Inbound marketing will be ten years old in 2015. The term inbound marketing was coined in 2005 by Brian Halligan, the co-founder and CEO of HubSpot. In reality, however, some aspects of what we now call inbound marketing are much older.
It's reasonable to argue, for example, that inbound marketing began in 1886 when Reuben H. Donnely produced the first yellow pages directory featuring business names and phone numbers categorized by types of products and services. Consumers interested in a particular product or service could use the directory to find area businesses offering that product or service. The communication channels have certainly changed, but the basic objective of being "findable" by prospective customers is essentially the same.
On many occasions over the past nine years, marketing pundits have proclaimed inbound marketing to be the new paradigm of marketing. They've argued that traditional outbound marketing is fundamentally broken, and that inbound marketing is now the most effective and efficient way to create engagement with potential customers. Some pundits have contended that companies should essentially abandon traditional outbound marketing efforts and shift entirely to an inbound marketing strategy.
In my view, some of the hype surrounding inbound marketing has been overdone, and at least some marketing pundits have made unrealistic claims regarding the benefits that inbound marketing will deliver.
Like many innovations, inbound marketing is moving through a version of the Gartner hype cycle. When an innovation is first introduced, the initial enthusiasm (driven by hype) often leads to a "peak of exaggerated expectations" where users/adopters expect far more than the innovation can realistically deliver. When these unrealistic expectations aren't met, what follows is a "trough of disillusionment" where some users/adopters decide that the innovation is worthless and abandon it entirely. At this point, some users/adopters will develop a more realistic view of what benefits the innovation can deliver, and they will do the work necessary to become increasingly proficient at using the innovation to gain these benefits.
So, after nine years, what do we know about the realistic value of inbound marketing and the role it should play in a B2B company's overall marketing effort?
First, it's now clear that inbound marketing is the most effective and efficient way for most B2B companies to acquire new leads. Notice that I said the most effective and efficient way for most companies. In some cases, inbound marketing will not be the best way to generate new leads. For example, if your company sells specialized, complex, and/or expensive capital equipment, consulting services, or information technologies, the number of prospects that are qualified to buy from you is relatively small. In this situation, an effective lead generation program is most likely a combination of inbound and outbound marketing and prospecting by sales reps or business development representatives.
Second, a comprehensive marketing effort for most B2B companies will encompass more than lead acquisition, and inbound marketing is not particularly well-suited for performing some of these other important marketing functions. Therefore, even those companies that rely heavily on inbound marketing for lead acquisition will still use outbound marketing tactics and methods for several purposes. For example, lead nurturing is a critical marketing function for B2B companies that offer complex products or services and have lengthy sales cycles. E-mail is the workhorse channel for lead nurturing programs, and nurturing e-mails are an outbound marketing tactic.
The bottom line? Inbound marketing should be a critical part of the marketing efforts at most B2B companies, and it's likely to become even more important in the future as "digital natives" increasingly assume decision-making roles in business enterprises. However, inbound marketing will not constitute a complete marketing solution, at least for the foreseeable future.