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ABM vs Inbound Marketing — What’s the Difference?

Last updated Feb 9, 2024

How Is Account-Based Marketing Different from Inbound Marketing?

ABM vs Inbound: Key Differences and Similarities

Account-based marketing (ABM) and inbound marketing are often compared to each other.

Is ABM only an outbound strategy? How does ABM relate to inbound? Are they mutually exclusive marketing strategies, or can ABM and inbound marketing be used together?

This post looks at account-based marketing vs inbound marketing in B2B — comparing and contrasting these two common B2B marketing approaches.

Let’s take a closer look below…

Table of Contents (+/-)
    abm vs inbound marketing
    In B2B marketing, ABM and inbound marketing have important distinctions. This post explores key differences as well as some notable similarities and synergies.

    This post contains a few referral links to vendor partners. We may receive compensation for purchases made via these links, at no additional cost to buyers.

    Quick Summary

    • Account-based and inbound marketing have coexisted for quite a while now. ABM has gained a lot of traction in recent years.
    • ABM vs inbound marketing is a common theme. They have key distinctions and some similarities.
    • Inbound marketing and ABM are not mutually exclusive. They can work together in complementary ways.

    Defining ABM and Inbound Marketing

    Helpful Definitions from Original Sources

    Both account-based marketing and inbound marketing have been around for many years now. The original ABM concepts, dating back to at least the early 2000s, are actually older than the inbound marketing model.

    Let’s look at two of the original sources below. A group called ‘ITSMA’ for ABM, and software vendor HubSpot for inbound marketing.

    Account-Based Marketing Definition (ABM)

    Initial work in ABM development came out of the IT Services Marketing Association, or ITSMA. (Now part of growth consultancy ‘Momentum’.)

    Here’s their high-level definition of ABM:

    “Account-Based Marketing (ABM) is a strategic approach to designing and executing highly-targeted and personalized marketing programs to drive business growth and impact with specific, named accounts.”

    — ABM 2020 Benchmark Study (ITSMA and ABM Leadership Alliance)

    Supporting this overarching definition, ITSMA also defined three types of account-based marketing. As a quick summary, they are:

    Strategic ABM (One-to-One ABM)

    Highly customized and tightly coordinated sales and marketing for individual accounts. This is truly a case of treating a high-value strategic B2B account as a ‘market of one’. In many cases, B2B firms will have more than a single 1:1 ABM account but will approach each with a very customized account-specific plan.

    ABM Lite (One-to-Few ABM)

    Lightly customized programs for smaller clusters of target accounts with similar issues, pain points, and solution needs. This is a ‘one-to-few’ ABM model.

    Programmatic ABM (One-to-Many ABM)

    The newest approach to ABM, this model leverages modern ABM technology platforms to tailor marketing campaigns for larger numbers of specific named accounts. With the right technology and processes in place, programmatic ABM can scale to hundreds or even thousands of identified accounts.

    For a more complete overview of account-based marketing, download the full ITSMA and ABM Leadership Alliance report here. (Instant PDF download; no registration required.)

    Related: See this post to help assess your readiness for ABM-focused marketing and sales. It includes an ABM readiness checklist table with related insights and tips.

    Inbound Marketing Definition

    inbound marketing tactics content seo social media
    Inbound marketing ‘attracts’ new business prospects using tactics such as compelling content, organic search visibility (SEO), and social media marketing.

    The concept of ‘inbound marketing’ was popularized by software vendor HubSpot many years ago.

    Here’s their basic definition:

    “Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have.”

    Source: HubSpot Website

    HubSpot has also popularized an ‘inbound marketing flywheel’ that looks like this:

    hubspot inbound marketing flywheel
    HubSpot’s ‘Flywheel Model’ for inbound marketing illustrates the lead progression from ‘strangers’ to prospects, customers, and promoters. Source: HubSpot

    HubSpot’s competitor Marketo provides a shorter definition of inbound marketing:

    “Inbound marketing, in simple terms, is the process of helping potential customers find your company.”

    Source: Marketo Website

    Both of these definitions of inbound marketing assume that there are complete strangers out there who can be convinced to buy from you — but they first need to find you and understand your company and solution offer.

    HubSpot, Marketo, and other inbound marketing proponents argue that the best way to get these strangers to find you is through organic, non-intrusive, and non-interrupt-driven methods.

    Inbound marketing also aligns well with the common phrase:

    ‘People love to buy, but hate being sold to.’

    ABM vs Inbound Marketing — Top Differences

    Summary of Main Differences

    This section focuses on the primary differences between inbound marketing and ABM.

    A common question about account-based marketing is this:

    “Is ABM inbound or outbound marketing?”

    The truth is, it can easily be both. ABM is definitely aligned with outbound marketing tactics, but it also overlaps with inbound marketing, as described further below.

    ABM and outbound sales are also tightly connected. There is no ABM without an engaged and coordinated outbound sales effort.

    The table below captures some of the top differences between account-based and inbound marketing.

    ABM vs Inbound Marketing — Comparison Table

    Key CharacteristicsABMInbound Marketing
    Industry typeB2BB2B and B2C
    Demand generation funnel
    (top to bottom)
    Narrow to wide
    (starts with accounts)
    Wide to narrow
    (starts with raw leads)
    Initial lead/prospect focus‘Quality is King’
    (Key Target Accounts)
    Quantity and quality
    (Market Segments)
    Direct sales involvement
    (primary activities)
    At every stage
    (planning –> execution)
    After marketing lead handoff to sales (MQL –> SAL)
    Content customization and messagingTo key account and individual levelsTo segments and more generic role personas
    Marketing automationMore narrowly and
    carefully focused
    Broadly applied at early stages
    Outbound marketingPlays a key role throughoutPlays a supporting role after inbound lead generation
    MeasurementFocused on more account-level ABM metricsFocused on traditional B2B marketing/sales pipeline metrics
    ABM vs inbound marketing — summary of key differences

    Related: Also see how the account-based marketing funnel differs from traditional demand generation funnels.

    ABM and Inbound Marketing — Key Similarities

    ABM and Inbound Do Overlap

    Contrary to some of the misconceptions out there, ABM and inbound are not mutually exclusive. They do have things in common and can be used together.

    b2b marketing and sales
    Account-based and inbound marketing can work well together in many B2B scenarios.

    Here are some areas where ABM and inbound marketing methods overlap in B2B situations.

    Content

    High-quality content matters to both ABM and inbound marketing efforts. For example, both ABM and SEO strategies need good content to fuel them.

    For inbound marketing, good content helps attract new prospects and meet their information needs at key points along the buyer journey or B2B sales cycle.

    For ABM, content personalization matters more. Specific content pieces may be customized 1:1 to a specific target account and even to a specific person or persons within the account.

    Strategic Account Selling

    In many B2B firms, especially those with more complex solutions to sell, a qualified inbound-generated lead eventually becomes a target prospect for outbound sales.

    So, strategic account selling skills can eventually play a major role in converting inbound traffic to closed business. It just happens further down the more traditional marketing and sales funnel.

    In account-based marketing, strategic account sales skills play an important role right from the start, during ICP development and named account selection, ABM tactical planning, etc.

    Classic B2B strategic selling and account planning skills remain critical through the duration of an ABM-style account win.

    Websites and Analytics

    ABM and inbound marketing both require strong websites and analytics data for useful insights.

    After all, the B2B company website serves as the home and information hub for most of the quality content developed for inbound and ABM campaigns.

    Even highly targeted and customized ABM content will often be replicated in some way on the website, and we want to measure how site visitors find it and engage with it.

    In both inbound and ABM situations, we can also leverage website visitor identification and tracking tools to learn if our campaigns and outreach are hitting the mark and bringing in the ‘right’ kinds of site traffic.

    Success Amplification

    In B2B, a good win is a good win, no matter if the original source is an inbound campaign or an account-based approach.

    Either way, we want to amplify great customer wins when we can. For example, B2B customer success stories and case studies can provide additional high-value content to help fuel inbound campaigns.

    And they can be put to good use with other similar target accounts in an ABM effort.

    Supporting Tools and Platforms

    Since there are some tactical similarities between ABM and inbound marketing, it’s not surprising that many of the common B2B marketing software tools and platforms can support both marketing approaches.

    For example, the software categories below can all support both ABM and inbound. They may just be used differently and in different stages of the revenue lifecycle.

    Generally speaking, these tools will be deployed in a much more focused (and often smaller scale) way in many ABM campaigns.

    There is also an entire class of very ABM-centric software solutions. See more on the tools and platforms topic below.

    Using ABM and Inbound Marketing Together

    ABM and Inbound Marketing Synergy

    Inbound marketing and account-based marketing can work well together. Inbound can support ABM and vice versa.

    Here are two practical scenarios to illustrate this point.

    ABM and Inbound Working Together: Scenario 1

    In this scenario, an ABM-first strategy is supplemented by inbound marketing to uncover additional accounts that should be added to the ABM target list.

    This is basically ABM to Inbound to ABM. It goes something like this:

    • Some of this ‘ABM content’ is also lightly generalized and optimized for organic search (SEO), then posted to the company website and shared on LinkedIn.
    • The team adds this new company to their ABM target list. Further ABM-style pursuit and engagement continue from there.

    This is one of the ways a focused ABM push can get broader over time; hence the typical inverted ABM funnel that starts narrow and gets wider at the bottom.

    ABM and Inbound Working Together: Scenario 2

    In this scenario, a primarily inbound marketing-centric company decides to engage ABM tactics to go after a subset of new prospect activity.

    In this case, the Inbound to ABM playbook looks like this:

    • A classic inbound marketing campaign attracts new B2B website visitors for a specific solution offer. Relatively quickly, the marketing and sales team notice that much of the new interest is coming from named account targets they already know. Some are existing customers, but many are not.
    • The team decides to pilot a small ABM sales/marketing team to go after a subset of these named accounts, based on best fit and highest potential value to the firm’s bottom line. This starts out as an ‘ABM Lite’ program, otherwise known as ‘one-to-few ABM’.
    • The firm continues to pursue this smaller set of named accounts using typical ABM-style tactics. Other accounts continue to follow the more familiar inbound marketing, nurturing, and sales handoff sequence.
    • Some months later, the firm measures the ROI of the ABM-based approach and compares it against its more traditional/inbound sales pipeline. They make adjustments to their marketing/sales programs as indicated by the ROI results.

    Related: Learn more about how SEO and ABM can work well together in coordinated B2B marketing and sales efforts. Also, learn more here about combining ABM and traditional marketing in B2B.

    These are just two common situations where both ABM and inbound marketing can be used in highly complementary ways. They can easily support each other and should not be viewed as opposing marketing strategies or philosophies.

    ABM and Inbound Marketing — Platforms and Tools

    Many B2B Solutions Now Offer ABM Capabilities

    Both inbound marketing and ABM have their own sets of tools and platforms available. In some cases, there is definite functional overlap.

    Since ABM has really taken off in recent years, many of the well-established B2B software solution vendors have added account-based marketing features as well.

    In many cases, vendors promote inbound + ABM as complementary approaches that their platforms support.

    Inbound Marketing, MA and CRM Platforms

    HubSpot is a good example of an original inbound marketing-focused platform that now also supports account-based marketing.

    See HubSpot’s ABM-centric product capabilities here.

    Also see the HubSpot Guide to Account-Based Marketing, as well as how to do ABM with HubSpot’s free tools.

    Marketo (now part of Adobe) is another prime example of a marketing automation solution with ABM ambitions as well.

    Learn more about Marketo’s ABM capabilities here.

    CRM leader Salesforce is tackling ABM with ‘Einstein’, their AI-powered ABM solution built on their industry-leading CRM platform.

    Learn more about the Salesforce Einstein ABM solution here.

    These are just a few prominent examples from B2B software vendors who didn’t start out being ABM-focused but have added account-based marketing capabilities to address the growing interest in ABM.

    If you already have a decent B2B marketing ‘tech stack’ in place, be sure to check their latest features, announcements, and roadmaps to see how they’re supporting ABM.

    ABM Leadership Alliance

    For a look at some of the leading ABM-centric solution vendors available today, check out the ABM Leadership Alliance here.

    Founded by Demandbase in 2016, the ABM Leadership Alliance is made up of a handful of ABM technology vendors. Their website offers a wide range of resources to support successful ABM initiatives.

    B2B Website Visitor Analytics Tools

    Focused on identifying and tracking B2B website visitors, this class of website analytics tools helps sales and marketing teams track corporate visitors on B2B websites. They are part of the push to identify anonymous website visitors, particularly for B2B prospecting and lead generation.

    B2B revenue teams can then take appropriate proactive follow-up action based on this enhanced level of sales intelligence and buyer intent info.

    These insights into website visitor activity can be hugely beneficial in account-based marketing.

    Learn more here about how B2B website visitor tracking supports ABM.

    Also, see how these tools can enable a simplified form of account-based marketing called ‘Ultralight ABM’.

    Related: Learn how tools like Leadfeeder support ABM retargeting and account-based advertising.

    leadfeeder free trial promotion
    Leadfeeder is a good example of a B2B website visitor identification and analytics tool that supports basic through advanced ABM.

    Learn more about Leadfeeder’s ABM capabilities here.

    ABM vs Inbound Marketing — Closing Thoughts

    Several Key Differences, But Similarities and Overlaps Too

    We can see from the discussion above that account-based marketing and inbound marketing share some similarities and have some overlapping elements.

    But there are several important differences as well.

    Is ABM the same as inbound marketing? No, definitely not. They have key differences as summarized in the table above.

    Is ABM just another way to say ‘outbound marketing’? Nope… that’s not quite right either.

    Are ABM and inbound marketing mutually exclusive? Are they opposite strategies? No, they can definitely be used in parallel and complementary ways.

    For B2B firms, it’s important to understand the inbound vs ABM differences, similarities, and complementary aspects, then choose the right overall marketing and sales approach that fits the specific needs of the business.

    Questions or Comments?

    I hope this comparison of ABM vs inbound marketing for B2B has been helpful. Here are some closing questions to consider:

    • Are you using any form of ABM in your B2B business today?
    • How important is inbound marketing in your overall marketing mix?
    • Do you use inbound and ABM together in any interesting ways?

    Feel free to add your own insights in the comments below with any thoughts, feedback, or related questions. Thanks also for any social shares on this post via the buttons below!

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