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10 Ways to Distinguish Inbound from Outbound Marketing

DATE PUBLISHED: July 06, 2023

If you’ve landed on this blog post, chances are you’re looking for clarification on the distinction between inbound and outbound marketing. Or, you’re looking for new ways to describe the two approaches, to help you convey to your higher-ups the pros and cons of each.

Individuals define inbound and outbound differently because different brains analyze and categorize in different ways. So this post is chock full of examples and analogies – 10 of them to be exact -- that differentiate the two types of marketing tactics. One of these is sure to resonate with you or whomever you’re trying to educate.

Unlike other articles we’ve seen on this topic, ours tries to avoid falling into a common marketer’s trap: that of thinking like a marketer instead of a consumer. So we’ve interspersed the consumer’s viewpoint throughout this post. After all,



First off, how did we get here? When did inbound take over the marketing world?

Quite simply, technology – most notably the Internet, website-building tools, the advent of the blog, and the explosion of social media -- made the shift from company-focused marketing to consumer-centric marketing possible.

Then, consumers who liked finding themselves more in control of what marketing they saw and when they saw it made the shift happen, driving a remarkable revolution that the marketing industry interprets and adjusts to on a daily basis.

We as consumers like doing our own research and finding things on our own when we have a need. We like getting recommendations from people we trust. That’s why “influencers” who gain trust and large numbers of followers on social media are such major marketing forces.

The Internet has put consumers in control. Consumers control the flow – the amount and the timing – of information in many cases. We’ve learned how to use spam filters and ad blockers. We can unsubscribe with one click. We stream ad-free TV shows and listen to ad-free satellite radio.

Companies that resist dedicating a large portion of their marketing budgets to inbound are simply not keeping up with the times. They are sacrificing sales.


Inbound marketing tactics include:

  • SEO
  • Blog
  • Social media
  • Email

Outbound marketing tactics fall into two categories:


  • TV ads
  • Radio ads
  • Print ads
  • Billboards and outdoor media
  • Direct mail
  • Trade shows and other events


  • Pay-Per-Click / Google search advertising
  • Retargeting ads
  • Social media ads on platforms including Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn
  • Email

Wondering why email marketing falls under both inbound and outbound? We’ll explain in an upcoming blog post.


These ten analogies and examples offer you a variety of ways to classify inbound versus outbound marketing.

#1 - Level of Targeting: Traditional outbound marketing is mass marketing – making your message available to a wide swath of the population in hopes of reaching the small subset that are potential customers. This doesn’t mean outbound is obsolete -- far from it. Traditional marketing is still very beneficial in certain cases, in part because it creates a “halo effect” by increasing your brand awareness. And modern, digital-based outbound marketing is highly effective at generating quality leads in addition to raising brand awareness.

But inbound marketing is more targeted than outbound can ever be, because in many cases consumers self-select themselves as potential customers and present themselves to you for marketing.

#2 - Push vs. Pull: Marketers commonly describe outbound as pushing company messages in front of consumers, and inbound as pulling consumers in, to your website, blog or social media pages. We at Palmer aren’t satisfied by those definitions, as frankly the “pull” analogy gives undue credit to marketers.

While we’d like to think we are pulling people in with our beautifully written and visually attractive content, in many cases it’s the consumer controlling the action. The consumer decides if and when to visit us. We can only encourage them in the right direction. However, once they’re arrived – that’s when the beautiful and relevant content does its job.

But at a high level, considering inbound “pull” and outbound “push” works.

#3 - Interruptive vs. Encouragement Marketing: Some marketing experts call outbound marketing “interruptive” or “disruptive”. It inserts your company into the consumer’s life by showing up during a show or landing in their mailbox or flashing on the computer screen.

Rather than the corollary “non-interruptive” for inbound marketing, we prefer the term “encouragement marketing” because inbound at its best listens and assists. It nudges the prospect to a decision, guiding them through their choices, shepherding them to the best decision for them. Done right, inbound marketing accompanies the prospect through their day and week and month, ready and willing to provide guidance when they’re ready to buy.

#4 - The Ever-Popular Fishing Analogy: An oft-used fishing analogy conveys the elegant simplicity of inbound compared to outbound, and why the former targets consumers in a way the latter cannot.

Outbound entails casting your fishing line out over a huge lake filled with fish that have many varied needs, in hopes of catching the few fish that need your product or service. This process breaks down into numerous steps:

  1. The marketer hopes their lure lands in the vicinity of an acceptable fish.
  2. The marketer hopes their lure gets that fish’s attention.
  3. The marketer hopes their lure entices the fish to bite.
  4. The marketer attempts to convince the fish it has a problem that can be solved by the marketer’s lure, and that their lure is the best one available to solve that problem.
  5. The fish lands on the marketer’s dock as a full-fledged customer.

Inbound, on the other hand, goes something like this:

  1. The fish swims up to you and says “I’m looking for a lure, what have you got?” The marketer already has the fish’s attention and the fish has already decided it has a problem that needs solving.
  2. The marketer attempts to convince the fish that their lure is the best one available to solve the problem the fish already accepts it has.
  3. The fish lands on the marketer’s dock as a full-fledged customer.

Not only are there fewer steps with inbound, there’s a lot less guesswork and hoping.

#5 - In One Corner…: If our fishing analogy is too far afield for you, consider this example based on actual marketing tactics. In one corner, we have a classic outbound tactic – a newspaper ad. For a traditional print ad to succeed, these stars must align:

  1. The consumer must read the paper that day.
  2. He must read the page where your ad sits.
  3. He must notice your ad.
  4. He must read your ad.
  5. He must be motivated to act on your ad by purchasing your product.

In the other corner, we have the contender, a blog post that essentially is an entirely new game altogether:

  1. The consumer comes to your blog for information relevant to a need he has.
  2. He is educated, generating a positive view toward the company, and he receives subtle marketing messages along the way (if you’ve done the job right).
  3. He decides if he’s ready to purchase and if he wants to purchase from you.

#6 - Honey vs. Vinegar: The old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Outbound is the vinegar – a strong presence that demands you pay attention. Inbound is the honey, drawing you in with its sweet and pleasant aroma.

#7 - Willy Loman vs. the Wise Man: Outbound marketing is a door-to-door salesperson (literally, in some cases!). He steps right up and rings your doorbell so you have to interact with him. Inbound marketing is the wise hermit in the cave, biding his time but ready to advise you when you seek him out.

The next two analogies use actual marketing tactics to symbolize how many consumers feel about outbound versus inbound approaches, even if they have never heard the terms.

#8 - Inbound vs. Outbound Sales: Many companies employ different people for outbound sales and inbound sales. The outbound folks focus on cold-calling lists of leads usually acquired through a third-party, or maybe leads that were once warm but have gone cold over time. The inbound sales reps, on the other hand, field inquiries from prospects who’ve contacted the company because they may be interested in what it has to offer.

Put in the consumer’s viewpoint, the outbound salesperson inserts herself into your day or evening. You’re likely to ask right off the bat, “What are you selling?” -- an indirect way of saying, “Why are you interrupting me and taking my precious time? This better be good.”

The inbound salesperson exists to answer your questions. That rep asks how they can help, and you get to ask them the specific questions on your mind that you desire answers to.

#9 - The Kiosk: Imagine you’ve stopped at the big box hardware store to get supplies for a home improvement project. As soon as you cross the threshold, you spy a temporary kiosk with an eager salesperson and you know he’s spied you as well. He’s eyeing you like fresh meat. You cringe, not having the time or interest in whatever he’s selling. Do you respond to his entreaties and let him lure you in for a quick spiel, or detour to another aisle to skirt around him? Either way, he represents what many people find annoying about outbound marketing.

On the other hand, if he waits quietly and patiently for you to scan the signage at the kiosk, letting you decide if you have a need for or questions about his product, and then you choose whether or not to approach and engage, that’s an inbound marketing mentality. The messages are there for you to accept or bypass based on your needs at the moment.

#10 - Cut and Dry: Finally, here’s a refreshingly simple way to differentiate the two types of marketing. Outbound is product information that you, the consumer, may or may not be looking for. Inbound is product information you are definitely looking for.


You may think some of these characterizations of outbound marketing unnecessarily harsh. You might even think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot because many companies, including Palmer clients, still benefit from outbound tactics like advertising and trade show involvement.

Let’s be clear: Palmer Ad Agency is still a proponent of many outbound marketing tactics, which deliver strong results. In particular, digital ads deliver extremely strong results when implemented effectively and creatively.

Our harsh examples don’t reflect the validity of outbound marketing. They reflect the views of consumers, because it is their views that, in large part, drive the success or failure of our marketing campaigns. And it is their views that have made inbound marketing a force to be reckoned with.


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