Ben Silverman

According to HubSpot’s latest annual State of Inbound report:

Both inbound and outbound marketers rank paid advertising as the #1 most overrated marketing tactic.

Paid advertising has its place, especially for larger businesses, but there are many cost-effective alternatives to paid ads. HubSpot reports that “three out of four marketers across the globe prioritize an inbound approach to marketing” over paid advertising efforts.

Have you managed campaigns that involved:

  • print ads in magazine or newspapers?
  • video ads online or on TV?
  • PPC ads to reach new audiences on search engines?
  • targeted social media ads to gain fans or drive traffic?
  • remarketing ads to reach people who have expressed interest in your site?

Chances are those marketing campaigns were:

  • Time consuming.

Running an effective targeted online ad campaign requires detailed research, copywriting, filming and design, as well as careful monitoring, evaluation and modification.

  • Expensive.

Paid ads often involve large teams of strategists, and prices-per-click can even exceed the costs of a qualified organic lead.

  • Focused on short-term ROI.

PPC marketers often consider the wrong metrics when evaluating their campaigns. Many strategists focus on cost per lead, which can be misleading. It is a KPI for a campaign’s success, but it doesn’t solely define ads’ profitability.

  • Wasteful.

According to HubSpot, “even people using outbound think it’s a waste.” Paid online ads often reach people who fit your targeting criteria but aren’t optimal qualified leads.

Of the 4,000 brands that HubSpot surveyed: “inbound had a 75% likelihood of being the marketing approach of choice, while outbound had only a 25% chance.” Here’s a closer look at why inbound marketing – which calls for a robust creative team and rich, custom content – is often so much more appealing to businesses.

What can go wrong with paid advertising?

A lot can go wrong.

Misuse by advertisers leads to mistrust among viewers. Running effective and dynamic paid ads requires creative design, careful editing and constant monitoring. Careless management of ads can waste your marketing budget.

  • PPC syntax errors with dynamic keyword insertion can ruin your advertising efforts.
    • One wrong letter in your code and you get this:  GoogleAd2
  • A poorly targeted ad, even if formatted correctly might look like this:GoogleAd1
  • There’s nothing more off-putting in search results than seeing an irrelevant, automatically written ad. It screams “SPAM!” and hurts the credibility of the advertiser.
  • Most paid advertising services have extremely limited space for content.
    • If you think tweeting in under 140 characters is tough, try AdWords’ 95-character limit.
    • Similarly, using creative graphics in your social media marketing is always tricky – it takes on a new level of challenging when your images must be 254 x 94 pixels for right-column ads.
  • The competition for online paid advertising is extremely high, and there aren’t enough avenues for creativity to set your ads apart and get to the top.
    • There are millions of unique advertisers on AdWords, over a million Google display network sites and over a billion products promoted on Google product listing.
    • Bidding on clicks to compete with millions of other advertisers is a good way to mis-spend your marketing budget.

Ready to ditch PPC? Try these strategies instead

It’s never too late to re-allocate your budget from flat, under-performing online ads to an inbound content marketing strategy.

For small businesses

“More than six times as many business with 25 employees or fewer report inbound as their primary marketing approach, and twice as many businesses with 26-200 people do…” – State of Inbound 2015, HubSpot

Source: HubSpot: Stand of Inbound 2015
  • Focus on SEO

SEO will always be relevant. As long as there are people looking for answers to questions on the internet, SEO will exist as a way for brands to solve users’ problems before the competition does.

  • Videos

Video blogs provide faster return on investment than traditional written content.

  • Social media

Let your audience do your marketing for you – for free. An engaging social media presence will help to recruit willing and loyal fans to share your marketing message for you.

  • Get local

Keeping your business’ local profiles updated and optimized is a cost-effective way to increase qualified web traffic, and actual foot traffic.

Large businesses

Approximately 32% of survey respondents whose companies identify as primarily outbound organizations called paid advertising the most overrated marketing tactic — the number one answer by a wide margin.” – State of Inbound 2015, HubSpot

Large companies are more likely than small businesses to embrace paid advertising. However, some are able to forego traditional paid marketing for a more efficient inbound approach. Take Starbucks for example. They are one of the top food and beverage chains in the world, thanks to clever marketing and inbound strategies.

Their advertising secret? They don’t have one, because they barely advertise. Every once in a while you might spot an ad from a partner promoting a Starbucks product (bottled drinks or bags of coffee, for example), but you likely won’t see ads for the stores.

Compare their advertising to other similar-sized fast food brands. You can’t go a mile on the highway or a minute on TV without seeing golden arches. This is partially because McDonald’s has to remind us that they exist more frequently than Starbucks, since there’s no apparent analogous Burger King or Wendy’s of the high-end coffee chain world for the latter to compete with.

But Starbucks also diverts their marketing budget to non-traditional avenues. When was the last time you saw a Starbucks commercial on TV? Even their online advertising presence is sparse. Can you even think of their slogan? Or their jingle? Instead of spending millions to create those assets and keep that information in your head, Starbucks spends their resources on:

  • Friendly employees who are trained to refer to you by name (even if they are notorious
    source: Instagram
     for spelling it wrong).
  • Designing creative ways to improve what their coffee sounds like (think “Pike Place roast,” grande, venti, etc).
  • Local charitable efforts. Their outreach not only allows Starbucks to support their surrounding communities, but helps Starbucks ease local consumers’ worries that the chain is replacing mom-and-pop fixtures.

Starbucks’ goal is not to attract new customers – at this point, that might not even be possible; everyone who drinks coffee knows about Starbucks – they have over 20,000 stores in more than 60 countries. Their goal is keeping their customers loyal. They devote their efforts to marketing their product – a chain coffee shop with similar comforts, culture and employees as independent cafes.

They use social media for this – it keeps fans interested in their offerings, and also enlists them to help market the brand – for little more than the price of employing a social media team. Starbucks has 36 million Facebook fans – 20 million more than Star Wars, and 33 million more than Star Trek.

This is partially because they follow up with fan questions and posts quickly, respond to comments and post shareable content. Paying close to attention to fans and to their social media voice is why many of their posts have thousands, or tens of thousands of shares, as well as hundreds of thousands of likes and comments. They share elegant, fairly noncommercial content, and keep the posts infrequent, so not to appear spammy or overly promotional.


Whether you are an enterprise that sells 4 million coffees every day, or a small B2B tech business, paid advertising isn’t necessarily your best bet for quality marketing. Inbound marketing, through dynamic content and social media, allows brands in any space, and of any size, to customize their promotional strategies to efficiently boost sales, leads, conversions, qualified traffic and engagement.