Molly Ploe

To engage each customer, the inbound marketer must simultaneously be a thoughtful scientist, an imaginative artist, and a skillful planner.

What’s the magic ingredient connecting each individual area these experts must master while using the inbound methodology? It’s content, of course!

What Is the Inbound Marketing Methodology?

The inbound marketing methodology is a multi-step strategy for attracting new prospects, leading them to complete a purchase, and encouraging them to continue interacting with your business. Truthfully, inbound marketing does not end with the acquisition and retention of an individual customer. Inbound techniques seek to create and deploy useful content that existing customers will want to share with their peers, through social media or other channels. 

Inbound Vs. Outbound Methodology

Inbound marketing and outbound marketing serve complementary functions for many organizations.

Inbound vs outbound infographic

Traditional outbound marketing techniques, like advertising, can help businesses quickly reach a potential buyer and generate immediate awareness of the product or service. By promoting brand awareness, individuals may reach out to the company when the time is right for them.

In contrast, inbound techniques, like search engine optimization (SEO) and gated premium content, aim to attract new prospects by providing them with useful resources and support. Then, the business nurtures the future customer through each phase of the buyer’s journey, leveraging tools like email marketing to maintain communication. This nurturing process is essential in transforming a potential customer into a loyal advocate for the brand.

This hand-in-hand framework seems to be verified by actual practices in the field. A recent marketing survey found that 33% of respondents said brand awareness and reach were the top goals for their paid advertising efforts. At the same time, total sales were the leading metric for assessing how successful content was.

4 Stages of Inbound Marketing and How To Implement Them

An inbound marketing strategy is an intentional, long-term effort focused on growing the customer base by bringing the buyer to you and expanding on each new relationship.

To keep track of each step in this deliberate process, marketers often break the strategy into 4 distinct phases.

What Are the 4 Stages of the Inbound Methodology?

The 4 stages that constitute inbound marketing are:

  1. Attract.
  2. Convert.
  3. Close.
  4. Delight.

Next, we’ll explore each one of these stages in greater detail.

1. Attract.

In the attract stage, marketers leverage content to get people to visit the brand’s webpage. SEO tactics help drive high-intent organic traffic to blog posts and landing pages over time. A successful social media presence can also help distribute useful content to a broad audience. Here, video marketing can play a crucial role in engaging the audience and providing them with relevant content that addresses their needs and interests.

2. Convert.

Once people are paying attention, they need a clear and incentivized CTA. This is the part of the strategy where content types like webinars and downloadable assets are most useful. With enticing, free content, you can direct individuals to sign up for emails, effectively turning a website visitor or social media follower into a lead. This stage emphasizes the importance of gathering contact information in a non-intrusive way, aligning with the principles of inbound sales.

3. Close.

Going from the conversion phase to closing a deal with a new customer can be a little bit trickier. During the closing stage, marketing efforts frequently shift to email nurture campaigns, often including links to additional content before gradually introducing more direct sales pitches. Handing over a marketing-qualified lead to a sales representative can also be a productive tactic in certain industries. Here, the collaboration between inbound salespeople and the marketing team is crucial to ensure a seamless transition for the potential customer.

4. Delight.

The final phase in the cycle lasts as long as the customer’s lifespan, and this stage is intended to promote loyalty and advocacy among existing business relationships. Marketing doesn’t end when the deal is inked. Continued engagement with the customer through email newsletters and other touchpoints facilitates a partnership that’s built to last. Ideally, this phase will lead to future content shares and referrals, too. This is where excellent customer service comes into play, ensuring that every interaction adds value to the customer experience.

What Is the Inbound Marketing Funnel?

The funnel is a prominent method for interpreting how marketing efforts can help facilitate the buyer’s journey.

The inbound marketing funnel maps the 4 stages we explored previously — attract, convert, close, and delight — into a visual format. This concept will be immediately familiar to people who know about the conventional sales funnel or related concepts, like Brafton’s own content marketing funnel.

What Is the Inbound Marketing Flywheel?

The funnel is quickly and easily understood by a wide variety of sales and marketing professionals. However, this image may leave an erroneous impression. Once a prospect exits the funnel, the process isn’t over.
As an alternative to the funnel, inbound marketing trailblazer HubSpot uses a model they call the flywheel.

Source: HubSpot

The flywheel makes it easy to diagram how each element in the inbound marketing process propels the organization continuously forward. As existing customers are delighted by your offerings, they use those pieces to further promote your company to people in your target audience whom you didn’t even know existed previously.

Both models have their benefits as long as businesses acknowledge that inbound strategies don’t terminate after the deal is closed.

How To Leverage the Inbound Marketing Methodology

To begin leveraging inbound marketing, companies should decide on a model for executing the strategy and integrate it within their existing marketing plans.

How Do You Use the Inbound Methodology in Marketing?

Using the inbound methodology requires businesses to:

  • Enable marketing automation wherever possible: Deploying these techniques at scale demands the use of digital marketing tools to streamline processes and workflows. These systems also help carry out complicated tasks like large, segmented email sends.
  • Collaborate internally across departments: To identify the characteristics of an ideal customer and determine the target audience, businesses have to work across departments, including sales and operations, to create buyer personas.

How Content Marketing Fits In

Creating a content plan for marketing can be accomplished internally or with the support of an agency. Ideally, this blueprint will connect the buyer’s journey to the different stages of an inbound plan for each buyer persona. A well-planned content strategy is essential for generating demand and guiding potential customers through the inbound marketing funnel. Content creation should focus on delivering relevant content that addresses the needs and challenges of the target audience, thereby enhancing the overall inbound marketing efforts.

How Social Media Marketing Fits In

Social media marketing is an important part of the initial stages of an inbound strategy. Particularly, running a social media campaign helps to:

  • Increase brand awareness.
  • Boost brand loyalty.
  • Generate leads.

Brands that are active on social media generally do a better job of staying relevant and establishing themselves as an authority. Plus, it’s a great way to share and promote content. To have the greatest impact on driving inbound traffic, here are a few best practices:

  • Post valuable content consistently to maximize impressions.
  • Add links to your posts that direct users to your website.
  • Use paid advertising to prompt your brand.
  • Stay active and engage with your followers.

Even from a customer point of view, social media is often their go-to for engaging with brands, asking questions, or giving feedback. Reciprocating that engagement can help convert quality social media leads into lucrative conversions.

How Can You Implement Each of the Inbound Marketing Strategies?

You have to know where you’re going in order to get there, right?

It’s important to start with an outcome in mind and to develop a plan that leads effectively to the desired marketing result. For example, if the goal is to drive customer acquisition for a defined buyer persona, a concrete strategy might look like this:

  1. Conduct a content audit to discover new and existing opportunities for attracting visitors.
  2. Determine which assets would be most effective for converting that traffic, and use a CTA and form to gate the content.
  3. Work with the sales team to create an automated email nurture campaign or define how leads are qualified before being handed over for closing.
  4. Follow up with new customers over email or social media with new content to delight them, leading these partners to advocate for the brand.

Importantly, companies can reuse, repurpose, or slightly modify content for new audiences and to meet different stages of the inbound methodology. Not everything has to be created from scratch!

What Companies Benefit Most From Inbound Marketing?

Given the complexity of inbound marketing, as well as its emphasis on fueling growth through buyer loyalty and advocacy, companies that have long sales cycles or long customer tenure may benefit most. This approach is particularly effective in B2B marketing and account-based marketing, where building and maintaining strong customer relationships are crucial for success.

Value and Benefits of the Inbound Methodology

A well-executed inbound strategy often produces a better return on investment (ROI) and close rates than an outbound marketing effort. This is because inbound marketing strategies focus on a specific target audience and effectively encourage the prospective customer to engage with high-value, quality content. As they do this, companies can demonstrate the brand’s integrity directly to individuals who have a strong alignment with the business’s value proposition.

Examples of effective marketing using the inbound methodology are numerous. Here are just a couple of our favorites.

B2B Excellence: CBRE Shares Top-Quality Research and Commentary

CBRE describes itself as a “worldwide leader in real estate services.” Based on the quality of research that the enterprise constantly releases, it’s easy to believe such a claim of expertise.

With annual reports, thorough research on topical concerns, and even an industry-leading podcast, the real estate giant has its inbound marketing strategy dialed in.

B2C Distinction: Credit Karma’s Commitment to Financial Well-Being

Intuit’s Credit Karma product is a go-to credit-building app and a textbook example of how to nail the “Delight” stage of B2C inbound marketing.

The Inbound Methodology screenshot example

Users of the app are interested in improving their financial well-being through debt management and raising their credit scores. The company supports its customers through a variety of different content formats, including blog posts, that educate users about several credit-related topics that help them take action.

Funnel or Inbound Flywheel, the Choice Is Up To You

Ultimately, inbound techniques can be effective tools for supporting an overall marketing strategy. The key isn’t to quibble about terminology. The most important step is to start with the goal of supporting your potential customers, no matter where they are in the sales cycle.

Editor’s Note: Updated June 2024.