What is Inbound Marketing? A Beginner’s Guide
Inbound marketing is a marketing strategy that aims to pull customers in with relevant and useful content.
Coined by HubSpot’s founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah—who noticed that a new marketing paradigm was needed for the Internet age—the goal of inbound marketing is to get found by prospects and customers while building a strong relationship with them.
In this post, we’ll learn:
Inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing
Outbound marketing is an interruptive form of marketing where you push a message or product out to a prospect through cold calls, cold emails, direct mail, etc.
Inbound marketing is the opposite—you create useful content for your audience which they seek out when they need it.
How inbound marketing works
According to HubSpot, there are three steps to inbound marketing:
- Attract. Bring in the right people.
- Engage. Help these people with their pain points and goals so they are more likely to buy from you.
- Delight. Go above and beyond for them. Help them find success with your product.
Together, they work like a flywheel.
You attract prospects to your company. These people engage with your content and are eventually convinced to buy, turning them into customers. After receiving stellar results with your product, plus amazing customer service, they become “ambassadors,” promoting you to their friends.
It’s similar to a marketing funnel, except that it doesn’t stop at the last stage. Rather, the final stage propels the first stage, which propels the second, and so on—aka a flywheel.
How to get started with inbound marketing
You’ve seen how inbound marketing works in theory. But how is it actually executed in reality?
Well, inbound marketing is essentially our entire marketing strategy here at Ahrefs. We spend a large portion of our resources on creating helpful content that teaches our customers SEO and digital marketing while promoting our product—like the post you’re reading right now.
Our blog receives 600K+ visitors per month. And this is just from Google alone.
Our YouTube channel has ~209,000 subscribers and gets ~355,000 monthly views.
Together with an industry-leading product loved by our customers, inbound marketing has helped us grow into one of the most popular SEO tools on the market.
Here’s how we use inbound marketing at Ahrefs.
If people don’t know you exist, they can’t buy your product. So, the first step is to attract potential customers.
For inbound marketing, this is done mainly via creating and publishing content, aka content marketing.
At Ahrefs, our acquisition strategy is centered around SEO-driven content marketing, i.e. content designed to rank high on search engines.
While you can publish any content as long as it’s interesting to your audience, most of these articles won’t get traffic long-term. They may get an initial burst in traffic (“spike of hope”) when first published, but interest wanes (“flatline of nope”) when people are no longer interested.
However, if you create content around topics that people are constantly searching for in Google, then there’s guaranteed continued interest. For as long as your article ranks in Google, you’ll receive consistent, passive organic search traffic.
This is why our traffic continues to grow year after year:
Here’s how we create SEO content at Ahrefs:
Find topics with search traffic potential
Every post we publish on the Ahrefs blog targets a term with search traffic potential.
To find these topics, use a keyword tool. For example, let’s say you own a site about the paleo diet. Enter a relevant topic like “paleo” into a free keyword research tool like Keyword Generator and it’ll suggest topic ideas, plus tell you how popular these topics are.
Scroll through the list to see if there are any good topics for your website.
Recommended reading: Keyword Research: The Beginner’s Guide by Ahrefs
Optimize your pages
Once you’ve identified a topic you wish to target, you’ll need to create content that deserves to rank. This means your content needs to pass four “checks”:
- Relevancy. Align your content with search intent, i.e. the “why” behind a search query. Learn how to match search intent in this guide.
- Thoroughness. Cover all the things searchers expect and want to see. Analyzing search intent will give you a basic idea, but you should also analyze relevant top-ranking pages to get clues.
- Uniqueness. If your content is the same as any ranking article, then no one will click and read it. You’ll have to bring something new to the table.
- Clarity. Make your content clear and easy to read. Follow the tips here to improve your content’s readability.
Once you’ve done this, then the “technical” optimizations like placing your keyword in the title tag come in.
Read the post below to get a complete guide on optimizing your page for search engines.
Recommended reading: On-Page SEO: The Beginner’s Guide
Google’s Andrey Lipattsev says links are one of the three major ranking factors in Google. So, if you want to rank high in search for anything competitive, you will almost certainly need links.
For example, we recently ran a link building campaign where we built links to our page about SEO statistics. We acquired a total of 36 links from 32 unique websites.
This propelled our page to the top, and we’ve held pole position since then.
Want to learn how to get started with link building? Watch this video:
Recommended reading: Link Building for SEO: The Beginner’s Guide (2021)
Content marketing isn’t just about the written word. There’s also video content. YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world.
Here’s how we do video marketing.
Find video topics with search traffic potential
Like Google, to rank on YouTube, you’ll have to target topics people are searching for. To find these topics, use our YouTube Keyword Generator.
Enter a relevant keyword and then scroll through the list to see if there are any relevant topics.
Create optimized videos
You only have 30 seconds. If you don’t capture their attention by then, the viewer is gone. So, unless you can riff like Dave Chappelle and still keep people interested, we recommend you script your video.
That way, your videos will be concise and it’ll prevent you from going off on a tangent. Then, once recorded, strategically edit them so they’re interesting and continue to hold attention.
Recommended reading: YouTube SEO: How to Rank Your Videos From Start to Finish
Promote your videos
Ranking on YouTube isn’t the only way you can get more views to your videos. Read this post or watch this video for more tips:
We’ve covered text and video. Of course, we can’t leave out audio. The most popular format is the podcast.
Here’s something interesting. Even though we’ve never created a podcast of our own, we’ve gotten plenty of sign-ups from them.
How did this happen? Simple: we appear on them.
Since there are plenty of podcasts, and they’re in need of guests, we figured it’ll be easier to turn up on an existing one rather than make our own.
Here’s how we do it.
Find podcast opportunities
The simplest way is, of course, to search Google for podcasts in your niche. But if you’re just starting to appear on them, it is likely the Tim Ferriss Show won’t be your first port of call.
So, an alternative method is to identify someone of similar calibre in your industry who’s been a guest on multiple podcasts. For example, in the personal development niche, Scott Young is relatively well-known.
So, we’ll enter his site into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, go to the Backlinks report and type his name in the “Include” box. We’ll also filter for only “Titles of referring pages.”
As you’ll notice, the links in the “Referring page” column are mostly podcast interviews.
Pitch yourself as a guest
Find the email of the podcast host and reach out to let them know you’re interested in being a guest.
Recommended reading: 12 lessons I learned from doing 20+ podcast interviews in 4 months
Just because people are now visiting your website, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically buying. That’s where the “engage” stage comes in.
You’ll have to understand their pain points and goals. Then, you’ll have to present insights and solutions that help them solve their problems.
Here’s an example of how we do it at Ahrefs.
A searcher wants to know how to find who links to their website. They search for that query on Google and find our content. Guess what? Our product—Site Explorer—solves that problem. So, we include it as a potential tool they can use in our article.
This is not forced. Our toolset was basically created to solve that problem. So, it’s naturally part of the narrative.
When you focus your efforts on topics that:
- Have search traffic potential;
- Is a problem your customers want to solve;
- Is a problem your product solves
You hit two parts of the flywheel at once. Not only will your content rank on Google and acquire new prospects, you’ll also engage them right away.
But that’s not the only thing we do. Here are a few other engagement tactics we use as part of our inbound marketing strategy.
Not everyone will buy once they’ve read your content. Sometimes, they need more time to evaluate. Or maybe they’re in a different stage of the buyer’s journey—perhaps they just discovered they have the problem.
Whatever the reason is, you’ll need a way to reach them so you can continue to engage. The best way to do that is to build an email list.
At Ahrefs, we keep it simple by showing an email sign-up box beside the article.
It’s not the only way of course. You can also offer an incentive for signing up—a free eBook, a worksheet, PDF version of the article, etc.
Don’t leave them hanging once they’ve signed up. Keep the relationship going. For us, we send a welcome email showcasing the best articles on the blog:
You don’t have to copy what we do. The world’s your oyster. You can test different emails and see which ones work best with your audience.
After reading our content, some people want to test-drive our toolset. They want to see how it works for themselves. So, we help them.
They can sign up with Ahrefs Webmaster Tools, which gives them free access to Site Explorer and Site Audit for their own website:
Or they can use any of our free SEO tools:
The best part? Each tool is designed to target a keyword with search traffic potential. Like our blog posts, they’re planned for both the “acquire” and “engage” stages.
Two birds, one stone.
Want to learn how to use free tools as an inbound marketing tactic? Read this post (jump to #4).
Our Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Tim Soulo, once told me:
My theory is that people don’t sign up for your tool and then learn how to use it. My theory is that people first learn how to use your tools, and they sign up because they know how to use your tool.
Our blog teaches them how to solve SEO and digital marketing problems with our toolset. If they want to go further, we have an academy where potential customers can watch any of our two free courses:
These courses give potential customers confidence. It’ll be like what Tim said—when they sign up for our product further down the line, they’d already know how to use Ahrefs from our content.
But it doesn’t just work to engage with prospects. It also “seeps” into the next stage—delight. Existing customers, who may need further training on the product, can refer to these training programs anytime.
This helps retain them, since they’re always learning how to do more with our toolset.
After a prospect turns into a customer, it’s not the end. Remember: it’s a flywheel. Each delighted customer can spread the word to their friends and family. This, in turn, gets you more customers, who can refer more people. The loop is potentially infinite.
But the flywheel only moves if you excel in this stage—delighting your customers.
The best way to do this is to actually have a great product. As the adage goes, “you can’t put lipstick on a pig.” If your product doesn’t work, or doesn’t help your customers solve their problems, then no amount of “delighting strategies” will make your customers happy.
So, that’s the first thing you should do. Once you’ve gotten the foundation down, you can consider applying any of the strategies below, which we use:
If any of our customers encounter issues with our software, or they’re unsure how to do certain things, they can reach out anytime via live chat.
This keeps frustration down, as they can receive help almost immediately.
A big part of how we go above and beyond for our customers is continuously educating them on two things:
- How to do SEO;
- How to use Ahrefs to do SEO.
We do this with our blog, YouTube channel and courses. But we understand that not everyone has the time to go through our content to figure out how our reports work.
So, we decided to build tutorials within the toolset itself.
Click on them and it’ll show you all the different ways you can use the report.
If a user is stuck, they can go through the tutorial and figure out what to do.
The takeaway: figure out how you can embed tutorials within your product to teach your customers how to use certain features.
Every new Ahrefs customer is invited to join our customer-only community, Ahrefs Insider.
Making it customer-only keeps the group high-quality. Each member knows that every person has skin in the game—they’re subscribed to the product and are serious about SEO.
This creates high-quality discussions, plus members who are more than happy to help each other out with digital marketing problems.
They’re also allowed to give feedback and input to the product’s development, and are often given a first look at new features. This solidifies the relationship between our customers and us, and shows that we’re willing to listen.
Want to know how we’ve built this 14,000-member strong group? Watch this video:
HubSpot, whose founders coined the term, does inbound marketing very differently. While they’ve executed similar tactics to us, they have sales teams. This means that their focus is on generating enough traffic and qualified leads for their sales teams to close.
Ahrefs is mostly self-serve and doesn’t have a sales team, so this is how we’ve chosen to execute our inbound marketing strategy.
Your company will be different. After all, you’re likely in a different industry, target different customers, built differently and have different resources.
Which means that the tactics you will use will be different. But the principles of inbound marketing will remain the same: attract —> engage —> delight.
Did I miss out on anything important about inbound marketing? Let me know on Twitter.