Inbound Marketing Strategy: A Guide for 2023

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What is this guide?

An introduction to the inbound method of digital marketing and common tactics.

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Who is this guide for?

This guide is for B2Bs considering using inbound to reach their marketing goals, such as attracting, nurturing, & converting leads.

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What will I learn and be able to do with this information?

You’ll learn what inbound is, how it works, common inbound tactics, what goes into a successful strategy, the costs of inbound marketing, & how to calculate inbound ROI so you can get started on your own strategy.

Introduction

In a marketplace where buyers research their problems and evaluate solutions online, a digital-first approach to marketing with more easily attributable results can be a valuable strategy.

According to the September 2022 CMO survey, spending on marketing analytics recently hit an all-time high, comprising an average of 8.9% of respondents’ marketing budgets during the pandemic. Respondents reported marketing analytics contributes to nearly half of marketing decisions and that their investments in market research have tripled.

In uncertain times, analytics data can help companies spend their money wisely, learn from mistakes, and optimize campaigns to perform as well as possible.

At the same time, a more customer-centric approach to marketing that is designed to build trust, help rather than annoy, encourage retention, and account for word-of-mouth promotion may offer a welcome change from interruptive traditional methods during a stressful period as well as help marketing teams drive bottom-line results.

To this end, we’ll delve into common questions about inbound marketing, proven inbound marketing tactics, costs, calculating ROI, and what goes into an inbound strategy. Along the way, you can get a feel for whether inbound might be a good fit for you.

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What is inbound marketing?

Inbound marketing definition & methodology

Inbound marketing is a marketing style that aims to generate brand awareness and lasting client relationships by targeting audiences that actively need your products or services and providing them with resources and support that help them achieve their goals.

It’s about finding audience members who are most likely to become your customers and helping them understand and solve their problems instead of interrupting whatever they’re doing.

This is the opposite of traditional or “outbound” marketing.

Vs. outbound marketing

Outbound marketing uses techniques that project your message to a broad, unqualified audience and often relies on interruption to get attention.

Examples of outbound marketing:

  • Advertisements on TV, radio, billboards, the web, & in print
  • Cold calling
  • Direct mail
  • Mass emails

These methods can still be effective when executed properly in the right situations but can be annoying (and irrelevant) to prospective customers. This motivates them to block these messages out.

Examples of inbound marketing:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Digital content created to help the right kinds of buyers understand and solve their problems
  • High-performing websites tailored to serve the needs of modern buyers in information-gathering mode

To sum up:

inbound vs outbound infographic

Inbound marketing vs. content marketing

As CMI points out, content marketing has been around for over a century. If you’ve ever baked a dessert from a Pillsbury bake-off booklet, watched a cartoon promoting a toy, or read a magazine published by a company intended for customers, you’ve consumed content marketing formats that pre-dated inbound marketing.


But the internet makes content marketing so convenient. Simply build a blog on your website or shoot some video with your phone, and your company can participate.

SEO helps you publish content that is more likely to reach your target audience online. You can discover what phrases your audience is searching for and write satisfying content on that topic. This is where the “inbound” part comes in.

Inbound content marketing is content marketing that zeroes in on the audience most likely to buy, typically using digital media, and tries to help them understand and solve their problems, pushing them further down the buyer’s journey in the process.

Where traditional content marketing provides value, sometimes to a targeted audience (e.g., existing customers), inbound provides value online, often to an even narrower audience (e.g., people searching for particular keywords), and takes the next step in providing value by helping prospective customers find solutions.

The stages of inbound marketing: how it works

Inbound marketing has three main stages:

Attract

Marketers build brand awareness and position themselves as an authority on particular topics in their industry to generate leads.

In a traditional sales funnel, this is pretty much the same as the “top of the funnel.”

At this point, buyers are trying to understand their problems better. For example, googling “bowing basement wall.”

Engage

Marketers “nurture” leads by providing more advanced content, answering questions, and positioning themselves as a solution provider to encourage potential customers to make a purchase.

This is similar to the “mid and bottom funnel” stages. The buyer has identified the cause of their problem and is now looking for solutions and vendors that can provide them.

Maybe when the person from the previous example searched for “bowing basement wall,” they found a photo of a similar wall from an article about the causes of these problems. This led them to realize that they might have a foundation issue. Now, they are exploring options for fixing it. With the internet, it’s no longer necessary to talk to sales to learn about solutions.

At some point, this person is going to start looking for contractors in their area, maybe looking at reviews and tapping their network for recommendations.

Delight

Marketers provide excellent support and customer service to help customers achieve their goals in the hopes they’ll continue their business relationships and recommend their products and services to others.

At this stage, a vendor has been selected. Now it’s up to the vendor to provide such a wonderful experience they not only have great customer retention, but clients recommend them to their network.

Why inbound marketing?

So what advantage does inbound have over other types of digital marketing?

In a nutshell, inbound strives to be helpful to customers rather than interruptive while also persuading them to move further along their buyer’s journey. This can help build a solid foundation of goodwill and trust for a long-term client relationship.

When done well, this can lead to potential customers coming to trust your company as an entity that will not only provide valuable information but listen to their concerns and help them solve their problems.

Taking the time to build a trusting working relationship with a client can pay dividends in terms of retention and word-of-mouth promotion, and this is accounted for in the inbound model.

Eight common types of inbound marketing tactics

A practical website

Your company website is the cornerstone of your inbound marketing strategy. An effective website:

  • Is easy to use (on any device)
  • Loads fast
  • Is organized logically
  • Answers your prospects’ questions

A modern company website serves as both a digital storefront and 24x7 salesperson. Prospects can find answers to basic questions like your hours of operation, learn what you have to offer, get information that helps them decide if your solution is best for them, and leave a message for you, even after hours.

Why build a website?

  • Provides a platform for online lead generation
  • Helps you scale the sales process by enabling buyers to qualify themselves before contacting sales
  • Offers a place to publish lead generating content
  • Offers a place to publish custom landing pages for email marketing and ad campaigns
  • Helps current and potential customers communicate with and learn about your business

Considerations

  • Requires technical expertise
  • Expensive
  • Can take a long time if not planned carefully
  • Requires ongoing maintenance
  • Difficult to execute independently

Example: 3 B2B Companies

To get an idea of how long it typically takes to see meaningful results from an inbound website optimization and SEO project, we compared results from three of our B2B clients four quarters after their launch dates.

These B2B companies operate in different markets and began working with us at different times, but all had the goal of generating more qualified leads from their websites in the long term.

After working with us for a year, they had generated an average of 21% more sales-qualified leads per month and increased organic traffic (sessions) by an average of 67% when compared to the previous year.

Read the whole story »

SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a set of techniques that maximize your chances of getting found in search engine results and visited by search engine users. This long-term tactic often requires a significant upfront investment, but can pay impressive dividends over time when managed and planned properly.

Here are a few approaches to SEO that are relevant to B2Bs:

Local SEO techniques help businesses that primarily serve local customers show up in results for search users in their local market.

Examples:

  • Claiming and optimizing your Google Business Profile
  • Making sure mentions of your business information (name, address, and phone number) on directory sites, social media profiles, and more are accurate
  • Creating unique pages for each business location on websites.

Content-powered SEO involves the publication of pages on your website that provide the information your prospects are looking for (like blog posts, videos, and case studies). These pages draw qualified traffic to your site by being the best sources of information on the web for a particular question or topic area.

Technical SEO helps ensure the mechanics of your site are built to be fast and easy to access for users and search engines alike.

When we build a website, there is a certain amount of SEO baked in, simply by virtue of following design, development, and copywriting best practices.

Why do it?

  • Critical if your buyers search for services, products, solutions, or problems that you can solve online
  • Can produce leads sustainably over the long-term
  • Don’t have to pay for each potential lead
  • Relative to paid media channels, the ongoing cost is limited compared to ongoing lead generation opportunity
  • Strategic advantage over competitors if their content and site are poor quality

Considerations

  • Results can take time. Your website needs to be built and/or optimized. Website content needs to be created. Search engines need to crawl, index, and rank your website pages.
  • Typically involves higher upfront costs and time investments
  • Technically and strategically challenging
  • To a greater extent than traditional marketing, success varies according to the skill of the SEO provider and the strength of the strategy
  • Success is dependent in part on factors beyond your control, like search engine algorithms
  • Requires regular maintenance
  • Requires strategic keyword research
  • Can be complicated by competition
  • Your website’s organic search results sometimes have to compete with paid search ads
  • Doing SEO right can be hard to pull off, but if it’s done well and is a good fit for your business, it can pay off in a big way

Example: A B2B consulting company

After launching a new website and strategy that emphasized inbound content, our B2B client was able to generate 195% more leads per quarter in 2016. By 2021, they generated 2,892% more leads per quarter.

Read the whole story »

Paid search (PPC) ads

PPC stands for “pay per click.” This is a form of advertising where you can pay for your ad to appear on the first page of search engine results pages when someone searches for a certain keyword.

it support ad

Source: Google

PPC is also known as “search engine marketing (SEM),” and “paid search” because every time someone clicks on your ad, you pay the search engine (like Google) a certain amount of money.

Why do it?

  • Critical if you know your buyers search for services, products, solutions, or problems that you can solve online
  • Can pay to capture existing demand
  • Relatively quick to set up
  • Can tweak campaigns quickly and easily
  • Can pay for visibility in search results rather than having to earn it over time
  • Can target a very specific audience

Considerations

  • Have to pay for every click
  • Have to keep paying to sustain
  • May have to pay more for a better position
  • The more competition there is, the more you have to pay
  • Must invest in a quality, custom landing page to be successful
  • Requires strategic keyword research

We often advise clients who want to try paid search to start small: a targeted investment to try it out and gather some data before dropping a large chunk of money.

Example: Dog Guard of WI

A pet containment fencing company wanted to improve its website and generate leads. To this end, we laid the groundwork with website improvements, local SEO, modest content creation, and Google advertising.

Our Google Ads overhaul started with copywriting, design, and development of a custom landing page, plus the set-up of a low-budget ad campaign to gauge channel effectiveness. ​​An initial testing period yielded positive results, prompting us to increase our ad budget. This cycle repeated several times over, and soon Dog Guard of WI was spending several hundred dollars per day on Google Ads without a significant drop in lead generation efficiency.

In 2021, the company generated an estimated 5X ROI on its paid search advertising, thanks in large part to our campaign management services.

Read the whole story »

Content marketing

Content marketing uses helpful content (like blog posts, white papers, videos, social media posts, tools, and more) to answer your audience’s questions, help them understand their problems and solutions to those problems, and nudge them closer to becoming your customer.

One effective method is to publish ungated website content, like blog posts, around topics that interest potential buyers.

Quantitative, well-researched case studies are a great way to demonstrate expertise and build trust with prospective clients. It gives them the opportunity to vet you without going through sales. Ideally, this will make them feel more confident when they do reach out.

Some of the best content marketing involves turning your website into a 24x7 salesperson. Making photos of your work, video demos, testimonials, case studies, and other media available on-demand makes it available to a larger audience.

Read also: Digital Content Marketing Strategy for B2Bs: A Complete Guide in 10 Steps »

Why do it?

  • Can produce leads sustainably over the long-term
  • If buyers need a lot of information before purchasing, content helps supply that need
  • Has the potential to improve your entire site’s ability to get found in search results
  • Can be used to build awareness of your brand and help gain visitors’ trust

Considerations

  • Time-consuming to plan and produce
  • Success is dependent in part on factors beyond your control, like search engine algorithms
  • Demands strategic precision
  • High-quality content can be expensive to create
  • Often requires high-level writing skills
  • Requires regular maintenance

Example: Stangl Law

When this local law firm approached us in 2014, a deprecated website and ineffective ads held it back from achieving its lead generation goals.

To remedy this, we pared back ad spend, updated the firm’s site, and implemented a robust content strategy that targeted keywords searched by potential customers in need of criminal legal counsel. This content answered questions commonly asked by individuals seeking legal services in our client’s practice areas.

In one year, the client increased lead volume by 55%. In the first six years of our engagement with it, the firm increased lead volume by 294%.

Read the whole story »

Email

HubSpot defines email marketing this way:

“Email marketing is the process of targeting your audience and customers through email. It helps you boost conversions and revenue by providing subscribers and customers with valuable information to help achieve their goals.”

Some common types of emails used in marketing are:

  • Newsletters
  • Emails that engage existing leads to bring them closer to buying
  • Promotional emails

Why do it?

  • Helpful for moving leads through the sales cycle
  • Easy to set up
  • Easy to target your audience and create personalized messages
  • Scaleable
  • Automation opportunities

Considerations

  • If poorly done, can turn off prospects
  • Requires technical expertise
  • Regulatory and compliance concerns around privacy
  • For best results, requires careful maintenance and proper segmentation of contact lists

Example: hypothetical equipment manufacturer

Let’s consider how a hypothetical equipment manufacturer that builds robots to retrieve items from shelves in a distribution center might find email marketing useful.

The challenge for this company is that these machines are expensive, and require distributors to rethink their processes. Naturally, the sales cycle is quite long.

With such a long sales cycle, encouraging leads to move through the sales cycle by answering their questions at each step of the way via a lead nurturing campaign is a no-brainer.

Since email is a major channel for lead nurturing and this manufacturer knows their clients are on their email all day, a lead nurturing email campaign is a good fit.

In this context, the manufacturer would probably set up an automated lead nurturing workflow that does some of the sales team’s job for them. It might look something like this:

  1. The potential client signs up for the manufacturer’s email list at a trade show or on its website.
  2. This triggers a “welcome” email that thanks them for getting on the list, and communicates the value the potential client will get from opening future emails.
  3. The buyer then receives a series of emails that helps them better understand their challenge, what solutions are available to those challenges, and why your solution may be best compared to alternative options. These emails help guide the buyer into—and through—your funnel.
  4. Finally, if the buyer hasn’t engaged on one of the prior emails, they get one more email that politely acknowledges that the buyer doesn’t seem to be ready to talk now, and provides links to resources that can help them decide whether the manufacturer’s machines are a good fit for their needs, like case studies and videos of the products.

Social media marketing

Social media marketing uses tactics to market to your audience on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Common uses for social media include building a positive brand image, interacting with prospective customers and employees, and promoting and distributing website content.

Why do it?

  • Free to use
  • Easy to get started
  • Low effort
  • Possible to leverage your network of contacts

Considerations

  • Requires regular maintenance
  • Have to understand how each platform works
  • Not worth it if your audience doesn’t spend time there

Example: Madison Banders

We helped a company that manufactures commercial banding machines create videos of its products at work, which we published on YouTube. Then, we strategically integrated them into the business’ website to serve as virtual, on-demand demos. As of this writing, the video below has been viewed over 30,000 times.


Social media advertising

Social media ads, like ads in search results, are minimally disruptive. They also provide powerful audience targeting features that allow you to reach high qualified individuals if you know where they like to spend their time. This makes ads on these platforms a great tool for lead generation.

Why do it?

  • Can target specific types of people based on demographics or work attributes
  • Minimally disruptive ads
  • If you are finding success with content marketing, social ads can be helpful for promoting highly valuable content to people who likely need it but haven’t found it already.

Considerations

  • Can be expensive
  • Technically difficult to set up
  • Only makes sense if audience is on the platform

Example: Clinical laboratory software company

A healthcare IT company recently partnered with us to help them increase lead volume to achieve more ambitious sales growth goals through SEO, HubSpot lead nurturing, and experimentation with social media advertising.

The company had tried LinkedIn advertising in the past, but had not generated any leads. We decided that it made sense to try again, this time taking advantage of B2B-friendly ad formats and marketing data-informed audiences.

As of this writing, the company has generated 18 sales-qualified leads via LinkedIn advertising, including two customers and two other sales opportunities since May 2021.

Sales enablement

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, sales enablement refers broadly to activities and assets that provide salespeople with the information and resources they need to do their jobs more effectively and optimize the sales process itself.

It involves both marketing and sales teams and activities like content creation, reporting, lead qualification, and automating elements of the sales process.

Why do it?

  • Gives your salespeople more information on their prospects’ interactions with your marketing and sales activities
  • Provides salespeople with a wider range of more sophisticated outreach and follow-up tools
  • Frees up salespeople’s time via the automation of repetitive tasks

Considerations

  • Technical expertise required
  • May require marketing and/or sales automation software
  • High-level writing skills required
  • Requires coordination and cooperation between sales and marketing teams

Example: IT services company

Our sales enablement work helps front-line sales reps at an IT services company qualify leads, stay apprised of leads' site activity, more easily and effectively follow up with newly-generated leads, and re-engage SQLs that go quiet.

“MMG’s sales templates, HubSpot integration, and targeted advertising campaigns have greatly streamlined our companies' lead and sales generation process. MMG has enabled our organization to be able to spend less time reaching out, following up, and sharing targeted marketing material with qualified leads, while instead focusing our efforts on deeper, more fruitful conversations that result in getting pens to papers—faster. We view MMG as an instrumental partner in ensuring rapid growth for us in our market.”

 

— Client, IT Services Company

How to do inbound marketing

The details of an inbound marketing strategy should be dictated by your business’s unique situation. As a result, we can’t give you a specific formula for success.

At the same time, the components that go into building a winning strategy will be similar for most businesses.

Creating an effective inbound marketing strategy involves common best practices that help you unearth the information you need to invest in the right tactics, gracefully execute your ideas, and measure your successes.

If you’re looking to give an existing digital marketing strategy a facelift for 2023, you might find our other post helpful: 8 Ways to Refresh Your Digital Marketing Strategy in 2023.

How to develop an inbound marketing strategy

  1. Set SMART goals.
  2. Define your target audience.
  3. Set a budget.
  4. Identify the length of your sales cycle and customer concerns at each stage.
  5. Research competitor strategies.
  6. Audit existing digital marketing resources. You might find our checklist helpful for identifying opportunities.
  7. Reflect on past marketing initiatives.
  8. Consider and articulate what unique value your business provides.
  9. Select marketing tactics (e.g., SEO, video) that fit with your SMART goals, timelines, customers, budget, sales cycle, competitor activity, and available resources.
  10. Conduct any additional research needed into your web performance, customer preferences, competitor strategies, and search terms customers use to find businesses like yours (if relevant).
  11. Create subgoals for each tactic. Attach one key performance indicator to each one.
  12. Ensure you have the appropriate software set up to track performance. Google Analytics is the free industry standard for tracking website metrics. Google paid search advertising has built-in reporting capabilities, as do social media platforms like LinkedIn and YouTube.
    You can use more robust tools like HubSpot to track lead generation efforts from the first touch to executed sales.
  13. Execute your strategy.
  14. Track your performance. You can also run split tests to run experiments to improve web page performance.

We understand this is a boatload of work, but we’d love to unpack it with you. If you need help, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Inbound marketing costs

After looking at all the work you have to do above, you’re probably wondering what sort of ROI you can expect to get for your trouble and how much budget you’ll need to ask for.

Since everyone’s strategy will be different, we can’t give you an exact estimate of what it will cost, but we can tell you what might factor into in-house costs for common inbound tactics, plus some rough estimates for outsourced solutions.

Generally speaking, you’re paying for similar costs whether you’re sourcing marketing internally or externally. But there are a few major differences worth noting.

Flexibility

With an agency, you often have more flexibility when it comes to managing costs. For example, you might have the option to pay a monthly retainer fee that covers a number of projects or choose to pay for one project at a time, as opposed to hiring a new employee and immediately incurring the cost of their salary, onboarding, training, and benefits.

Expertise

Additionally, full-service agencies come stocked with experts in a number of areas, eliminating the need to hire multiple internal specialists for a single project, such as building a website or risk hiring a generalist who may not be equally skilled in each discipline they practice. For example, a website build project requires copywriting, developing, and design skills to pull off effectively.

On the other hand, if you only need to hire one specialist to meet a specific need and reach your marketing goals, hiring an agency may not be practical.

Additional Expenses

Certain expenses are unavoidable, such as the cost of mission-critical tools, like marketing software subscriptions. Good agencies already subscribe to professional tools like these, so they are simply baked into the cost of outsourced services rather than laid on top of your own operating expenses. Our agency, for example, spends around $40,000 on tools each year to keep our clients’ websites and campaigns up and running.

Scalability

If you need to scale your marketing activities as a result of new initiatives in your company or pivots in your strategy, agencies can often accommodate these additions more easily than an in-house team with a fixed bandwidth.

Read also: White paper: In-house Digital Marketing vs. Hiring an Agency:
A Guide to Smart Decision-making »

Agency cost estimates

  • Web design & development: $16,000–$50,000 (in our experience, for a basic but well-designed website)
  • SEO: $500–$20,000 per month; $50–$250 per hour; $500–$1,000 per project for professional SEO services
  • PPC: $500–$5,000+ per month management fee or 20%-30% of ad spend
  • Content marketing: $5,000-$50,000+ per month for professional services
  • Social media marketing: $1,000-$20,000 per month for professional services

See how I got these numbers »

Actual rates may vary, but the estimates above are based on our own experience, industry surveys, additional research, and the opinions of other professionals.

Calculating Inbound marketing ROI

Okay, on to how these marketing costs relate to your bottom line.

Fortunately, inbound marketing happens (almost) exclusively online, which means that it’s fairly easy to gather campaign data.

Here’s the math you can use to determine ROI.

Step 1: calculate CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost)

CAC = (total cost of sales and marketing for all one-time clients) / (number of customers acquired)

Step 2: find your COGS (Cost of Goods Sold)

If you sell products, you can calculate COGS by adding any yearly purchases related to material and labor to your inventory at the start of a year, then subtract your end-of-year inventory from that number (Investopedia).

Step 3: if you tend to serve one-time clients, calculate ROI now

(Sales Revenue - COGS) / CAC = ROI

Step 4: calculate Average Customer Lifetime Value (ACLV)

(average purchase value) x (average amount of times they pay this purchase value) = ACLV

Step 5: if you serve return customers, calculate Overall ROI this way

(ACLV - COGS) / CAC = ROI

Learn more about calculating inbound ROI and how to get the best returns »

 

Takeaways

If you don’t have the internal resources or time to take this on, leave us a message. We can work with you to come up with a strategy tailored to your budget and the unique needs of your business.

In the meantime, check out our free checklist to ensure your current digital marketing strategy measures up to best practices:

get the complete digital marketing checklist