Alex Cox

Generating leads used to be like trying to chase down butterflies with a bug catcher net to add them to your collection—laborious, exhausting and, oh yeah, not so fun for the butterflies themselves. Traditional outbound lead generation methodologies required marketers to play this “bug catcher” role, by constantly cold-calling, mailing and emailing names from a list, in hopes of at least a few of them reciprocating the interest.

But the low close rate for outbound leads made this practice the equivalent of swinging that bug catcher net around in the dark, attempting to catch something in the vicinity, even if the spot wasn’t one that naturally attracts “butterflies” (i.e., qualified leads) And for the prospects who weren’t interested, the entire process was offputting—who wants to be interrupted with a “Telemarketing” or “Scam Likely” caller ID, or endure a poorly targeted video ad?

In contrast, inbound lead generation is like planting a garden that brings the butterflies to you—no net or collection required. Let’s dive into how it works and what counts as a good lead.

What is Inbound Lead Generation?

Inbound lead generation is the process of using content marketing, social media strategy and marketing automation to unobtrusively attract visitors and then convert them into leads. But what’s a lead?

A lead is anyone who has demonstrated interest in what your company offers. They might have done so by:

  • Providing their email address via a signup form.
  • Following your official social media account(s).
  • Commenting on a blog post.

Leads can be qualified in different ways, indicating whether they require additional marketing to close, or are already primed for further progression down the sales funnel (marketing qualified and sales qualified leads, respectively). Basically, a lead is a potential customer, but the amount of effort needed to convert it into a sale can vary considerably based on how it was generated.

Leads are generated via outbound or inbound marketing techniques. Whereas outbound entails aggressively chasing down leads, like our metaphorical bug catcher, inbound marketing takes a lighter but more effective touch, attempting to attract them through content and outreach tailored to their specific needs and buyer’s journey.

Outbound vs Inbound Lead Generation

In outbound marketing, every lead you start with is a “cold” lead. The marketer doesn’t know if they’ll be able to heat it up, so to say, but they try anyway by proactively contacting them and seeing if they can get them to sign up or buy. Outbound marketing is not bad per se, it’s just become much less effective over time since customers can:

  • More easily do their own research on the internet.
  • Tune out traditional outbound marketing overtures like pop-up ads and calls.
  • Choose the channels on which they prefer to engage.

Inbound marketing recognizes these realities and adapts accordingly.

To see how inbound marketing really works, take a look at this image from Brave, the makers of a privacy-focused browser and search engine:

Via Brave

This illustration and the blog post within which it lives are both optimized for Brave’s target audience of tech-savvy, privacy-conscious consumers and business partners. Nowhere in the blog is Brave making a hard pitch to an outbound lead.

Instead, it is providing detailed inbound information meant to educate readers about how there’s minimal risk from abandoning third-party ad tracking—an act that benefits Brave’s overall business strategy. The blog fits naturally into their buyer’s journey.

For another example of inbound marketing, look at the “Open for Business” podcast from eBay:

Via eBay

Again, there is no hard sell or blatant interruption here. This podcast is designed to draw in people interested in running an online business, even if they’re not yet an eBay seller. The idea is to guide listeners through the sales funnel with useful information, in the hopes of turning them into customers and advocates.

Understanding Inbound Lead Generation Methodology

The inbound lead generation process has a specific 4-part structure, which marketers have honed over the years and incorporated into how they manage the sales funnel.

What are the Four Stages of Inbound Methodology?

The four stages of inbound methodology are:

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

To visualize how these work in succession, consider the following table, which breaks down who an inbound marketer is attempting to reach at each stage and how they usually attempt to do so:

 Target AudienceInbound Marketing Assets
AttractStrangersBlog Posts, Social Media Updates, Ads
ConvertVisitorsForms, Landing Pages, Calls to Action (CTAs)
CloseLeadsMarketing Emails, Demos, Webinars
DelightCustomersSurveys, Events, Social Media Engagement

These terms for the different phases of the lead generation process sometimes vary slightly—for instance, “awareness,” “consideration,” “decision” and “delight” is another possible configuration—but the general concept (of someone progressing through stages of buying intent) is still the same. Different inbound marketing tools and strategies are available for generating leads at each of the four main stages.

Let’s map out a consumer’s hypothetical journey through a sales funnel, as guided by inbound techniques across those four phases:

  1. Attract: This consumer, at this point still a stranger, searches for “Where is the best place to put a soundbar?” The SERP page returns a keyword-optimized blog post from a home theater company’s website.
  2. Convert: Now a visitor, this same person begins looking for more tips on how to optimize their audio-visual setup. After an internal site search, they visit a landing page on the optimal settings and connections for a soundbar, and click a CTA to get on a mailing list.
  3. Close: The next day, they get an email with some tips on how to set up a home theater. They click on one of the embedded links, which goes to a demo video hosted on the company’s site. This demonstration provides the final push for them to make a purchase.
  4. Delight: After buying, the customer has a question about the AV equipment they purchased, so they reach out to the company via social media (or through phone support). They get a prompt response which boosts their likelihood of purchasing again and recommending the brand.

4 Common Inbound Lead Generation Strategies to Know

When generating leads via inbound marketing, there is no shortage of options for connecting with your target audience.

Indeed, the hard work in implementing an inbound lead generation strategy is often in selecting a handful of inbound strategies for your organization’s requirements from among these numerous possibilities, along with some marketing tools that support them.

To help you out, we’ll look in depth at four common inbound lead generation strategies to know.

1. Email Marketing

Email turned 50 years old in 2021, but it’s still as vital as ever to marketing in general and generating inbound leads in particular. Email is a great inbound marketing channel because, in most cases, the customer will have opted in to receiving messages, meaning they’ve already shown interest in your organization.

Effective email marketing is an art. Each message needs to engage the reader and drive action without seeming spammy. This example from NETGEAR shows how a marketing email can do just that, by reaching someone at the right part of the sales funnel, providing useful information and context but not making a heavy-handed pitch. The closing CTA leads to a Bitdefender blog.

Via BitDefender

2. Content Marketing

Speaking of blogs, they’re a vital part of content marketing, which itself is a major pillar of inbound lead generation. Take this blog from fintech provider Plaid. It’s deep in the technical weeds, but of utmost importance to Plaid’s target audience of customers and prospects, who want to be confident that the company has the right technical infrastructure in place to reliably connect financial accounts to an application.

Via Plaid

The Plaid team demonstrates its technical expertise throughout this post, a piece that sustains the interest of leads in the sales funnel as they evaluate Plaid as a service provider. “Here’s how our databases really work” is in its own way a better sales pitch—an inbound one—than explicitly saying “hey, we’re the best!” on an outbound channel.

3. Product Demos

“Show, don’t tell” is maybe the hoariest of all cliches in writing. But it’s arguably better advice in marketing—inbound lead generation is ultimately about showing a lead that you can meet their needs, rather than simply telling them you can. For this reason, the product demo is a staple of generating leads via inbound methodology.

This explainer from Slack, showing how channels work within the platform, is a good example of a concise demo. Moreover, it’s valuable at multiple parts of the sales funnel, being useful to consumers thinking about trying Slack and to ones who already use it but want to get more value from it.

4. Social Media Marketing

Social media lends itself to both inbound and outbound marketing. Whereas ads and sponsored posts fit into the latter category, organic updates are in the former. It’s possible to create and nurture an audience by turning an official social media account into an inbound marketing channel, as payroll and HR software provider Gusto has done. This Instagram update provides useful information about SBA loans, a post that establishes Gusto as a trusted expert in this domain. You could follow a similar route, but of course this not only involves understanding SBA 7(a) loan requirements but also presenting them in a way that’s easy to be digested by a social media audience. If you aim to do this and it aligns with the interests of your followers, Gusto’s example is a good blueprint.


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A post shared by Gusto (@gustohq)

Leveling Up Your Inbound Lead Generation Game

Now that we know about some of the most common inbound techniques for generating leads, let’s turn to a few tips for getting the most mileage from your lead generation strategy.

Record and Link Directly to Webinars

Content marketing expert Neil Patel has singled out webinars as particularly effective inbound lead generation tools, with as much as 40% of their registrants turning into leads. The full process of coordinating, recording, sharing and linking back to webinars requires a little more hands-on effort than some of the techniques described in the previous section, but it’s worth it. The “close” stage of the inbound methodology hinges on your ability to clearly show why a lead can’t pass you up—and webinars deliver a high level of detail that can provide that final bit of convincing.

Make it Easy for Someone to Create an Account and Sign In

Email is pivotal to inbound lead generation, but what if you’re never able to get someone’s email address because they gave up after having to fill out a super-long sign up form? Luckily this hypothetical doesn’t need to materialize, since there are many options for streamlined sign-in via other accounts. The old standbys of “Sign in With Google” and “Sign in With LinkedIn” have been joined by newer alternatives like “Sign in With Apple.” Between them, these options give users a quick and secure way to get on your email list.

Select Lead Generation Tools that Suit Your Strategy

There’s a seemingly endless array of inbound marketing tools out there, designed to cover all four major stages of inbound methodology. No matter how you decide to tailor your inbound marketing strategy, you’ll want foundational tools like CRM software, a social media management platform and tools for boosting the SEO of your site and of individual pages. Beyond those, you’ll want to focus on the solutions that support your most important inbound techniques. Invested heavily in email campaigns? Make sure you’ve got email marketing software that works for your team. Eager to get customer feedback for future product development? Test and select survey platforms.

Re-Optimize Your Content Marketing Assets

Content marketing is a journey, not a destination. Blog posts, infographics and other assets often require updates, either for SEO purposes, to incorporate more recent information or both. Conduct periodic site audits, revisit keyword research and weave in narratives that fit your current branding and messaging, so that your sales funnel doesn’t dry up.

Inbound lead generation can take some trial and error to get right. But once you fine tune the lead generation machine, it’s much easier to operate than the traditional outbound marketing grind, not to mention much more efficient at, well, capturing those leads!