Lead Generation Strategies: Inbound, Outbound, and the Space Between


It's easy to fall into the dichotomy that was scolded recently by Adena DeMonte in her recent article, "Inbound vs. ABM: That's the Wrong Question."

You can see a swath of articles and statistics pushing the idea that "Inbound = good! Outbound = bad!" However, as I've moved between the extremes, I've learned that many of our best lead generation strategies as marketers fall somewhere in the middle.

My professional career in marketing has been diced into three distinct chapters. I've worked across the spectrum of inbound vs. outbound — a move I'm sure many marketing professionals can relate with.

I dabbled in a heavy dose of lead generation strategies that touched on "traditional" and "innovative" and ultimately swept away the line between the two.

Here's what I learned along the way, and how it can influence your own marketing!

Traditional outbound lead generation strategies

I started out in magazine design and writing at a national big-league publisher. I worked for a range of titles, and the marketing strategy was always the same: Create print and online ads. The ads had to reach all of our readership. Even in niche publications there are few commonalities among readers, so targeting wasn't a viable option. One size fits all! I first learned marketing through this distinctly outbound approach.

Lead Generation Strategies: Inbound, Outbound, and the Space Between
In the publishing industry I learned the detrimental outbound ad approach: One size fits all.

The print outbound mindset translated to our digital titles. We'd steamroll over new internet conventions and push pop-ups on every page of content. Our mobile articles were almost unreadable with the onslaught of ads. Advertisers could pay for an ad to dive on screen, flash a few times, and block clickable links or content until readers engaged. Really, though, they paid to interrupt, annoy — and ultimately drive away leads.

In this company, there was always a strong sense that we were all riding the tail end of a wave; falling down a slippery slope while we grasped at an insoluble outreach strategy.

In this case, my anecdotal sinking ship confirmed the doomsday statistics we hear about "outbound" advertising: In-your-face, non-targeted ads will be swept away... and bring nonconforming businesses with them.

With time and desperation crept a sneaky brand of content marketing — the advertorial. It's a predominant money maker today in the publishing industry. I.e., "Our editors strongly recommend this product..." but particularly because it's being paid for by an advertiser. It felt dishonest and uncomfortable. It swung in the balance between outbound techniques and inbound "content." It carved a place in the middle... but not a very pretty one.

Lead Generation Strategies: Inbound, Outbound, and the Space Between

Content: A truly "inbound" strategy?

My next career move was into a more honest kind of content marketing. The idea was that content builds trust, and trust drives sales. It felt noble. It felt consumer-focused and human. I thought: Ah, this is the future!

We made sure our content was top-notch. Our strong writers were all educated in journalism. We created print pieces, brochures, and direct mailers, pegging them as "content marketing" because, well, they included content. But good writing alone isn't a sales strategy. People liked us — but were they really buying from us? We found ourselves struggling to prove our worth and fielding constant demands from clients about value.

Lead Generation Strategies: Inbound, Outbound, and the Space Between
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but not the strategy.

To make a case for our content, we dabbled with tracking URLs, hoping to see where leads were coming from. We set up Google Analytics and tried to grasp clicks and bounces. We sent surveys to clients and client customers asking for feedback — but that was as close to "closed loop marketing" as we could get.

I soon realized that the "content=trust" argument was difficult (if not impossible) to prove to clients. It sounded warm and fuzzy, but it didn't translate to a bottom line benefit that you could really hold on to. After all, trust and likability aren't lead generation strategies.

I come across this kind of bubbled-in content marketing often in our marketing community. There's a whole library of thought leadership on content marketing alone. We read lots of tips to make our writing better. Clearer. More compelling. We learn how to write strong titles and craft stories with our content. It's important to write well. But is it part of a bigger strategy?

ROI took a bench seat to customer satisfaction; it was the only metric we had. And it didn't fare well with clients.

After studying and blogging about the inbound methodology, I've come to see this kind of isolated content marketing strategy as an outbound strategy. It sounds funny: We're constantly preached to that content is king of inbound techniques. But when content exists for content's sake, it's just pushing out information into the world without providing reason for a relevant audience to move back in.

What, then, makes it different than a direct mail brochure with appealing photographs? It's nice to look at and consume, but it doesn't lure me in. I've previously articulated in my article about working for an inbound marketing agency that content marketing is a tool, while inbound marketing is the strategy for using the tool.

Lead generation strategies in the middle

The big questions to ask when determining the value of content marketing are:

  • Am I using strategy to put my content in context?
  • Are my lead generation strategies united?
  • Am I closing the loop in my marketing process and informing my decisions with data?
  • Does my content set leads on a clear path down the buyer's journey to eventually purchase from me?
  • Am I really generating enough leads to acquire meaningful data?

When we answer these question, a gray zone emerges. It's a fuzzy space between inbound and outbound — a mix of lead generation strategies that become something bigger.

Traditional "inbound" as it's taught by industry giants involves campaigns that assist lead conversion. The website is a salesperson, and contacts are tracked throughout the sales funnel as they take actions with our brand. We appeal to them with targeted content that sets about on a clear purchase path, point A to point B.

But even this tested inbound methodology is shifting as we realize that, yes, we are still selling — and some outbound techniques weren't so bad after all.

The rise of pay-per-click ads as a viable inbound marketing technique is one example that thrives in the gray zone. "Advertisement" is a dirty word to diehard inbound marketers, but now we're carving a space for advertising in the middle. After all, without enough leads in the funnel, we can't draw meaningful conclusions with our data. It makes sense to boost your funnel initially with PPC traffic.

At HubSpot's Partner Day, I attended a compelling session by Mike Lieberman of Square2 Marketing on how to convince clients to work pay-per-click advertising into their strategies (and budgets). Interesting, considering it used to be the other way around.

PPC is one good way to jumpstart inbound results and bring in qualified traffic. We, in fact, suggest it to our clients who need a boost while they wait for true "inbound" techniques to work their slow magic — blogs, social media posts, SEO optimization, and premium content offers. It's only one example of an outbound technique that isn't such a dirty concept after all.


Many of our clients utilize traditionally "outbound" sources — like advertisements, email lists, and print pieces — to generate leads.

These leads then become part of our inbound lead conversion process, proving that there's a space for techniques we usually write off as inbound marketers. (And on the flip side, some techniques we consider truly "inbound," like content, fall into the "bad" bucket when they're used distastefully or unstrategically.) 

I suggest, like DeMonte, that we avoid the dichotomy of inbound vs. outbound and instead focus on the space between. It's a nascent area that becomes great as it grasps on to innovative strategies and automation tools — while also holding on to the sales mentality that keeps it traditional and profitable.