What is Inbound Marketing?

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What is inbound marketing? (Image of a bullseye on a dartboard)

In this post I’m going to take a deep, jargon-free dive into inbound marketing. I’ll explain how it works, and outline the multiple benefits it can bring to your business.

‘Inbound marketing’ is all the rage these days, and with its promise of potential customers coming to you rather than you having to go out and grab people’s attention, it’s obvious why business owners are so interested in the idea.

But what is inbound marketing, and how do you use it to generate business?

Well read on, because in this article, I’m going to provide

  • a clear inbound marketing definition
  • a simple guide to using it as a strategy for your business
  • a cheatsheet for making the most of it.

Let’s go!

A definition of inbound marketing

Inbound marketing is a way to pull people to your business using engaging, highly shareable content — rather than relying on advertising spend or PR to push potential customers towards it.

A key advantage of an inbound marketing approach is that it doesn’t involve a large advertising spend to get people to a website. This makes it attractive to startups or small businesses that lack big marketing budgets.

Image of a magnet. Inbound marketing is all about 'pulling' rather than 'pushing' people towards your business.
Inbound marketing is all about ‘pulling’ rather than ‘pushing’ people towards your business — and then turning those people into advocates for what you do.

Remember, however, that although inbound marketing campaigns might not require a lot of capital to start, they can be extremely resource intensive. It takes a LOT of effort to create the kind of strong content needed for inbound marketing.

But done right, the technique works great.

So, let’s look at the key steps involved in creating a successful inbound marketing campaign — starting with keyword research.

1. Start with keyword research

Keyword research
Inbound marketing starts with keyword research

The first step on your inbound marketing journey involves identifying topics to write about that are likely to generate traffic — and the right sort of it.

For obvious reasons, these need to be related to your business area and your target audience.

For example, there is no point in blogging about hats for swimmers if your goa; is actually to sell iMacs to entrepreneurs.

So generally speaking, in order for your content to generate a large number of visits, you need to make sure that:

  • a reasonably large number of people are actually searching for the sort of content you want to publish in the first place.

  • search results are not already packed with articles on well-known sites that cover exactly the same topic.

In other words, you usually need to find a ‘content niche’ — a sweet spot in search results where there is demand for the sort of thing you want to publish, without there being a huge number of articles (particularly on popular websites) that already cover that ground.

To find this niche, you’ll need to make use of a keyword research tool.

There are quite a few on the market, but the big hitters are probably Semrush, Ahrefs and Moz (check out our Ahrefs vs Semrush comparision, our Moz versus Semrush comparison and our Semrush review for more details on these).

Performing keyword research in SEMrush

You can use keyword research tools to find out two key pieces of information that will help you find your niche:

  • Roughly how many searches per month there are for a particular phrase.

  • How difficult it will be to rank for it.

Let’s consider an example.

Say you have made an iPhone app for runners and want to sell it to people with an interest in staying fit. You enter a few phrases into your keyword research tool to see which ones would make potentially good blog post titles.

You’ll quickly find out that there would be little point in publishing articles called ‘iPhone’ or ‘iPhone apps’, because although there are huge volumes of searches for these phrases, they are dominated by results on the Apple website — and you will never outgun Apple in search results.

However, you might also find that there is a potential gap in search results for phrases such as ‘free running app for iPhone’ or ‘iOs app for runners.’

The trick is to find phrases that generate a reasonable number of searches from people who are most likely to be interested in your product or service — but which are also possible to rank for in search results.

2. Create amazing content

Once you’ve found your niche, it’s time to create some content that will really draw people — and search engines — in.

Generally speaking, ‘long-form content,’ in the form of detailed blog posts that cover a topic in depth, is the best type to create.

Long form content
Generally speaking, long-form content works best from an inbound marketing point of view.

There are quite a few reasons why long-form content is the best sort to produce, but two very important ones are as follows:

  • It’s keyword rich, something that search engines tend to like.

  • It’s in-depth, something that readers really like — because it answers their query in full (and makes them more likely to share it).

The key thing about any content you create for an inbound marketing campaign is that it has to be absolutely amazing, regardless of whether it’s a blog post or video, long or short.

‘Amazing’ can mean informative, touching, or hilarious — the main thing is that it has to be something that will really satisfy your users and make them want to share it.

And speaking of sharing…

3. Encourage content sharing

Inbound marketing campaigns only really work when your site visitors share the content that you have produced for them.

Making content easy to share is vital to inbound marketing
Making content easy to share is vital to inbound marketing

There are two types of ‘shares’ you need to achieve for your content:

  • Social shares — tweets, inclusion of your content in Facebook posts, etc.

  • Backlink creation — when somebody creates an external link to your content on their site.

Social shares

As you might expect, social shares generate traffic to your content by increasing its visibility in social media feeds and driving clickthroughs.

Accordingly, it’s a good idea to

  • add social sharing icons to your site

  • make them extremely prominent

  • actively encourage social sharing in the copy of your articles.

Displaying social proof can also help encourage people to share your content — if you’ve got a piece of content that a lot of people have shared, it doesn’t hurt to display the precise number of shares involved.

You can use services like Sumo to add social sharing icons to your website.
You can use services like Sumo to add social sharing icons to your website.


Backlinks — links from other websites to yours — are hugely important for ensuring visibility in search results.

Simply put, the more backlinks you can generate to your content from reputable sources, the more likely it is that people will see it in search results.

I recommend being very forthright in asking readers to create a backlink to your site from theirs.

Though not all your readers will have their own site or blog, a certain proportion will, and you’ll get valuable ‘link juice’ if enough of them oblige. So it can’t hurt to include a ‘please link to this’ call-to-action in your content.

In most cases you’ll also need to engage in backlink building in general. This involves reaching out to bloggers and webmasters with the view of getting links to your content from theirs.

4. Turn your site visitors into leads

Once you get visitors onto your site, it’s time to convert them to leads.

In most cases the best sort of lead is usually an email subscriber — not a social media follower.

Brian Dean, who runs the popular SEO blog Backlinko, is not afraid to capture email addresses…
Brian Dean, who runs the popular SEO blog Backlinko, is not afraid to capture email addresses…

While it’s undeniably useful to gain social media followers as a result of people consuming your content, capturing an email address is arguably the most effective sort of lead generation, for two main reasons:

  • Email has a great ROI (according to Campaign Monitor, it actually generates the highest ROI for marketers, full stop).

  • You are in control of the relationship with your subscribers and can contact them directly via email; in other words, you won’t have to worry about a social media algorithm hiding your content from your followers.

In order to capture email addresses, you’ll need to use an email marketing platform and embed newsletter sign-up forms prominently on your site.

This typically means ensuring that:

  • Sign-up forms are embedded in the content of your site (that could be in a sidebar, or even in the middle of blog posts)

  • There is a clear subscribe option in your navigation.

  • There is a sign-up form call to action at the bottom of each blog post.

  • Your footer contains a button which allows people to join your list.

In essence, you want to make it incredibly easy for people to sign up to your mailing list.

What’s more, you want to make the prospect of joining your list extremely appealing. Don’t use a boring ‘join our mailing list’ call to action — spell out all the great stuff that the subscriber is going to receive when he or she joins your mailing list (see the image above for an example of SEO expert Brian Dean doing that).

Once you’ve captured a visitor’s email address, it’s tempting to view this as an opportunity to immediately start trying to sell your products and services to that subscriber.

And while it’s obviously very important to promote your products via your mailing list, if you are serious about inbound marketing you should be equally focused on using your list to promote your content — other blog posts, videos, etc. that your subscriber may find interesting.

This is because the more your subscribers who encounter your content via your e-newsletters, the more click-throughs you’ll get to it, which in turn can lead to more social shares and backlinks for your content (and — happy days — more traffic).

You can promote your content really easily (and automatically) by using autoresponders — automated e-newsletters sent by your email marketing tool at intervals of your choosing.

These newsletters should direct subscribers to other pieces of content on your site that they might enjoy.

Autoresponders can help you automate aspects of your inbound marketing campaign.
Autoresponders can help you automate aspects of your inbound marketing campaign.

Obviously encourage them to share it on social media or create backlinks to it when you do so!

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5. Use a sales funnel

To get the very most out of inbound marketing, you need to have a very clear idea about what you want to do with the leads you’ve captured as a result of all your fantastic content-creation efforts.

A clearly defined sequence in the form of a sales funnel will help you out here.

Sales funnel
A sales funnel is vital to the success of an inbound marketing campaign

A sales funnel is basically a set of pre-defined steps that each lead should be taken through once they subscribe to your mailing list.

The nature of your sales funnel will depend on the type of business you’re running, but the aim is to create a subscriber journey that efficiently converts your lead from being a ‘cold’ member of your mailing list into a fully-fledged customer (and perhaps even a passionate ambassador for your business).

Ideally, this conversion process should be as personalized as possible. Use data segmentation along with email copy and phone call scripts that deliver the most relevant, targeted information about your products and services to your leads.

Again, autoresponders can help here, as can CRM tools — particularly those that facilitate sophisticated workflows that look at user data and how your subscribers interact with your e-newsletters to provide a highly customized, automated series of communications.

6. Analyse, optmize and repeat

When you’ve got a successful inbound marketing process up and running, don’t think you can leave it at that!

Your next job is to analyze what’s working and what’s not, optimize the process — and repeat!

Analytics for an inbound marketing campaign
Analytics and inbound marketing go hand in hand…

Use all the data from your keyword research tools, website analytics, email marketing, and social media profiles to find out what content really works best for you — and what sort of content you should be creating in the future.

Similarly, keep an eye on your sales funnel, autoresponders, and CRM tools to see what’s working well in terms of generating prospects and clients — and how you can streamline and improve this process as you grow your business.

Inbound marketing — a cheatsheet!

  • Use keyword research tools to ensure that your content is going to be focussed on searches that people are actually making — and ones that you can rank for.
  • Blog regularly. Not only will this make your site more keyword rich, it will help it be taken more seriously by Google’s search algorithms (which factor in frequency of updates when determining where to plonk your site in search results).
  • Ensure any content you publish is high quality. Don’t pack your site full of keyword-rich but ultimately useless drivel – it won’t impress anyone (Google included).
  • Create backlinks where possible. Ask clients, colleagues and friends who run relevant websites or blogs to provide you with a backlink and reach out to popular bloggers in your business area to see if the can help. Avoid spammy link building services though, as they can damage your position in search results.
  • Get on Google’s radar by registering with Google Search Console and read up on what Google actually recommends you do from an SEO perspective.
  • Use social sharing icons to make it easy for people to share your content. Sumo or Addthis can help with this.
  • Make it easy for people who visit your site to sign up to your mailing list (and encourage them to do so by offering interesting content/features/tools in exchange for their details).
  • Analyse your statistics regularly to see which pieces of content are driving the most traffic to your site, and adjust / refine your content strategy based on this information.

Related marketing resources

  • We recently published some new posts on keyword research tools — check out our in-depth Semrush review and our Ahrefs vs Semrush comparison to learn more about some of the things you can do to drive inbound traffic with a dedicated SEO platform.

  • You might find our post on how to increase blog traffic helpful. This highlights 10 simple ways that you can get more readers eyeballing your blog content, something which is a huge part of an inbound marketing campaign.

  • Our guide to making a site more visible on Google contains some general tips on how to lay out your content in a way that will help it rank in search.
  • BigCommerce has a good guide to affiliate marketing which you might like to read — it outlines how you can use this powerful marketing technique to dramatically increase traffic to your website.

  • Using landing pages as part of an inbound marketing campaign’s sales funnel can have a positive impact on conversion rates — you can check out a guide to landing pages here (via ContentMavericks).
  • For more general tips on how to create a successful business, check out our ‘how to start a business’ checklist.

Got any thoughts or questions on inbound marketing?

If you’ve got any thoughts on inbound marketing, or have run inbound marketing campaigns in the past, do feel free to leave your observations, queries and tips of your own in the comments section below. We read them all and do our best to answer any questions.

Comments (3)

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Hi Chris!

I am a junior marketeer (if such thing exists) so I find your blog in general and this article in particular very interesting. Thank you for great job.

However, I am also bothered how little engagement in terms of likes and shares this article got. And this in a course of few years now.I would try to make SM buttons more obvious and shiny as I have not paid much attention to them at first meself, or place them right under the article and then you Email Sign-up form.

Thank you!

Cheers for your comments Max – some fair points there. I suspect you were looking at the post on a mobile device, as there are some prominent share buttons on the desktop version. But duly noted! Will tweak in due course. Hope you found the inbound marketing article useful in any event 🙂