This article was first published on LinkedIn.

New, shiny objects – oh how they lure us down the rabbit holes.  Nowadays, digital marketing is full of “new, shiny objects.” Whether it’s another marketing technology among the rapidly expanding 1,200+ already available or a buzzword for a new methodology, system or process to help you conduct your marketing. The glean of something better, faster, or cheaper is alluring indeed.

The allure is hard to resist and rightfully so. At times. adopting a new technology or methodology does lead to greater achievements. However, at other times, adoption can lead you down the wrong rabbit hole costing time and money or even worse, can distract you from the important yet difficult tasks to pursue wishful thinking instead.

Defining Inbound, Outbound and Account-based Marketing

So is the case now among business owners, CEOs, head of sales and marketers around inbound, outbound and account-based marketing. A lot of buzz is happening specifically around account-based marketing. For those of you not entirely familiar with these terms, let me quickly bring you up to speed with brief definitions of each.

  • Inbound marketing – according to Hubspot (who coined the term), it’s a marketing “approach focused on attracting customers through content and interactions that are relevant and helpful — not interruptive. With inbound marketing, potential customers find you through channels like blogs, search engines, and social media.”  

Inbound is a “pull” strategy, commonly used by B2B businesses, that leverages the buyers’ curiosity and pursuit of information necessary to help them make a good buying decision. It’s sort of like judo where you use the buyers’ energy with well-planned touchpoints to guide them in the right direction to make a purchase. It’s customer-centric (although many businesses fail to adopt this mindset and instead follow a product-centric one) and focuses on helping the buyer buy (and indirectly – the seller sell.) Inbound marketing has steadily increased in its popularity.

  • Outbound marketing –  is the traditional form of marketing where a company initiates the conversation and sends its message out to an audience. Outbound marketing includes trade shows, email blasts to purchased lists, cold calling, telemarketing, and advertising.

Outbound is a “push” strategy where you’re pushing your message out to your audience in an attempt to catch (e.g. interrupt) them at the right time so they’ll pay attention to your message. Unfortunately, outbound has come under pressure as a failing approach to generating awareness. However, studies indicate outbound remains effective if performed effectively through smart data-driven audience segmentation strategies and highly-relevant, customer-centric messaging.

  • Account-based marketing – per Wikipedia, its also known as “key account marketing, and is a strategic approach to business marketing based on account awareness in which an organization considers and communicates with individual prospects or customer accounts as markets of one.” The concept of targeting “named” accounts has been around for quite some time but the activities used for targeting these accounts has become less expensive and more effective through new technologies and data accessibility. In other words, the approach is old (in a good way) but the effective

Abbreviated as “ABM”, it has gained a significant following as a great approach for carefully targeting ideal accounts with articulating crafted messages and activities across buying committees. This approach may be best suited for adapting to the changing B2B buying landscape. However, account-based marketing is not an approach a B2B business should jump into without careful planning and the fundamental competencies required to make it effective.

Inbound, Outbound or Account-based Marketing – What’s Best For Your Business?

The important question that matters among businesses like yours is “what methodology – inbound, outbound or account-based – should I employ to grow my B2B business?”  Let’s see if I can help you answer this question for your business.

Unfortunately, the most appropriate answer to this question is “IT DEPENDS.”  New, shiny objects may attract but we’re all smart enough to know it could be a harpes call to destruction if we pursue it without first evaluating against some qualifiers. Different situations may weigh approach more heavily than the other. So the best way to provide you with an answer is to explore some qualifying questions that you can ask yourself in order to make the best decision for your business and its current situation.

Evaluating Inbound versus Outbound versus Account-based Marketing For Your Business

In stepping back for a moment and considering how I approach choosing whether to employ an inbound, outbound or account-based marketing approach, I have developed the following qualifying questions. Ask yourself these questions to help narrow down the decision making process.

 

  • Do you have Known or Unknown Target Buyers?

 

There are really two ways to ask this qualifying question: (1) do you have a broad or niche target market and/or (2) can you identify and target an ideal set of ideal customers?

For the first question, does your product or service help a broad, mass market like tax software for small businesses or a project management application for project managers? If your target market is fairly large where laser-targeted doesn’t make sense) then inbound is probably best. Through effectively leveraging a content marketing strategy and employing content distribution channels including search engine optimization and social media, inbound enables you to reach a broader market with relevant, valuable information. This customer-centric information is used to pull your target audience into your sales funnel.

However, if among this broad market, there are enterprises that best represent your ideal customer, then potentially you could employ an account-based marketing approach to target this subset of high-value companies while also using inbound to cover the remaining broad market.

For the second question, a flip of the first one, can you identify a set of companies that are ideal buyers of your product or service?  For example, if your product is specifically designed to help major league baseball teams sell season tickets, you can easily identify all major league baseball teams (there are only 30 of them).  Another example, if you are selling machine parts to companies that manufacture engine parts. There are an identifiable number of these companies. In these cases, account-based marketing is ideal because it specifically targets the influencers and decision-makers within those companies..

So, if you have narrowly-focused and identifiable targets then account-based marketing is preferable. However, even in this case, a mixture of inbound-related and even outbound-related tactics will be required to execute the account-based marketing approach. Account-based marketing relies on similar tactics including content, personal phone calls, direct mail and audience-targeting to gain attention and generate action for your targeted accounts. So the approach could focus on account-based, but the tactics are typically a mixture of inbound and outbound.

 

  • Urgent or Less Urgent Need for Sales Leads and Revenue?

 

An inbound marketing approach takes time to build because it relies heavily on content production which feeds search engine optimization and distribution through social media and email marketing. Therefore, it takes time to build momentum – maybe 6 to 12 months before you start realizing good inbound lead generation. Grant it, time frames fluctuate depending on different variables.

What I suggest for start-ups is to begin with outbound (especially if they have already hired a salesperson) and use the cold-calling time to better fine-tune the brand messaging, to gather more market feedback and to test buyer journey stages. As a new company, you need to build awareness and even cold-calling can help. It can also provide rapid feedback to further sharpen the brand messaging. Concurrently to running some outbound, I would start to quickly ramp-up an inbound marketing approach which eventually should overtake outbound in generating qualified lead volume. When it does, the salesperson can transition her/his focus on closing sales.  

 

  • Budget or No Budget?

 

This is sort of a trick question. If you have no budget then you’re limited in your opportunities. Outbound, specifically cold-calling, is your best bet – and it is a bet – so good luck. Smart marketing will deliver an ROI and you know, you have to spend money to make money. Good investing though is about spending money to make more money than what was spent. It’s the same with marketing. If you can’t invest in content production (following a clearly articulated content strategy) and leveraging this content investment through fueling search engine optimization, email marketing and social media channels, (not to mention helping the sales team to create great bottom-of-the-funnel content) then you’re not setup right for inbound or account-based marketing.

If you have a budget, inbound or account-based (depending on question #1 above) is recommended.  If you believe the stats (and keep in mind Disraeli’s quote, “Lies, damn lies and statistics”) CRM Daily reports, “nearly half of the companies that implement inbound marketing efforts see a 25 percent greater return on investment (ROI) on those programs than companies that do not.’ Further, the same report found that, “inbound marketing channels can deliver up to 30 times the campaign conversion rate of traditional outbound direct-mail campaigns.”

 

  • Clearly Defined or NOT Clearly Defined Brand Message?

 

I hate to bear the bad news, but if you don’t have a clearly defined brand message (including value proposition, core messaging and points of difference) then neither inbound, outbound nor account-based marketing is right for you!!  If this is the case for you, stop now and focus first on clearly articulating your message platform. Regardless of the approach you choose, if you don’t communicate in a way that resonates with your buyer’s challenges and goals for their buying journey, then you’ll get poor results and waste money in the process. It doesn’t (and probably won’t) be perfect, but spend the time to get this as close to right as possible then test it with a subset of your target audience.

All too frequently, a business owner, CEO or head of sales will blame the marketing approach for poor results when in reality, the messaging is poor. Instead of communicating with buyer’s about their needs, these businesses talk about product features. A lot of “we” and not nearly enough “you”.

 

  • Clearly Articulated Personas or Not?

 

Like number four above, none of the marketing approaches matter if you don’t have a clear idea of who you are communicating with. You cannot create effective brand messaging that resonates with your buyers (and helps them buy from you) if you don’t know who they are, what they want to achieve or avoid and how they think, feel or believe about their buying situation. You personas (or composite characteristics, behaviors and so on of your ideal buyer) provide you with a target for which to construct your messaging and how you’ll reach out to them along their buying journey.

Therefore,what do you choose –  inbound, outbound or account-based marketing? How about “none” – until you spend the time defining your personas so you know how you’ll use any of the three to attract the right prospective buyers. Brand messaging is such an important part to effective marketing and selling. It’s best to spend the time getting your messaging right using a customer-centric approach. Learn as much as you can about your prospective buyers and you’ll reap better results.

 

  • Do you possess the skill-set and competency in-house or not?

 

In order to conduct an effective inbound or account-based marketing program, you must possess certain skill-sets or have the budget to outsource it. B2B buyers tend to use six different sales and marketing channels throughout their buying journey so an integrated marketing program is best-in-class.”While the cognitive buying decision process is linear and sequential, we found that how buyers consume content and interact with provider organizations is not linear – in fact, the interaction patterns are much more episodic,” explained Marisa Kopec, Vice President and Group Director at SiriusDecisions.

If you do not have the skill-set in-house, then outsource all or part of it. These programs are measurable. If an outsourced provider can’t deliver the results based on fair and agreed-to expectations then you can let them go while continuing what they started in-house (assuming you learned what they were doing in the process!) If you do outsource, make sure the company helps develop an underlying infrastructure to support the approach you choose so if you decide to bring the program in-house, the infrastructure remains in place.   

Inbound, Outbound or Account-based Marketing? Sorry but it REALLY DEPENDS!

As a consultant, I hate giving my clients vague answers and “it depends” is certainly one of them. But I also want to deliver results and delivering those results often requires an integration of strategies to best serve the client’s buyers at the right time and in the right way.  Using the above qualifying questions should help you assess the opportunity for when inbound versus outbound versus account-based marketing could work best for your specific business situation.

In the end, the ultimate question comes to how best to serve your buyers in a way that helps them accomplish their goals and overcome their challenges. If a cold-call to the ideal buyer that initially gets their attention but quickly transitions into advising him or her through their buying process and ultimately to a purchase, then great!  However, if this approach isn’t easily repeatable/scalable, or if it’s too costly based on your profit margins then you’ll have to pick a better approach. If you know your buyers and though it, you have been able to develop succinct brand messaging that speaks clearly to these buyers’ challenges and goals then regardless of the approach, you’ll at least be on a better path to success.

In closing, studies are showing a stronger preference towards inbound and account-based marketing because they better serve today’s B2B buyer. From experience, I agree with these studies although I still see opportunities for an effective outbound marketing approach integrated with inbound and account-based. The critical and central tenant is segmentation and leveraging buyer data to be precise in your efforts. An integrated, data-driven and measurable approach that best fits the unique circumstances of a B2B business is ideal. I tend to move towards an inbound and account-based marketing approach. But, I’m still seeing results from outbound too.  So what’s best for you?


Looking to get more customers? Kevin Gold, of Next Leap Strategy, helps business owners, marketers and sales leaders develop and execute effective marketing growth strategies (whether inbound, outbound or account-based marketing) to generate more sales leads and profitable customers. Marketing for revenue growth. He is also co-founder of FindYourNextCustomers.com, a Customer Acquisition Accelerator Bootcamp which guides B2B businesses how with these studies  to adapt to the changing B2B buying process. Get started by contacting Kevin at 513.601.8893 or visit www.NextLeapStrategy.com.