The History of Inbound Marketing

May 23, 2019
Lake One
Lake One

Inbound marketing has an exciting, rich, and still somewhat young history. The timing of factors like the internet gaining steam, creation of social media, and the mobile phone boom have all played a part in the creation and rising popularity of inbound marketing. We’re going to take you through the history of inbound marketing and some of the differences between traditional and new-age digital marketing, but first, let’s cover the question of what is inbound marketing.

What is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is any strategy that earns the attention of prospects, engages their interest, makes your company easy to find, and builds brand awareness. Some of these strategies include SEO, content marketing, blogs, social media, webinars, online courses, events, and more.

Looking at starting an inbound program? Use this checklist as your guide.

Inbound marketing includes a cyclical relationship with consumers where you attract visitors with content and resources they are interested in or intentionally seeking. Inbound aims to answer the buyer’s questions and problems with content, and then nurture leads through the buying funnel. There is typically an exchange of information between the company and the lead- contact info for an eBook, for example. That contact info is used to personalize, nurture, and inform to hopefully convert them into a customer. Once a customer, the idea is to continue to delight them by adding further value through your relationship with them as a trusted, empathetic advisor. Read more about inbound and why it works here.

The History of Inbound Marketing – The Perfect Storm

Many credit HubSpot’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Halligan with creating inbound marketing. He and his co-founders, Dharmesh Shah and David Meerman Scott, coined the term and the genius theory we associate with inbound marketing in 2005. From there, they built the marketing powerhouse platform Hubspot around that theory.

However, pieces and parts of inbound marketing already existed or were being dreamt up around the same time as Halligan and friends were conceptualizing, creating a perfect storm that eventually led to our modern-day version of inbound marketing.

The 90s – The Beginnings of SEO

The very first search engine, Archie, was created in 1990 as a school project. By ’93, Wandex became the first search engine to crawl the web indexing and searching indexed pages on the web, and our beloved Google was founded in 1998.

According to The History of SEO, SEO symptomatically began to grow out of the development of search engines and the World Wide Web. Results started to be ranked, drawing more traffic to sites as search engines grew “smarter.” Read more about SEO here.

May 1999 – The Release of “Permission Marketing

Another modern-day marketing guru, Seth Godin, quietly released his fourth published book in the exciting, revolutionary year of 1999. The wider marketing world didn’t quite know who Godin was yet, and it was the first time all were exposed to his bald head as he selected it as the primary image on the cover of the book.

Permission Marketing is based on the idea that consumers will come to you and provide you permission to market to them. Godin’s idea was to bring consumers into a long-standing cooperative marketing relationship with multiple layers of exchanging permission and valuable incentives.

In the book, Godin labeled most strategies at the time as Interruptive Marketing, which took the form of advertisements in magazines or on the radio or television, unanticipated telemarketing calls, or annoying internet pop-ups. They were designed to interrupt you in the middle of doing something else and steal your time away. These were typically promotional in the form of a forward, shameless sale, often designed to trigger an emotional response such as fear or anxiety to get you to take an action or make a purchase as soon as possible.

Early 2000’s – The Dawn of Social Media

LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter were all introduced to the world between 2002 and 2006. (Let’s take a moment of silence for MySpace…) These spaces were designed for people to congregate and socialize on the web within their own networks of friends and colleagues. However, the rapid growth and massive popularity of the platforms caught the watchful eyes of businesses rather quickly. Those users were their customers and potential prospects, after all, and they wanted to exist where they spend their time on the web. They were willing to pay to catch the eyes of those users; therefore, social media advertising began.

History of inbound

As you can see, in the twenty years from 1990 to 2010, most of the puzzle pieces for modern inbound marketing fell into place. Pair SEO, fresh value-based marketing ideology, and social media with the mobile phone boom and you’ve got your digital marketing perfect storm.

Traditional vs. Digital Marketing

Traditional marketing is still widely used today. Although digital marketing is newer, it’s gained relevance quickly and caught up with or perhaps even surpassed traditional marketing in popularity and relevance. There are many differences between the two marketing methods which we’ve laid out below. But first, let’s cover what each method entails.

Traditional Marketing

Most everyone is exposed to traditional marketing multiple times throughout every day. Traditional marketing is considered any kind of offline marketing.

  1. Broadcast – TV & radio
  2. Print – newspapers & magazines
  3. Outdoor – billboards & fliers
  4. Direct Mail – catalogs & postcards
  5. Phone – telemarketing & SMS marketing

Digital Marketing

Digital marketing encompasses all of the different marketing techniques that take place online utilizing the internet and internet-connected devices.

  1. Websites/landing pages
  2. Social media
  3. Inbound marketing
  4. Content marketing
  5. Email marketing
  6. SEO
  7. PPC & SEM
  8. Affiliate marketing
  9. Influencer marketing

Looking for agency help with your digital program? Here are some of the benefits.

One-way vs. Interactive

One major setback of traditional marketing is it is a one-way street. Your creatives work hard to come up with a campaign that will be printed or recorded and placed. From there the hope is that the right people will see or hear it, be motivated to take action, and seek out your company or product. But, there is typically no way to know if that particular traditional marketing asset was what drove them to your company. It is mainly just a way to broadcast whatever message you’d like to get out into the world as a way of building your brand and letting people know you exist.

history of inbound marketing

A lot of digital marketing techniques and mediums involve ways to see and interact directly with your potential consumer. You attract them with a message or some kind of content, then they are usually called to take a specific action, like providing their email address. Marketers use this as an indication that it’s time to interact with them by sending content or reaching out to move the consumer through the buying funnel.

Static vs. Fluid

Traditional marketing methods are quite static. A lot of planning goes in to creating a 60-second radio ad or drawing up a 48-foot wide billboard that will be up over a major highway for 3 months. That planning is essential because once the ad is running or the billboard is placed, it can be nearly impossible to make a change. Usually, with traditional marketing, you’ll have to replace the outdated information with something completely new.

Emails are one of the only digital marketing methods that may be difficult to change once sent. However, it’s easy to send an additional email to note a correction or adjustment. Other than email, most other digital marketing mediums allow for changes to be made on the fly. For example, you can make a quick update to pricing on a landing page, or recalibrate SEO keywords in a published blog.

Ability to Track Results

One of the major advantages of digital marketing is the ability to track and analyze results. Because digital marketing exists online, nearly everything is trackable. As long as you have the tools to collect the relevant data, and expertise to analyze it, you’ll usually be able to decipher which specific techniques are working or not.

Traditional marketing can be nearly impossible to track as it can be difficult to build a correlation between people hearing a radio ad and deciding to walk into your store or visit your website. That certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t value in these tactics. If that were the case, no company would spend $5.25 million on a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl. But, dozens did this year and some even purchased multiple spots.


Speaking of $5.25 million, traditional marketing can be quite costly (though that’s an extreme example). Because it’s difficult to track results, it is also very hard to decipher ROI from your spend on traditional marketing techniques.

inbound campaign checklist

Digital marketing offers several techniques that come at a very low to no cost to your company. It costs nothing to exist on social media or write a blog article other than your time. Spinning up a website involves cost, but you need one regardless of your marketing strategy. Creating killer content or having an expert help optimize your site for SEO may start to cost a bit. But, having the ability to track results from your different digital marketing techniques allows you to understand ROI and invest in the methods that work for your consumers.