While writing this article I changed my mind A LOT.

Wanna know how much?

Here’s the introduction I wrote before I started this article:

“Before you start reading this, I want to be honest with you.

This whole content marketing vs. inbound marketing debate actually might not matter to you.

You don’t really need to know the difference between content and inbound marketing to be a good marketer. The only thing that matters is, that you provide awesome content to the world – content that makes your customers and wannabe-customers happy, and helps you grow or sustain your business. That’s it.”

Here’s what I’m thinking now:

You have to know the difference. It matters. IT MATTERS A LOT!

If you can’t tell the difference, or worse, if you think it’s all the same bollocks, you’ll fail!


(If you’re imagining me running around in circles with my arms flailing wildly, you’re on the right track 🙂 )

But, before we come to all that, let me explain why I wanted to write this article in the first place, even though I wasn’t sure about the outcome.

It all began when I entered a company that was perceived as the “content marketing” pioneer in Japan. This company is selling (content) marketing automation SaaS and content creation services.

Sounds good?

Well, not quite. Following closely (okay, you can call it obsessively) the developments of inbound and content marketing on the one hand, and looking at what we were selling (and applying) as “content marketing” on the other hand, I had been experienced some serious confusion.

And that was not just my own personal perception. The company had lots of trouble to bring the (American) “story of content marketing” and our alleged “content marketing” software and services together in a way that made sense.

Something was very wrong.

It took me a while to figure out what, but then it hit me like a wrecking ball (but with no Miley Cyrus):

Everything we were doing and selling was essentially inbound marketing, and not content marketing. And, since the both are actually two different things – in my humble opinion – our delicious content-marketing icing didn’t want to stick to the underlying chocolate inbound cake, unless we used lots of duct tape.

(If you’ve ever chewed on duct tape you know that it’s not tasty… I mean, not that I’ve ever tried …)

However, when talking about my thoughts with my colleagues and other marketers, I got surprised looks:

“Inbound and content, isn’t that the same?”

But here’s the thing, if it would be the same, why would it be called differently?

… Jam and marmalade are also called differently and are pretty much the same.

Okay, but, why would there be a slugfest going on between inbound and content marketers on the web, already for years?

…Some people fight about the difference between jam and marmalade, and get paid for that very well, like the EU commission on food standards.

Stop trying to bring this discussion home! This is my story! Get out… Shoo!

The whole thing didn’t make any sense, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. That’s why I decided to look deeper into this whole content vs inbound marketing discussion, and get this confusion out of my system – like a furry little hairball.


So, are you ready to join me on that journey?

Author’s note and precautionary peace-offering

I neither claim any universal truth, nor do I want to join/judge/summarize/get dragged into the ongoing (and quite heated) debate of which concept is a subset of the other.

I may be a bit crazy, but not suicidal. So, fellow marketers out there, please don’t feel offended. I love you all!

How it all started

One of the main reasons for the general confusion when it comes to inbound and content marketing, I think, is that both theories have the same starting point: Both are a response to the same recent changes in the buying behavior of consumers.

Just to give you a short summary:

Through modern communication and information technology like the almighty internet, modern consumers have become greedy little squirrels that research all the information they need to make purchase decisions by themselves. The time when customers depended on companies and salespeople to tell them what to buy and from whom – you know, the good old times – have become a victim of Google, Facebook and the other usual suspects.

The result: Common marketing and sales tactics lost their power.

(at least that’s the common story pushed forward by consultants and thought leaders. Just saying.)

To get a foot in the door in this new age, business folks have tried various flimsy tactics, including hiring greasy black hat SEOs and buying clicks from slimy interwebs dealers, and all in vain.

Businesses had to find better solutions.

And this is where our heroes make their entrance! Tadaaaaaaa!

One is Hubspot:

The customer is more in control than ever — and tunes out traditional sales and marketing messages more than ever. Yet businesses still rely on the same sales and marketing playbook they have used for more than a decade. This mismatch in buyer behavior and company tactics is what led Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah to start HubSpot in 2006 and create the vision for the inbound experience.

The other hero is the Content Marketing Institute (CMI):

CMI was founded by Joe Pulizzi, the leading evangelist for content marketing. Joe, an entrepreneur, speaker, and author on content marketing, believes passionately that there is a better way for brands to market than how they’ve done it in the past. CMI is a culmination of those beliefs.

See, what I mean? The founders of both companies had pretty much the same motivation when they created their concepts of marketing. Therefore, the definitions of both inbound and content marketing also sound quite similar.

Definition of Inbound Marketing by Hubspot:

Instead of the old outbound marketing methods of buying ads, buying email lists, and praying for leads, inbound marketing focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product, where they naturally want to be. By aligning the content you publish with your customer’s interests, you naturally attract inbound traffic that you can then convert, close, and delight over time.

Definition of Content Marketing by CMI:

Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

To compare both concepts, Helen Nesterenko created the following table:

inbound marketing vs content marketing

Mmmh, does that mean that both concepts are actually the same? (And that I am wrong? 🙁 buhuuu!)

My answer is no.

It’s true that the definitions don’t tell the differences between inbound and content marketing clearly, but here’s the thing: Both companies have developed their approaches well beyond their initial definitions with the content they’ve been publishing over the last years – for CMI that’s mainly their website and their podcast “PNR – This Old Marketing”, and for Hubspot it’s their website.

So let’s not focus too much on the original definitions, but also include the stuff Hubspot and CMI have been saying since then.

Author’s note, combined with a random STAR WARS rant

To all nitpickers who are now complaining that I cannot only focus on two companies and their opinions to make a point:

“Yes, I can!”

I am aware that there are many other companies out there who have their own definitions of content and inbound marketing. However, CMI and Hubspot are the ones that developed the concepts, and therefore own them. Period.

That’s why it’s totally fine to ignore the rest who thinks that they can do random stuff and put an already defined term on it, in order to make it sound sophisticated. It doesn’t work like that, fellas! Ask the academic people; they’ll hang you on the nearest tree for dirty term play.

It’s a little bit like STAR WARS. It’s George Lucas’ baby. He can do what he wants with it. If he wants to add some digital doodlydooh here and some Han Solo shooting first there, well, then we have to take that like real grown ups and follow the master.

He’s always right.

… Except this one time.

I mean, replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen – really?!

That doesn’t make any sense!

Why, George, whyyyyyyyyy?

but why????!!!

You’re betraying the story! You’re betraying the one and only Darth Vader! (Not to mention Obi Wan and Yoda, who have to stand next to the glowing evil prat that’s Anakin Skywalker…)


… Oh uh, aehm, I am back. No worries, I am back…. Breeeeaaaath…..

Back to Hubspot and CMI!

So where’s the difference?

Some marketers have already pointed out several differences between content and inbound marketing:

  • Content marketing embraces not only inbound but also outbound techniques, e.g. pay per click for content promotion. (Joe Pullizi)
  • Content marketing is particularly strong in customer retention, e.g. membership magazines. (Joe Pullizi)
  • Inbound marketing covers areas that content marketing doesn’t, like technical SEO, freemium trials and interactive tools. (I am actually not sure if I agree with this one, since interactive tools can be also seen as valuable content. So you’re invited to decide by yourself if that’s an argument or not 🙂 ) (Hubspot)
  • Inbound marketing is strong in the area of sales-marketing alignment. (Written)

I think that above examples show already that there’s some substance to the inbound-and- content-marketing-are-not-the-same-debate.

However, I feel that we’re just scratching the surface here. So let’s dive a little bit deeper into the most important aspects!


As a business function, the overall mission of inbound and content marketing is to support business growth and/or drive profit.

But what about the specific goals inbound and content marketing have to fulfill this mission?

The goal of inbound marketing is to attract (and nurture) inbound traffic and leads, i.e. pulling people who might be interested in the company and products in.

Inbound marketers bring in web visitors and try to turn them into marketing qualified leads (MQL), and later into inside sales qualified leads (ISQL) – or – depending on the structure of the sales organization – into sales qualified leads (SQL).

Not to step on anybody’s toes here, but while “delighting” existing customers and creating up-sell opportunities are also goals of inbound marketing, they seem less prominent. In my opinion, the main focus lies in “pull[ing] people toward your company and product”.

On the other hand, we don’t hear the term “lead” very often anymore when talking about content marketing. Instead, Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose are mainly talking about “subscribers”. A term that fits well into the concept of “audience building”, which is the most important goal of content marketing.

Content marketing efforts are focused on acquiring an audience in order to drive profitable actions. The original definition of CMI talks about “profitable customer actions” which is misleading since “profitable actions” do not necessarily need to be purchased. Promotion or evangelism also count as “profitable action”. That’s why subscribers do not necessarily need to be turned into customers.

In my understanding, inbound marketing also wants fans and promoters, but it is much more focused on getting them to buy first, i.e. keep their sales reps busy.


Are you accusing me of term-nitpickery?

Are you saying that just because inbound and content marketers use different terms for their particular goals (traffic/leads vs audience/subscribers) doesn’t mean that they are actually different? At the end it’s always about acquiring something and turning it into profit?

Maybe… Maybe not.

Let’s take a closer look at the actual process of “inbound traffic/lead generation” and “audience building”. You’ll see that there are differences, too.


At the beginning of both processes, there’s the need to get attention, to establish the “first contact”. Both processes use content for this purpose.

While inbound relies solely on “non-intrusive” tactics like SEO and social posts to get its content found, content marketing uses the full arsenal of marketing tactics, including outbound (e.g. pay for clicks) to distribute and promote its content.

To turn the traffic into either “leads” or “subscribers” both inbound and content marketers use “gated” content. That’s content that is “locked” by an opt-in form in which interested users have to put in their information (at least their email address) in order to get that piece of content.

You know, you gotta give and take, dude(tte), give and take.

Inbound marketers will then try to “nurture” their leads with either further content, or a phone chat with their inside sales colleagues until the lead is “ready” – a decision made by the company based on actions the leads took – to get handed over to the sales department.

This lead generation/nurturing process can take a while, or happen rather quickly. Depending on the content a user has downloaded, he or she could get classified as “sales qualified” already on the very first day.

Within this inbound process, “traditional” marketing tactics like lead generation, lead scoring and the aforementioned sales-marketing alignment play an important role.

To fuel the lead engine inbound marketers use various kinds of strategies and tactics, including short term campaigns and branded content – everything that helps them reach their lead numbers.

On the other hand, content marketers treat their subscribers a little differently. Subscribers don’t get a score that tells their “business value”. At least not immediately. They stay content subscribers for a while – much like a newspaper subscriber.

That doesn’t mean that content marketers don’t extract leads from their subscribers, but it happens at a much later stage, when the subscribers have outed themselves as real “leads” or “wannabe-customers”. So, subscribers don’t get handed over to any other department unless they are not requesting it, or show real interest that’s not just based on a content consumption score.

Content marketing content is extremely consistent, responds exactly to the needs of the subscribers and aims to turn the content subscribers into a loyal audience who trusts (and loves) the company, over time!

At a first glance both processes look similar, I know. But there are differences, so let’s list them up again:

1. Content

Inbound marketing: All forms of content that help generate and nurture leads.
Content marketing: Content that’s highly targeted (niched) and responds consistently to the needs of your audience.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, inbound content must also be targeted. But due to the short-term goals (getting found, generating leads) and campaign thinking that’s still popular among inboundies, switching between (broader) target groups and topics works better than in content marketing. In addition, this short-term thinking enables inbound marketers to use short-term content forms like branded content.

Content marketing only works well if you align your content consistently with the needs of ONE extremely specific audience.

Short-term content forms like branded content could be also used by content marketers but ONLY if it’s strictly integrated into a long-term content strategy that’s aimed on building a loyal audience over time.

Explanation: Branded Content

This whole content thing is really complicated, don’t you think? Everything is called the same: Either something-something content or content something-something. That’s so confusing – even for me. And I love terms and words and nitpicking about it!

So, what’s branded content?

First of all, it’s unclear, very unclear. Another discussion I don’t want to tap into. I think branded content is a piece of content that is not overly promotional but still has a company label stamped on its forehead *baaaam*. For some people this looks pretty much like an advertisement, while for some it’s more editorial.

My favorite example of branded content is Dumb Ways to Die by Metro Trains Melbourne.

2. Closing the deal

Inbound marketing: Tries to bring leads as soon as possible through the funnel. Relies on inside sales and/or sales to close the deal.
Content marketing: Relies on the power of trust and loyalty. Gives subscribers more room to clearly identify themselves as wannabe-customers, fans, partners etc., close the deal by themselves or do whatever they’re up to.

You could say that content marketers have to be more patient than inbound marketers. Building an audience and seeing the first “leads” and “prospects” rise can take a long time.

That’s why the golden rule for content marketing is “Don’t sell for at least the first six months!”.

This is too much time for inbound marketers, who are much more aggressive in labeling interactions and guiding leads through their funnel* towards the goal that is the purchase.

If we’re being accurate, there’s no “closing the deal” for content marketers. A purchase or another profitable action is just one incident within the seamless content marketing process that’s ultimately aimed on retaining a loyal audience.

Explanation: Funnel

That’s the thing marketers and salespeople think users go through when they’re making a buying decision. The big stages within a funnel are awareness, research, comparison, purchase and loyalty.

3. Time frame

Inbound marketing: From short term activities like campaigns to long term content strategies – everything’s allowed as long it’s inbound and brings in leads.
Content marketing: Don’t you dare talk about campaigns and everything that starts with “short”!

Traditionally marketers love thinking in “campaigns”. You set a goal, you set a strategy, get your tactics straight and after some days or weeks you look at what you’ve got. Easy!

Inbound marketers deploy campaigns to reach their goals, in combination with long term strategies. As we’ve seen before, content marketers take it slowly and count on long term strategies and consistency, since a loyal audience and trust can’t be built quickly, but over time. Short term thinking and actions turn subscribers away.

If this would be a Greek fable, inbound marketers would be the rabbit, while content marketers are the turtle.

Rabbit and turtle

In summary

Content marketing MUST be long term (and highly consistent) and can deploy BOTH outbound and inbound strategies to build a loyal audience over time.

Inbound marketing MUST use inbound strategies that can be BOTH short term and long term to generate and nurture leads.

There we have some nice big differences between inbound and content marketing, don’t you think?

But there’s more!

Is your head spinning already? Or is your brain melting?

Wanna grab a hot cocoa? With some salted caramel marshmallows?

Okay, let’s do it!

Here’s a recipe for salted caramel marshmallows.

And here for cocoa.

Let’s tackle the big picture in the next post! Until then, enjoy the cocoa!

And, of course, don’t forget to comment!

About what? About inbound and content marketing?

Noooo! Of course not! I want to know how you liked the salted caramel marshmallows!