What is Inbound Marketing? The Story of How PPC Became "In"
The industry is all a-buzz today with Rand Fishkin’s announcement that SEOmoz is relaunching and rebranding as simply Moz . They are distancing themselves from their history as an SEO company and positioning themselves as a provider of more general marketing tools, with a focus on “inbound marketing,” the phrase that local Boston company HubSpot and others made (relatively) famous.
I couldn’t help but notice that Rand’s blog post explaining the change included a revision of a diagram he had previously used when discussing inbound marketing. Here’s the new diagram, which distinguishes between inbound marketing and “interruption marketing”:
And here’s the old diagram, from Rand’s March 2011 blog post :
Notice anything missing? That’s right, PPC is mysteriously missing! In the new diagram, PPC is right next to SEO, at the top of the list - where I think it belongs! So what changed?
What (TF) Is Inbound Marketing, Anyway?
Earlier this year, there was a long thread at Inbound.org, started by our own Victor Pan, who petitioned for a PPC category on the site . Tad Chef responded by saying that “buying ads is outbound”:
Ian Howells echoed this idea, saying: “Not that I hate on paid search, but erm… the site is called inbound.org. PPC is paid media, which is the polar opposite.”
Martin McDonald then followed up on the topic in a post called “WTF is Inbound Marketing, Anyway? ” at his blog, which drew another long chain of comments. Martin disagreed with both Tad and Ian:
Now frankly, I’m in disagreement with both of the above. PPC is absolutely a part of inbound marketing by my standards. My definition of inbound revolves around being somewhere with the answer when someone is looking for it, NOT sticking an advert for a product or service in front of their faces. That absolutely includes PPC!
This sparked another thread at Inbound.org , with people continuing to debate whether PPC, being a form of paid media, qualifies as inbound marketing.
The answer, as Ed Fry points out, really depends on how you define inbound marketing. Is it about cost of distribution, or context?
Free vs. Paid, Interruption vs. Flow
Some people in the web marketing  space have suggested that PPC shouldn’t be included in “inbound marketing” because you have to pay for placement. But we take a different view.
Inbound marketing is any kind of marketing that reaches customers when they go looking for something to buy.
The whole point of introducing a term like “inbound marketing” is to create a more nuanced distinction than just “free marketing” and “paid marketing.” Any marketer who manages a budget knows that no form of marketing is truly “free.” Our friends at HubSpot and the newly dubbed Moz, sell products that helps you manage and execute on inbound campaigns. They know that if they called what they’re selling – a platform for blogging and SEO – “free marketing,” it would be a contradiction in terms. Of course, you can do inbound marketing without paying for software to help manage the process, but you’re either going to be paying someone or a team of people to do it (a blogger, a social media manager, an SEO specialist, etc.) or you’re going to be doing it yourself. And if you’re like many of our customers, business owners, any time you spend on inbound marketing is time you can’t spend on other business activities. All those activities have a cost. That’s why “free marketing” doesn’t cut it.
It makes much more sense to think of “inbound marketing” as the opposite of “outbound marketing,” or “interruption marketing,” than as the opposite of “free marketing” (which doesn’t exist). By this definition, inbound marketing is any kind of marketing that reaches customers when they go looking for something to buy.
For example: if you own a local pizza joint and you go around stick fliers and menus under people’s windshield wipers and rubber-banding them to their doorknobs all the time, that’s outbound or interruption marketing, because you’re coming to them and getting in their face, even though you have no idea whether they want pizza or even like pizza.
But if someone in your area searches for “pizza” on their mobile phone at 5 pm, and they get an organic local listing or a mobile PPC ad from your businesses, that’s contextual. Neither option is interrupting the flow of what they’re doing. Either way, you’re giving them information they were already looking for. Because PPC, like SEO, is contextual and query-triggered, it’s inbound marketing. Clearly, Rand and the Moz team realized this sometime in the past couple of years, and that’s part of why they’re changing their position.
No Marketing Channel is Free
All marketing channels are paid media. SEO requires tremendous effort . Thousands of new websites are launched every day, but the first page of the search results isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, if we look at the trends in mobile search , if anything, the SERP is getting smaller ! That means the competition to get on the first page of Google is getting exponentially greater all the time.
Ian Lurie pointed out recently, SEO is a zero-sum game . There’s only room for 10 organic listings on the first page (if you’re lucky ). And if someone else takes those spots, that means you can’t!
I’m glad that more marketers including Rand Fishkin and I realize that PPC is inbound marketing, it is sustainable, and it does work. Hopefully over time more will come to the same conclusion.
Are you on board yet? And if not, why not?
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