The History of Inbound Marketing and Why It's Here to Stay

Did you know that, per the 2023 Nielsen Consumer Survey Report, 64% of consumers intentionally avoid ads on free, ad-supported video services, and 59% are somewhat or very likely to subscribe to a streaming service that allows them to bypass ads altogether?

This dramatic behavior change forced businesses to rethink their marketing strategies.

Enter inbound marketing, a customer-centric approach that has steadily gained dominance over the past two decades.

History of Inbound Marketing

What is Inbound Marketing?

An Inbound Marketing Strategy focuses on attracting, engaging, and delighting customers through valuable and relevant content.

Draw potential customers to your brand through useful and informative content; attract qualified leads and build trust with your target audience.

Why Does Inbound Marketing Matter?

When asked what type of content best moves leads through the sales funnel, the top three answers for B2B marketing were blog posts, white papers, and videos. These are tools within the inbound marketers' toolbox. Outbound tactics like direct mail or email blasts didn't make the list. (Statistica

Content marketing generates about three times as many leads as traditional (outbound) marketing and costs 62% less. (Demand Metric

Conversion rates are almost six times higher for those who have adopted content marketing than those who have not. (Aberdeen) 

When asked which marketing tactic provides higher quality leads, 59% of marketers responded inbound, 16% responded outbound, and 68% of inbound organizations believe their marketing strategy is effective. (HubSpot)  

Weidert shows additional information on how inbound marketing leverages customer behavior, reaching prospects where they're at, attracting, converting, and delighting them.

  • 68% of B2B customers prefer to do their research independently online.

  • 90% of searchers have not decided about a brand when starting their search.

  • 29% want to talk to a salesperson to learn more versus 62% who consult a search engine.

  • 87% of buyers give more credence to the content shared by an industry influencer

  • 81% of buyers have closed a browser or exited a webpage because of pop-up ads.

Early Examples of Inbound Techniques

Inbound marketing in the 1800s

You can find examples of inbound marketing principles from the 19th century. Tiffany & Co. published and distributed their Blue Book in 1845. It gave subscribers the information they needed to pick the products they wanted. There are no cold calling or door-to-door salesmen, just information beautifully presented.

In the mid-1850s, the inventor of the mechanical harvester used market research to develop inbound-style methods for generating consumer interest in what was a radical evolution in farming.

Sears and Roebuck did something similar when publishing their catalog in 1888. The catalog enabled Sears and Roebuck to cheaply and easily capture information about thousands of customers. It is almost as if the company was 100+ years ahead of the gated content marketing game!

Inbound Marketing in the 1900s

By the 1960s, market research took hold, allowing for the collection of information on customers' interests and habits. More pointed ad campaigns could be developed from this because marketers better understand the buyer's journey. These changes resulted in the rise of interruptive outbound marketing.

Businessperson and marketing guru Peter Drucker believed customer orientation and market segmentation were at the core of any powerful marketing strategy. He said, "Marketing aims to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself. "

Drucker pretty much identified the concept of inbound marketing. Namely, to be so aware of what the customer needs and so sure that your product or service fills that need that when you present your widget to that customer, buying or using it is a no-brainer. Of course, prospects take nurturing, and there's more to it than that, but it's remarkable to consider Drucker's forethought.

In the early days of online content creation, the first known blog emerged as, crafted by Swarthmore College student Justin Hall back in 1994. At that time, the term "blog" had yet to be coined, so Hall simply referred to it as his personal homepage. Fast forward to 1997, and the term "weblog" was introduced by Jorn Barger through his creation of the blog Robot Wisdom.

The Internet and Its Role in Inbound

This brings us to the emergence of the now ubiquitous internet. The internet changed the marketing game as entrepreneurs saw the need to update business branding efforts to better mesh with this emerging technology and consumers' reactions.

After all, consumers now want to be spoken to, not marketed at. With the internet, it became clear that the way to score customers was to provide the smoothest user experience. The meeting of Drucker's ideas with internet technology brings us to the official birth of inbound marketing as a strategy.

The first use of the term search engine optimization was in 1997. Pay-per-click ads were introduced in 2000. Legislation signed in 2003 forced marketing emails to include information the audience would find valuable instead of simply whatever the marketers wanted to say to whoever they wanted to say it to. The social media sites that are now massive were founded between 2002 and 2006. Their astounding growth made them the place for businesses promoting their brands.

HubSpot and Inbound Marketing

In 2004, HubSpot appeared synonymous with this newly presented inbound methodology, realizing disruptive and interruptive forms of outbound marketing were no longer viable. Inbound and HubSpot are virtually synonymous because the HubSpot CEO and co-founder, Brian Halligan coined the term Inbound Marketing.

HubSpot explains its own story as follows:

HubSpot was founded on "inbound", the notion that people don't want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by salespeople — they want to be helped.

Today, the inbound movement continues to empower businesses around the world to stop interrupting, start helping, and return their focus to the customer.

Consumers find brands through social media, blogs, and search engines. Inbound's focus is not on an intrusive flood of promotions. Instead, it makes accessible, relevant information that enables informed purchase decisions. The intent is to provide a customer-centric experience that delights the ideal target audience.

Websites are perfecting more and more intense personalization so returning users feel more and more like their experience online is catered specifically and uniquely to them.

Inbound done well makes Drucker's quote manifest: by knowing and understanding a customer well enough, the product or service can and does sell itself.

Benefits of Inbound Marketing

1. It reaches the right audience.

Overall, the primary benefit of inbound marketing is that you reach the right audience in the right places to attract your target customers. You're no longer spending your budget attracting traffic that’s unlikely to convert. Through your research, you know if your target market spends time on LinkedIn or Snapchat, so you spend your time on one or the other. 

Inbound marketing is all about providing potential customers the information they seek, whether they know it is what they seek, in creative and engaging ways. You're presenting your brand as a useful and reliable resource that people will come to when it's time to purchase.

2. It aligns well with modern buyers' behavior and expectations.

Perhaps one of the more essential benefits of inbound marketing is that it aligns better with modern buyers regarding their behavior and psychology. Today, buyers want to feel in control of their destinies. They want the convenience and speed of finding answers to their questions and solutions to their pain points online. What they don't want is to be force-fed sales pitches.

3. It is less expensive than an equivalent outbound campaign.

Regardless of the size of your marketing budget, inbound marketing is generally significantly cheaper than an equivalent outbound campaign. The lower costs mean improved ROI. By collecting data from your readers and prospects, you are better informed in deciding how to spend your marketing resources. From when someone arrives on your website to when the deal is closed, you can track and analyze nearly everything a prospect does and experiment to see what gives you the most for your marketing dollar.

The higher ROI also results from the fact that with evergreen content, you can execute an inbound marketing campaign that stays relevant and pays dividends for months and even years. What is evergreen content? It's content that needs only tweaks to stay relevant and up-to-date. The name is borrowed from evergreen trees, synonymous with long-lasting freshness and perpetual life.

When done correctly, the inbound methodology is ten times as effective in lead conversions as an outbound campaign. Of course, inbound and outbound marketing can work together, but that's not the focus of this article. 

4. It builds a long-term relationship with customers.

Inbound marketing allows for building long-term relationships since it's based on continuous information delivery and the two-way nature of social media communication. Thus, companies can build trust with potential customers until each customer is ready to buy the product or service. The content-driven nature of inbound marketing allows you to produce authoritative content that builds market credibility and gives potential customers the impression that this is a knowledgeable company that can help them.

According to a study by Demand Gen Report, nearly half of all buyers view several pieces of content before reaching out or being willing to speak with a company representative. If you set yourself up as a valuable resource in a non-invasive way, you help lay the groundwork for a relationship built on valuable content and trust.

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Inbound Marketing and Data

Inbound marketing brings with it an abundance of data. Analytics shows you the best leads to follow up with to prioritize your time better. Likewise, inbound metrics show you what's working and what's not.

Adjusting your inbound marketing strategy or tweaking a campaign for better results has never been easy. The insights your metrics gain enable you to make better business decisions in real time. 


The history of inbound marketing is a testament to its adaptability. As technology evolves and consumer behaviors shift, inbound strategies will naturally continue to refine. The future undoubtedly holds exciting developments like the broader use of AI for content personalization and predictive analytics. Newer social platforms focused on video and niche communities will likely become important inbound channels. However, the core principle of inbound – providing value to attract and nurture an audience – remains timeless.

Want to leverage the lessons of inbound's past to future-proof your marketing? Here are a few steps to take:

  • Stay Human-Centric: Even with advanced AI tools, don't lose sight of your audience's needs. Deliver genuine value.

  • Embrace Experimentation: New channels and tactics will emerge. Be willing to test and iterate.

  • Invest in Content: High-quality, informative content remains the backbone of successful inbound strategies.

Inbound marketing is a journey, not a destination. By understanding its evolution and applying these core principles, you'll create a marketing strategy that stands the test of time.

Are you a fit for Inbound Marketing?

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Shelley's been in Seattle practically since the dawn of time. She enjoys having fun (seriously) with research and writing. In her off hours she reads and walks, although not at the same time -- because tripping over sidewalks is embarrassing.

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