Digital marketing has become increasingly challenging in recent years. Erratic customer journeys mandate omnichannel marketing; consumer behaviors change; Search Engine Optimization (SEO) remains nigh imperative. Now, marketing to a new generation, marketers continue to embrace inbound marketing as a valued asset and a possible solution. Let’s explore this phenomenon in-depth and extract fundamental inbound marketing best practices for 2021 and beyond.

What is inbound marketing?

Initially, let us briefly define what inbound marketing is. In essence, the term describes marketing practices that allow audiences to find you. That is, practices that are not intrusive or “salesy,” but ones that instead seek to attract and delight potential customers.

In turn, inbound marketing encompasses such practices as:

  • SEO – Inbound marketing relies on online visibility, by definition, which SEO facilitates.
  • Content marketing – From informative content to content that improves business’ online reputation to converting pages, inbound marketing hinges on personalized marketing material.
  • Social media marketing – Online visibility and the power of visual storytelling converge into social media marketing, which lets businesses tap into vast potential audiences.

These and other inbound marketing strategies all overlap in one key goal; to create engaging content that attracts audiences.

Inbound vs. outbound marketing

To conclude with the definition, let us explore its opposite – outbound marketing. Wordstream defines outbound marketing as “any kind of marketing where a company initiates the conversation and sends its message out to an audience”.

This type of marketing is, effectively, the “traditional” type, which includes such practices as:

  • Traditional media ads; radio, TV, print, etc.
  • Billboards
  • Cold calls

Of course, these practices also have digital counterparts, such as display ads and cold emails.

Thus, where inbound marketing operates under a “pull” mechanic, attracting audiences, outbound marketing presents a “push” mechanic. This dichotomy should somewhat explain the prevalence of inbound marketing in recent years, as internet users actively avoid the latter. Consider email filters, ad blockers, and so forth; audiences increasingly frown upon marketing that “pushes” itself onto them.

Inbound marketing best practices for 2021

With definitions covered, let us now delve into five inbound marketing best practices in order, splitting each as needed.

The reason for this structure, as opposed to a scattered list, is that said practices will all strive to achieve a singular purpose. As outlined in the introduction, that is to account for new customer journeys and behaviors, tailoring content to each phase.

#1 Customer segmentation

The first crucial step to establishing a healthy inbound marketing foundation is to engage in customer segmentation. For this practice, consider such software as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), which Statista notes is now the largest software market.

Customer segmentation is the practice of dividing customer bases into groups, based on such criteria as:

  • Demographics
  • Psychographics
  • Technographics
  • Location
  • Needs

Additionally, segmentation may apply to customers based on lead status. That is, how far along their journey they’ve progressed, and thus how nurtured they are as leads.

Leveraging audience insights

The initial, almost self-evident reason this practice holds value is that it puts audience insights to use. Audience insights may be acquired through such means as:

  • Website analytics
  • Google Analytics (GA)
  • Social media analytics, such as Facebook’s Audience Insights

In turn, such insights can inform marketing and content strategies, from copy, style, and tone to subjects and distribution. This initial segmentation allows one to do so effectively and personalize marketing for optimal results.

Crafting buyer personas

The second reason why segmentation is among inbound marketing best practices is that it enables buyer personas. In brief, buyer personas are visual representations of fictional buyers, which carry the characteristics of your primary customers.

This practice, too, builds on segmentation and offers a way to identify touchpoints and pain points of potential buyers. As the very concept of inbound marketing is to attract, delight, and retain customers, buyer personas can offer tremendous value.

#2 Customer journey mapping

Among others, the most notable benefit of buyer personas is that they facilitate customer journey mapping.

In much the same way buyer personas visualize audience groups, customer journey maps visualize their journey along sales funnels. Among other customer journey map examples from MyCustomer, consider the following as a point of reference:

It is this practice that facilitates personalized, and thus more effective, inbound marketing. That’s because, as this example illustrates, modern audiences may follow substantially different paths to conversions and post-sale engagement.

How customer journey maps enable this is simple; it offers a digestible, tangible visual representation. Through it, one can consider, for each persona, such factors as:

  • Content-type; what content are they presented with across touchpoints, and how does it address their pain points?
  • Content timing; are they presented with phase-specific content at opportune times?
  • Experience consistency; does their User Experience (UX) remain consistent across touchpoints?

While this kind of examination of one’s content and marketing strategies may seem daunting, it is imperative. For instance, according to Kameleoon, 75% of US consumers expect personalization as standard.

#3 Landing pages

That said, as much as customer journeys may differ, many still begin with landing pages. That is pages where users first “land” – be it through a Google search or other means.

Understandably, then, two crucial inbound marketing best practices heavily rely on landing page optimization.

Matching the user search intent

The first major concern of SEO lies in content matching the user’s search intent. Following the journey phases outlined above, Forbes identifies three types of content:

  • Informational content – This type corresponds to the discovery phase and will ideally offer information-rich content. Calls to Action (CTAs) in such content, if any, will typically provide free resources and other material.
  • Navigational content – Next, this type addresses the research phase. It typically includes landing pages that highlight a proposition’s value without aggressively promoting it.
  • Transactional content – Finally, this type of content concerns the conversion phase. It will thus typically include conversion pages with ample transactional CTAs.

In this regard, matching the user’s search intent helps offer a more personalized journey and a more satisfying UX. In turn, that will often translate to fewer bounces and premature exits and more conversions.

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

Conversions, however, will heavily rely on the actual effectiveness of conversion pages. To address this, CRO focuses on such factors as:

  • CTA visibility; are CTAs clearly visible, and do they immediately appear clickable?
  • CTA copy; is CTA copy compelling enough to entice conversions?
  • Page design, formatting, and visual appeal; do design and formatting offer a visually appealing landing page that visitors engage with?

Such concerns are, of course, specific to the final stage of conversion. However, that’s where any inbound marketing strategy will conclude before addressing the post-engagement phase of retention.

#4 Social media marketing

Similarly to landing pages, social media marketing also serves as an initial touchpoint with potential prospects. What’s more, social media marketing overlaps with SEO and thus constitutes one of the most notable inbound marketing best practices.

Providing access to vast potential audiences aside, social media marketing enables two distinct strategies of its own. Namely, visual marketing and cause marketing.

Leveraging the power of visual marketing

Initially, the power of visual marketing is undeniable. BrightEdge reports that “[t]he human brain can process visuals up to 60,000 times faster than text.” The implications of this observation for social media marketing, they continue, are notable:

“Tweets with images, for example, receive up to 5x times the engagement of those without,” and “[a]rticles with visuals receive 94 percent more views.”

These findings alone reveal why many brands employ powerful visuals to attract visitors’ attention. Much like SEO itself mandates, this simple practice works wonders toward securing more inbound traffic and engagement.

Embracing cause marketing

Similarly, social media offers an excellent platform for cause marketing, which the current digital landscape favors. Cause marketing provides social proof and addresses notable consumer distrust, which influencer marketing also seeks to address.

Among other notable findings, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer concisely illustrates the need for brands to champion social causes:

Thus, the cause marketing subset of social media marketing does not simply promise an expanded customer base. Rather, it offers to humanize brands and cultivate trust, which in turn help foster long-term relationships with said base.

#5 Email campaigns

Email cannot be excluded from inbound marketing best practices. Not only do emails convert with exceptional efficiency, but they also offer an unmistakable spearhead for inbound marketing.

Personalizing warm emails

The way they do so is by presenting an alternative to outbound, cold emails; warm emails. Where cold, essentially unsolicited emails yield meager open rates and click-through rates (CTR), warm emails perform very well. That’s because recipients have opted into them and are thus often interested in them from the start.

Still, inbound marketing hinges on personalized emails, which the process thus far facilitates in two main ways:

  1. Copy personalization – Audience insights and user-submitted data can help personalize emails for better CTR. Consider subject lines, visual material, and even the addition of recipients’ names and other information within the email body.
  2. Outreach timing – Similarly, audience segmentation can help inform email outreach timing. Examples of this include the time of day, as different segments respond to emails differently at different times and timing in relation to the customer journey.

Automating email campaigns

In regard to timing, most software offers the option of automation. Through it, marketers may automate email campaigns, even outside working hours, further augmenting the customer journey through timing.

What’s more, automation can be informed by CRM data like lead status; mature leads may warrant contact by a sales rep, while new leads may not. In this sense, automation reduces the room for error and, in turn, increases potential conversions.

SEO best practices for inbound marketing in 2021

The above aside, having touched on SEO already, a healthy SEO foundation is indeed crucial to successful inbound marketing. That’s because inbound marketing relies on its “pull” mechanic, which SEO expressly serves through increased search engine visibility.

SEO is a very deep subject that warrants multiple articles of its own to thoroughly explore. According to Backlinko, SEO’s content optimization tactics address over 200 ranking factors, including:

  • Domain factors; domain age, history, keyword or lack thereof, etc.
  • Page-level factors; keyword density and placement, content length and quality, etc.
  • Backlink factors; backlink quality, quantity, etc.

In the context of inbound marketing best practices, however, there are three main practices to consider. Namely, keyword research, user search intent, and backlinks. For the sake of text economy, let us briefly touch on the fundamentals of each.

#1 Keyword research

Initially, keyword research ensures content is targeting subjects relevant to one’s audience to augment the discovery phase. Successful keyword research should uncover enticing keywords within one’s industry that will garner attention and incite engagement.

#2 User search intent

Keywords alone do not suffice, however, as content must also match the user search intent. This relates to both the customer journey, as outlined above, but also search query intent. In fact, Google’s own search quality evaluator guidelines outline how crucial this factor is.

#3 Backlinks

Backlinks stand as the proverbial backbone of SEO, and as a definitive source of inbound traffic. Among other link-building practices, consider the following examples of ones that directly enhance inbound marketing.

Guest blogging

The still-popular practice of guest blogging is a great source of backlinks. Moreover, the traffic it produces is typically more valuable, as it consists of already engaged, active audiences.

Infographics

Similarly, infographics combine the power of visual marketing with search engine visibility. Enriching content aside, infographics can come up in image searches, producing more traffic. Moreover, they can converge with guest blogging into guestographics, yielding valuable backlinks by high-authority websites.

The skyscraper technique

The skyscraper technique, coined by Backlinko’s Brian Dean, can also entice demanding professionals into offering backlinks. Such backlinks will yield traffic by engaged audiences while also serving as practical endorsements on their own.

Inbound marketing: the sales funnel model gives way to the flywheel model

Having covered all of the above, it should now be clear inbound marketing increasingly embraces the flywheel model. Hubspot explains this model hinges on attracting, engaging, and delighting customers, unlike the traditional conversion-focused funnel model:

It’s this same philosophy that fuels inbound marketing. From a personalized customer journey to trust fostered through social media, inbound marketing entails non-intrusive, customer-first marketing. In an age when customer retention is such a valuable metric, this model best exemplifies why inbound marketing works where outbound marketing will not.

Conclusion

There’s a vast array of inbound marketing best practices to consider. However, from the initial customer segmentation to post-sale emails and SEO to social media, the core principle behind each is the same: to “pull” willing audiences, earn their interest, and delight them in conversions and beyond.