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“Back in My Day…” or the Real Difference Between Inbound and Outbound Marketing

Bob Caporale thought leader in product strategy and product management training leader

Bob Caporale

November 16, 2015

There comes a point in all of our lives when we realize how disconnected we truly are from younger generations. Usually, that day is indicated when we find ourselves starting a sentence with the four little words “Back in my day…” Admittedly, I have actively avoided using this dreaded phrase because, of course, I consider myself to be far cooler than most people my age. Due to this little piece of self-denial, I’ve missed more than my share of opportunities to tell the youth of today how, back in my day, there were no cell phones, or text messages, or followers, or “likes.” There were no tablets, or laptops, or websites, or apps.  If I wanted to talk to someone, I had to use my mouth, and if I wanted to visit someone, I had to use my feet. Musicians made music, journalists wrote articles, and reality television was something of an oxymoron. Yes – all of this is true, but I have avoided saying it outright because doing so might have indicated that I believed things were somehow better “back in my day” and, for the most part, I just don’t think that’s true.

So it’s interesting to me that the first time I felt the need to actually say these words out loud was in relation to a relatively obscure and perhaps even unimportant topic; that is – how we refer to the different functions of marketing. I know it seems trivial in relation to some of the vast technological advancements that I mentioned earlier, but this just happens to be one thing that I feel we’ve somehow gotten wrong.

Back in my day, marketing had two main parts to it: an inbound portion and an outbound portion. The idea was that one part of marketing focused on information gathering, which included the collection of quantitative and qualitative data with respect to customers, competitors, and industry trends. Not surprisingly, this was referred to as “inbound marketing” based on the direction that information was generally flowing.

The second, equally important part of marketing focused on getting the word out to the marketplace about a company’s products and services. This function focused mostly on promotion but also had a good amount of input as to how a product would be priced and distributed as well. The 4-Ps of product, price, promotion, and place are called “the marketing mix” for good reason – because they all work together to help drive this critical area of “outbound marketing.”

In the past 10 years or so, a different application of these terms seems to have settled into our collective business vocabulary. It seems that the term “inbound marketing” is now being used to categorize any form of marketing that enables customers to find a company’s products on their own. This, as opposed to “outbound marketing,” which, is now most commonly being used to represent the more traditional “disruptive” promotional activities that companies use to draw attention to their products when customers aren’t otherwise looking. In a modern application, this is the difference between someone finding a product through a search engine or being confronted with a pop-up ad.  And the very reason for this distinction seems to be to point out that “inbound marketing” is the new preferred method of promotion, whereas “outbound marketing” is becoming a thing of the past.

On paper, this seems like a worthwhile theory, but how does it fare in real practice? Anyone who has engaged in search engine optimization knows that it doesn’t just happen on its own. Instead, you have to continually advertise your products in as many places as possible in order for search engines to find them. Yes, this may be through blogs, articles, social media, or even the clever overuse of certain keywords throughout your website – all things that are considered to be a part of “inbound marketing” (using the more modern definition of this term). There is no denying that these are important activities, but are they truly “inbound” in nature? The only way that customers are going to find you is if you dedicate at least some portion of your time to let them know that you exist. Sure, a blog might be less intrusive than a billboard, but both represent methods of presenting your product, services, or company to an audience who would not otherwise have known about you. And both will be equally ineffective if you put them in places where nobody is looking. In my experience, the “build it and they will come” mentality rarely works, particularly if you never put a sign on the door telling people what they’re supposed to be coming to.

product marketing holistic marketing drawingCall me old-fashioned, but I believe that drawing too clear of a distinction between these different types of marketing activities is a slippery slope. Instead of trying to draw a hard line between people finding me and me finding them, I prefer to view the entire process of getting my message out into the world as a holistic set of activities that must work seamlessly together. Outbound marketing means getting your message heard outside of your company, and in a way that will both benefit and entice your target audience. To successfully accomplish this, you must also participate in a holistic set of inbound marketing activities so you can get to know your customers better, understand what trends they are being influenced by, and know what other competitive solutions they may have to choose from. Inbound and outbound marketing, defined in this way, just makes so much more sense – at least to my ears.

Of course, back in my day, we didn’t have to worry about all these new-fangled technologies like search engines, blogs, and vlogs. But I guess my day is just a little bit more in the past than I care to admit.


If you like this post, please check out my book, Creative Strategy Generation (McGraw-Hill, 2015) available on amazon.com or by clicking on the Books link on this site.

About The Author

Bob Caporale thought leader in product strategy and product management training leader

Bob Caporale

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