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Inbound vs Outbound Sales: Similarities and Differences

March 9, 2023
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There’s a myth floating around in 2023: that “outbound isn’t as effective as it used to be.” And, in the context of this perceived fact, it seems that inbound comes off as a more reliable lead generation method.

But the picture is much bigger — and, if you zoom out, you’d be able to see the fine details that make both such powerful approaches in their own right.

For example:

  • 62% of marketers say that their outbound marketing strategies are effective.
  • And 32% find the outbound process to be specifically effective at generating leads.
  • Companies still rate outbound as important, giving it an average score of 7.3 out of 10 when asked to weigh its efficacy.
  • And that’s a good thing because 70% of sales reps still interact with prospects and hold meetings over the phone.

Yet, 74% of marketers choose inbound marketing strategies to do everything from brand-building and online visibility to lead generation.

So what’s the deal here? Inbound vs outbound marketing strategies are two sides of the same coin. And if you can use both in tandem successfully, you’ve paved a pathway to constant and consistent leads.

In this article, you’ll:

  • Understand the contours of inbound vs outbound marketing, including its similarities and differences
  • Learn when and how to apply inbound vs. outbound to your lead gen strategy
  • Observe how each works in use cases harnessing Captain Data

Let’s get started!

What is Inbound?

In the context of product and sales operations, “inbound” refers to an approach that attracts customers. It’s also known as “pull marketing” which means customers respond to assets, strategies, and offers your team creates of their own volition.

Usually, inbound marketing involves helping customers reach their own conclusions by presenting them with high-quality assets that don’t necessarily have an overt sales pitch. 

Inbound Sales: Customers choose the time and location of interaction

Customers who encounter inbound tactics and assets are in charge of taking action. This could be something as simple as opting in to an email marketing campaign for a lead magnet. Or it could be taking advantage of a 14-day trial for a subscription service by entering their email address. So the key to inbound comes down to two things:

  • A user’s or prospect’s regular experience isn’t disrupted or interrupted. Instead, these offers or assets are presented seamlessly.
  • It’s on the prospect or user to choose to take a particular action that indicates their interest.

Now, here’s the thing: some people think that inbound doesn’t include paid or PPC tactics — but that simply isn’t true. Ads don’t have to be disruptive — they can be shown to customers or prospects who have demonstrated particular behaviors, and in modes that seamlessly work with the content they’re already consuming.

For example,  an ad can be shown to a user or prospect on a social platform inviting them to a free webinar, where they gain access to the presentation, as well as a follow-along downloadable guide and a replay. This is an example of providing value right up front, without an explicit sales pitch. It also requires the user or prospect to opt-in and choose to take action on their own.

Tactics of Inbound Lead Gen

Inbound lead generation focuses on creating assets and employing strategies that encourage users to take action and make their own decisions. As such, the position of the brand is to be as helpful, entertaining, informative, or valuable as possible.

Here are a few of the most effective inbound lead gen tactics:

Content marketing (e.g. blog, whitepaper, webinar etc.)

Content marketing is exactly what it sounds like: using “content” online to market a business or brand to a prospective customer. This content usually comes in the form of assets such as blogs, whitepapers, webinars, lead magnets, articles, guides, and even explanatory videos.

It helps customers view a brand or business as a valuable resource and builds trust, which means they're more likely to convert: A 2021 survey found that more than 80% of respondents consider trust a primary factor when making purchasing decisions.

There is some overlap between content marketing, an inbound-specific method, and social selling, an outbound marketing tactic (which we’ll cover below). For example, if you post helpful, informative videos on a YouTube channel, that would be an example of inbound.


SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” and it’s a multi-pronged approach to optimize a particular website for high organic traffic. It all starts with search — through engines like Bing or Google. Employ these techniques correctly (and strategically) and you’ll “attract” users or customers to your website.

The best part? It’s entirely free — that’s why it’s called “organic” traffic rather than paid traffic.

When users enter search terms on search engines, a multitude of SEO factors kick into gear. The aim is to have these factors — such as meta data, site speed, domain authority, technical SEO (like ), links, mobile-friendly design — work together to present your website, article, blog post, white paper (or anything else that lives online and is crawlable or indexable) on the first or second page of a search engine’s results.

The tradeoff for SEO’s effectiveness is its time-scale. It can take anywhere from 6 to 12 months to see real results and traction (only 5.7% of pages will rank in the top 10 results within a year of publication).

Still, SEO works. According to stats compiled by Ahrefs:

  • 60% of marketers say that SEO is their highest quality of source of leads
  • SEO leads have a 14.6% close rate
  • 39% of purchasers are influenced by a relevant search

Email automation

Email automation, also known as email marketing, is a way to speak to customers using email. For this a prospect or lead has to exist on an email list. It usually begins in one of two ways:

  • A prospect opts into a newsletter by being presented by a free offer or incentives such as a downloadable assets
  • A prospect is identified as part of an “audience” and is presented with an ad to receive something for free, for example access to an educational seminar. If they click through, they'll receive that resource in exchange for entering their email.

Once the prospect is on an email list, they’ll receive periodic communications from the brand or business they opted-in to.

Customers could also be presented with specific email sequences, which are automated emails that a business creates, based on a customer’s behavior (clicking through on certain offers or links) or opt-in date on the list (such as a welcome sequence for new prospects).

Furthermore, email marketing automation is an inbound technique proven time and again to work. So don’t listen to naysayers who claim that “email is dead”.

 Instead, let the numbers do the talking:

  • Right now, 4.3 billion of the world’s population uses email to communicate. By 2025, this is set to grow to 4.6 billion — which is half the world’s population.
  • The average ROI on email marketing is $40 made for every $1 spent.
  • Email marketing is the third-most popular content distribution channel (behind a company’s website and blog) and 69% of marketers rely on this method to distribute their helpful content.

What is Outbound?

In stark contrast to inbound is outbound. Outbound lead generation is quite simple (and traditional) in the sense that it doesn’t involve nearly as many tactics as inbound. Reminiscent of door-to-door salespeople in the '60s, outbound is much more direct and requires a salesperson to make direct contact with a prospect. 

Of course, as marketing became more sophisticated, so did the process. Instead of hitting prospects one at a time, outbound marketers would use scoring, segmentation, and direct mail to reach out and communicate with segments of potential leads.

But the idea is always the same — businesses and brands reach out to potential customers rather than attracting them in. They’re making a clear ask — and a prospect might say yes or no to the next interaction.

Outbound Sales: You choose the time and location of interaction

Outbound marketing or outbound lead generation has earned the reputation of being interruptive because there’s a perception that prospects are “disrupted” or “interrupted” by a direct sales pitch.

But that sort of pushy technique of communication is simply an artifact of the past. Today, outbound marketing, whether it’s done online or in-person, is much more about relationship-building. Especially when it comes to B2B sales, sales teams cannot expect deals to close right at the first contact — nor do they.

In fact, Forrester found that the number of interactions required on a buyer’s journey jumped during the pandemic from 17 to 27. And, 63% of B2B purchases have more than four people involved, usually in different roles — whether that’s decision maker, user, influencer, or champion. All of them are equally important for a salesperson to target and sell to.

3 Tactics for Outbound Sales and Marketing

Cold calling and cold emails

The essence of cold calling and cold emailing is that you’re making direct contact with a prospect or lead with an aim to:

  • Initiate a conversation
  • Get the to the next “stage” of the conversation (such as booking a demo)

It's "cold" because your lead or prospect hasn't had a chance to become familiar with your brand, your company, your messaging, or your offer before you contact them.

But just because a lead hasn't been "warmed up" doesn't mean they're not open to hearing more about your offer. In fact, poor cold outreach rates have almost nothing to do with customers - especially if you have the right tools.

Social selling

Social selling is a close cousin of cold outreach. The only difference is the channel.

Instead of picking up the phone or creating an email automation, social selling is when brands use social media channels to identify then connect with prospects, i.e. potential customers. Develop a relationship through continuous engagement (liking, commenting, and answering questions), and presenting the brand as a solution to a problem they’re facing.

Advertising (e.g. programmatic or display)

LinkedIn ads, Facebook and Instagram ads, Google ads, and even tried-and-true display and programmatic advertising are forms of PPC or pay-per-click advertising. These methods are digital forms of outbound marketing — though even conventional methods like direct mail and TV ads are still used as part of a company’s marketing mix today.

Inbound vs. Outbound: Comparing the Two Lead Generation Approaches

Similarities between Inbound vs. Outbound Leads 

Both outbound and inbound marketing require a significant amount of strategy and planning before ever reaching out to the customer. Though their methods may be different, there are some notable similarities

Inbound vs. Outbound Lead generation 

It’s imperative that a fresh batch of leads be delivered to an inbound or an outbound marketing team because, without prospects to market to, teams won’t know who they’re trying to make contact with.

For outbound, this lead generation begins with data extraction or searching up contact emails of decision makers.For inbound, this can be identifying target audiences with a particular set of behaviors or audiences that come from a certain source (like social media).

Understanding of target audiences and segmentation

While lead generation methods vary based on your chosen lane (inbound vs outbound), teams still need a good understanding of target markets or audiences. Lead generation is how you do it — but you also need to know who you're targeting when you're looking for contact emails and information.

That’s why both inbound and outbound marketing requires teams to conduct user research, build accurate customer profiles, demonstrate a deep insight into their buyer personas, nail down product-market fit, and decide on specific messaging and positioning before ever reaching out using either inbound or outbound tactics.

Main Differences between Inbound and Outbound Leads

As we examined above, there are some instances where there’s overlap between inbound vs outbound marketing tactics. However, the clear distinctions between the two can make one path seem more feasible or viable than the other, depending on your organization’s goals and funds available.

Time frame 

Inbound marketing requires customers to take action on their own. And they're not likely to do so until they've built trust. And that only happens through a series of touchpoints or interactions where they've received value without an overt sales pitch.

That’s why inbound leads take more time to develop than outbound ones. With outbound, sales professionals, armed with context, scripts, and targeted messaging, will guide a prospect through a purchase journey. It still takes a number of interactions but not as many — and the consistency of a salesperson, if they’re successful in building a relationship with a prospect, results in a faster, more certain closed deal.


Inbound marketing assets are far more likely to be evergreen. Sure you may have to update some of the research or numbers to reflect the right years, but, for the most part, inbound campaigns have a longer lifetime value compared to outbound marketing campaigns.

These assets are also useful because they can be distributed.You won’t be able to use a Google ad on Facebook — each platform has its own ad requirements, audience settings, and acceptable ad formats. But inbound assets like infographics or blogs can be created once and distributed or published everywhere.

Control over engagement

Directly related to the nature of inbound vs outbound is who holds control over taking action. In inbound, a lead must decide for themselves to become engaged with an asset.

For example, a prospect enters a search term that your business is ranking for. However, other businesses show up as well, meaning that prospects need to decide which to click on, based on split-second micro decisions.

In outbound, a company’s sales team decides who to reach out to and when. They’re the ones engaging the prospect directly and presenting an offer, rather than waiting for a prospect to reach out to them.

Inbound vs. Outbound Lead Gen: Comparing Costs

While they each have their strengths, there’s a significant reason why a marketing team will choose one over the other: cost. The cost difference between the Inbound vs. Outbound Sales is notable — but it also depends on how you value costs.

Costs for Inbound 

With inbound, costs are usually lower because you earn traffic and leads through organic (non-paid) methods. But when you think about the cost of hiring a full time SEO expert on staff : averaging between €62.757 and ​​€77.059 per year. Things can get pricey for a lean marketing team. Furthermore, it takes far more time. These results only appear over a long period of consistent effort. And that time could potentially translate into lost leads or revenue.

Costs for Outbound 

Outbound marketing is typically associated with higher costs because the methods to acquire leads are traditionally more expensive. Paid ads are a tough sell, regardless of whether you’re relying on the ultra-expensive and maxed out Google Adwords, the equally as competitive Facebook/Instagram ads audiences, or the newer kid on the block, LinkedIn ads.

Applying Inbound vs Outbound to Your Business: How to Choose the Right Approach

Let’s just be clear: there is no one right approach. Or, rather, your choice won’t be static.

You may start off with inbound because it’s seemingly more cost-effective — but, as you scale up, you’ll still need to run A/B tests on assets and messaging, you’ll need to pay freelancers or content creators to help build these assets, and you’ll need to invest in subscriptions for software to help you distribute and track performance.

Or, maybe you’ll skip all that and turn to one sales professional with a proven track record and fantastic network or an ads specialist able to produce consistent conversion rates. Maybe you’ll opt for these methods only when you have a big launch twice a year while keeping the inbound machine running all year.

In fact, the most efficient lead gen strategies use both inbound and outbound techniques. Think about the last time you saw a billboard or heard a radio commercial — it still caught your attention, right? And maybe the business’s name stuck in your head and you decided to click on one of their articles over the 6 others on a search results page because of that initial outbound ad.

That’s why the two complement each other. If you’d still like to decide which to start with, use these :

Choose Inbound Lead Gen When...

  • You want to focus on lead generation through content marketing
  • You plan a lead gen strategy designed to function in the long-term
  • You have a wide range of clients or prospect
  • You’re ready to provide upfront value to clients that interact with you regularly

Choose Outbound Lead Gen When…

  • You have considerable budget to allocate to lead gen and sourcing
  • You have a POC with one-way communication
  • You have a large list of leads
  • You want to reach a large number of people in a short time frame

Captain Data in Action: Use Cases for Outbound and Inbound Lead Generation

Outbound: Find leads from company profile

Inbound: Find Leads with email from domain

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Ultimately, it comes down to the power of persuasion — and there’s an excellent question affecting both forms of marketing: which is more persuasive, and therefore more effective? Is it more persuasive, leading to a "surefire" sale, to have a prospect decide to contact you because they're self-motivated to do so?

Or is it more persuasive for a sales professional to reach out and capture that prospect's attention through social selling or cold emailing because there's no risk of the customer being distracted by other options?

There's no set answer to that question. But it could be an explanation for why the quality of leads for inbound prospects tends to be higher than outbound — because prospects reach out to you, they’re “warm.” They've chosen you, rather than you having to convince them.

With the right tools, outbound marketing doesn’t have to be disruptive. And inbound cand definitely enjoy a shorter cycle with enough volume. Just don’t expect to get something for nothing. The ROI for each is strong and clear, so pick the one that fits your organization’s current DNA (team size, expertise, type of product/service) and choose the strategy that best fits with what you have right now.

Remember, you can always iterate and add when you’re ready.


Guillaume Odier
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