising/PPC’ for now, but we’re looking at intelligent tagging of articles/tools/discussions rather than one-category-per-post. Then all hell can break loose, but so be it. The community is for curation and discussion, not censorship of many opinions.

    • My only issue here is then ‘inbound’ becomes even more meaningless than it already is.

      Once you start basing it off of “welcome vs. unwelcome” it’s to the point where it varies for every single piece of advertising from person to person.

      At that point – we’re back to just “good” and “bad” marketing.

      • My take on the PPC is that it is an affiliate pgroram. Not a job or a business. You are working at advertising for a variety of different companies, never getting any residuals from previous sales or future sales because the customer is not necessarily going to come back to your site to purchase. Each is a one time sale and takes massive, massive advertising.

  5. First thing – we’re taking about semantics around recently made up words. This is kind of hilariously silly.

    That aside.

    The main reason I wouldn’t include PPC is that you can’t scale traffic from it without scaling budget. There’s a pretty concrete ratio between cost and visits which your competitors can influence, which to me isn’t “inbound” at all.

    Using it as an initial push to then get free traffic is a different tactic, but I’d argue that’s a small percentage of the overall PPC space.

    • How is budget anything to do with it though Ian? Thats never been part of the discussion as far as I was aware. Its about being contextually relevant and being in front of the consumer when they are searching for you imo.

      • A contextually relevant display ad is no different than a relevant PPC ad. Hell, you can even manage both of them within the Adwords interface.

        Again, since this was about I was taking this as teh definition that we’re operating under:

        Which omits every channel where you pay on a per visit/impression/view basis.

        That, to me, is the main point of difference here. SEO isn’t free, but the clicks you get don’t each incrementally add to your cost. Each individual person doesn’t cost you more money.

      • “Inbound Marketing is the process of earning the interest of visitors and customers rather than buying it. Unlike paid advertising, the cost of distribution of inbound marketing tends to zero since the visitors and customers share it instead because they believe it’s worth sharing. It’s earned attention.”

        The site we’re talking about here has apparently always had budget as part of the discussion. I’m running under the assumption we can use it as the authority on the topic since it’s co-owned by one of the guys who made the term up as an advertising ploy.

  6. And here I was thinking ‘inbound marketing’ was just an industry ego-masturbatory hype phrase utterly devoid of actual meaning and purely intended as a tool for the inventing organisation to sell marketing support materials to clueless lemming followers.

    Go figure.

  7. I think context matters a lot here. PPC covers a wide variety of marketing channels, text ads on search engines, display ads, retargeting ads, search network and display network…

    Years ago, circa 1990 (whatever), we considered the Yellow Pages as an inbound marketing media – the term ‘Inbound’ isn’t new. Why did we consider it inbound? Because people picked up the book, flipped to the heading where they could find a plumber, looked at the ads (they were expensive ads by the way) and then called the plumber of choice. In other words, the advertising was directional – meaning the customer went to an advertising source to find an answer to their problems – but it wasn’t free.

    This is why quality score matters – Google (and the customers that use Google) want relevant ads in their search results. This, IMHO, makes ppc (adwords) a form of inbound marketing. Period.

    I believe I said the same thing in the twitter feed… And you summed it up here again in more than 140 characters, “My definition of inbound revolves around being somewhere with the answer when someone is looking for it, NOT sticking an advert for a product or service in front of their faces. Emphasis added.

    Even good content, link building, etc isn’t “free”. Time is a limited resource and can be very expensive.

    • I guess I should have been more contextual in my post 😉 by PPC Im really referring to paid search listings.. ie. Adwords. In agreement with the rest of your points mate – thanks for leaving your comment!

  8. I think inbound marketing is getting people to call you, rather than say, cold calling. If you use this definition, then PPC should be included in inbound marketing.

    I never understood why PPC was excluded inbound marketing. Many people segmenting by “free” and “not free”, but that makes no sense to me because SEO, Social, Link building, Content, Blogging (etc.) are far from free.

    Cmmon inbound guys! give PPC a dedicated category. not just “Advertising/PPC”!

  9. As I said on Inbound, words are just what we make of them.

    So, I think PPC is part of inbound marketing, even just ’cause blog post proposed by content suggestion platforms such as Outbrain seem very “inbound” to me. And I don’t think the definition of inbound relates to scalability!

    However, jargon is made to AVOID confusion rather than produce it! So why not use inbound for earned media if this is what people want, and online marketing as a sort of umbrella term? Like in this sketch:

  10. My belief is Inbound Marketing isn’t about where you source your leads from. It’s about how you deal with each lead effectively to maintain a good relationship, with the overall goal of converting them into a lifelong customer.

  11. I was under the assumption that inbound marketing was earned traffic, not paid. But if inbound marketing is just another word for search marketing, then PPC should be included.

  12. Inbound is a term/concept coined by HubSpot. The positioning of inbound marketing vs interruption-based marketing is the distinction. Cold calling or TV ads = interrupt driven as opposed to search which = user-initiated, both natural and paid. Social media can be both because on social, the paid ads can interrupt. If someone is searching on Google or Bing and the best search result happens to be a paid search link, then how is that not inbound?

    They search, discovered, clicked, inbound. I get the paid vs. non paid purist position, but you are paying for organic SEO, it’s just not as obvious when looking at the per visitor cost. The benefit of SEO is that it goes beyond the last paid click, but let’s not be “inbound SEO purest” and think that SEO is the only inbound search channel.

    Even HubSpot position PPC as inbound, at least based on their materials. Maybe its time for some to broaden their definition of inbound marketing.

  13. I am of the opinion that PPC does belong in the Inbound world. Inbound marketing is all about being in front of the user when they are looking for answers, PPC is definitely that as it is using researched terms that we know drive qualified traffic and ultimately give the user a relevant answer to the question they asked (unless as Martin put it you are advertising on random queries). Other channels that are definitely not inbound include Display advertising (you are advertising in the user’s space, they are not looking for you) and almost all forms of offline advertising.

  14. That’s a very insightful comment Martin.
    I’ve never thought of it like that.
    So I guess the distinction lies in pull and push marketing. Not free and paid. Very interesting.

  15. I agree 100% Martin. PPC is definitely Inbound, and argue this with people quite a bit. I don’t really understand why, though. To me it seems so obvious: you’re capturing people’s search demand. Yes, you’re paying for it, but you’re also paying for the content you write (well most people are, by hiring writers, etc).

    The key is creating a great PPC experience for the consumer, period. It’s no different than creating a great SEO/Inbound/Content experience. There are infinite examples of those being poorly executed too!

    Thanks for putting this out there for further debate.

  16. We have been successfully using PPC to attract people to a client’s top of the funnel content and subsequently converted the traffic through landing pages. We use Hubspot by the way and they are not keen on PPC but that’s a sales pitch. Real life is as ever more complicated. If buyers visit an exhibition to educate themselves and visit your stand isn’t that Inbound too?

  17. I recently held a lecture at economics college here in Croatia about Inbound vs. Outbound.

    I told them that AdWords is somewhere in-between having elements or nature of both inbound and outbound marketing. Meaning, it’s contextual thus kind of inbound while it’s paid advertising thus kind of outbound.

    In the end it doesn’t really matter, it can be sorted in both worlds, depending on the context.

  18. I feel that PPC has always been part of the inbound armoury. It all begins with a search on Google.

    No one decides 25 minutes into a film to stop watching it and start watching 30sec shorts on the best washing up liquid – but searches on Google do start with action taken by the user.

    That has to the be key difference.

  19. I absolutely agree that PPC is inbound in nature. It may be construed by some as outbound because you are going outside of your site to gain traffic, which might be accomplished with strong SEO. However, paid ads are simply a portal though which inbound traffic can travel to their desired location.

    The argument smacks of “sour grapes” against paid advertising in my opinion. The truth is that you must use a combination of all platforms to find the right mixture of targeted traffic.

  20. The way I see it, determining whether its inbound or not should be based on whether the people are the ones looking for you (or your solution) or you are the ones interrupting and reaching out to them.

    PPC is definitely the former unless you’re spamming and using weird keywords where your ads are shown on people who aren’t even looking for your solution.

  21. @Spook SEO

    Not sure I agree with your view here – someone is looking for a product or a service, they type in the relevant keyword into google, you provide them the ability to find your site by advertising in PPC.

    Thats hardly interruption marketing, they were already looking for that product or service!

    In the example you mention of using weird keywords – THAT would be my definition of interruption marketing.

    That is also not to say its not a valid idea, there are thousands of terms on google of little commercial interest directly, but that target specific demographics. If you have a product that fits that demographic, the PPC’ing what your target market are searching for as a branding exercise is perfectly legitimate.

    (think I might blog about this actually! 🙂


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