Content marketing vs inbound marketing: What’s the difference?

What's the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing? Our experts break it down and help you understand which strategy is right for your business.

Picture of Ian Guiver Ian Guiver

Published: 07 Jun 2016

5 minutes read

Content marketing vs inbound marketing | Axon Garside

If you don’t understand the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing, don’t worry - you’re not alone. Copy the two terms into Google, and you’ll see all the signs of a well-worn debate with little in the way of consensus (and perhaps a hint of self-interest from some parties, too).

You’ll also come across experts like Joe Chernov, the former VP of content marketing for Hubspot, claiming we ought to “let others fret about terminology and instead focus on creating awesome stuff”. Of course, that’s not much use if you’re an in-house marketer weighing up pitches from a self-described content agency on the one hand and an inbound marketing specialist on the other. How, exactly, do you see past the semantics and choose a partner that delivers genuine ROI?

The truth is, there’s a big overlap between content marketing and inbound marketing. Most importantly, both focus on how quality content helps customers find and engage with brands on their own terms. But content marketing - defined by the CMI as “creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience” - is only one part of the inbound puzzle.

Free guide: How to use content marketing to become a thought leader

Meanwhile, inbound marketing - in the form championed by Hubspot - encompasses techniques that lie outside the scope of the average content creator’s remit: things like SEO, form optimisation, lead nurturing and analytics.

So, if you’re concerned you’re not getting ROI from otherwise high-quality content, it might be time to look at how the principles of inbound marketing can help your business.

“But that’s not how we do content marketing...”

A lot of content marketers will no doubt take issue with this definition. To them, a best-in-class editorial team or agency is more than just a content farm: it should be built on the pillars of joined-up campaigns and collaboration with sales, and be committed to conversions and measurable results.

This is all, of course, true. But that’s not to say the way brands do content marketing is uniformly successful. In fact, CMI research from 2015 shows just 34% of UK marketers consider their organisations to be any good at it, despite reporting consistent increases in the amount of content they create year on year.

So, even as the industry matures, there’s a widespread tendency towards scattergun content production and a failure to keep buyers engaged at every stage of their journey.

This results in underperforming campaigns and lost sales opportunities, and can cause other problems for the business, too. Publishing regular blogs and ebooks is resource-intensive, so content marketers who rely on this model may end up skimping on quality to the detriment of brand image. And a marketing team that struggles to nurture leads isn’t going to win many fans in the sales department.

It’s here the inbound marketing methodology comes into its own, helping brands to integrate their sales and marketing activities and establish a more holistic view of the buyer’s journey.

In inbound marketing, quality content still matters

Of course, exchanging traditional content marketing for an inbound model isn’t an excuse for your business to focus any less on producing quality content. It’ll help you tighten up your campaigns and avoid churning out content for no reason, but you’ll still need to create and distribute content that speaks to your buyers in an accurate, articulate and engaging way.

This is particularly true when it comes to B2B content. In industries like tech and professional services, it’s reasonable to assume your readers are mostly experts in their respective fields. They can spot uninspired and ill-informed work from a mile off, no matter how strong your keyword strategy or how well-optimised your landing pages.

Companies that succeed in establishing themselves as experts in their fields earn trust from their prospective clients and customers, leading to greater lead generation. Find out more about how to use content marketing to become a thought leader by clicking on the link below. 

Become a thought leader in your industry

Our content marketing guide has everything you need to know about becoming a thought leader within your industry, including top tips and best practices.