Few groups of uniformed tweens are as renowned for their marketing prowess as the Girl Scouts of the USA. Although you may not think of them as sharks, odds are you can name at least one—or two, or three—of their products. In fact, somebody you know probably has a box of Girl Scout cookies in their freezer right now.
So how did they do it? By strategically leveraging both outbound and inbound marketing strategies to corner the market on seasonal cookie distribution. To replicate the Girl Scouts’ success, small business owners need to understand the strengths of both inbound and outbound selling and know how (and when) to effectively deploy each strategy.
What are inbound sales?
Inbound sales are sales that come from a customer approaching your company, typically because of a word-of-mouth referral or an encounter with your sales or marketing materials.
Because the inbound sales process requires customers to find and approach you, a successful inbound sales strategy requires businesses to use inbound marketing tactics to attract potential customers. Inbound marketing typically involves creating and distributing informational or promotional content to a business’s target audiences.
Examples of inbound sales
Here are a few examples of inbound sales that result from strategic inbound marketing:
- Sales from referral and lead nurturing. After a customer recommends a home theater installation company to a friend, the friend visits the company’s online store and submits a question using a contact form. An inbound salesperson answers the question, requests permission to add the potential customer to an email marketing list, and flags the customer as an inbound prospect. Three days later, the company’s email marketing platform automatically sends the customer a coupon code, and the customer makes a purchase.
- Sales from search engine advertising. A potential customer searches for “green rain boots,” and an ad for a relevant product appears at the top of the search engine results page. They click on the ad and purchase a pair of boots.
- Sales from social media marketing. A customer sees a promotional post on social media, visits the company’s business profile, and completes an in-app purchase.
- Sales from content marketing. A customer searches for “Achilles pain stretches” and discovers a marathon training service’s extensive library of training and rehabilitation information for runners. Over time, they come to rely on the company’s blog as a resource. When they start training for their first marathon, they purchase the company’s marathon training plan and a package of one-on-one coaching sessions.
What are outbound sales?
Outbound sales are sales that result from one of your sales reps proactively reaching out to a prospective customer about your company. The outbound sales process involves researching sales targets, finding or purchasing contact information, reaching out to initiate sales conversations, and following up with outbound leads to encourage purchases.
Examples of outbound sales
Outbound sales result from outbound marketing, the process in which sales reps communicate with potential customers to promote products. Here’s a list of outbound sales examples:
- Sales from cold-calling. A sales representative from a company that makes artificial rocks calls the head of product at a company that makes custom saltwater aquarium landscapes. The sales representative delivers a sales pitch for a line of multicolored aquarium rocks and successfully closes a deal.
- Sales from trade show marketing. A sales representative from a camera equipment company attends a trade show for photographers and videographers, and they bring the company’s lightweight, sustainably built tripod. They gather 10 email addresses from interested prospects and follow up three days later to ask if they can provide information about the product. Four customers ask questions and two purchase tripods.
- Sales from social selling. A shipping company’s sales representative reaches out to a business owner on LinkedIn to advertise custom packaging and fulfillment solutions. They book a sales meeting and successfully close a deal.
Inbound sales vs. outbound sales
Both inbound and outbound sales strategies serve the same purpose: to ensure target customers are aware of your brand, understand your value proposition, and ultimately, buy your products. They just take different paths to get there. Here’s an overview of the similarities and differences between them:
- How they’re similar: Both inbound and outbound sales strategies take time. You’ll need to invest your own time or allocate paid staff to each strategy.
- How they’re different: Inbound selling allows you to cast a relatively wide net for a relatively low cost. Outbound selling is more expensive—particularly for businesses with a large potential customer base—but it can result in higher-quality leads.
- How they’re similar: Both inbound and outbound sales tactics can generate leads, nurture them, and result in conversions.
- How they’re different: The outbound sales funnel starts earlier than the inbound funnel, with a phase known as prospecting. Prospecting involves building a list of sales opportunities and finding associated contact information. The outbound funnel also requires active sales rep engagement at every stage, while the inbound sales funnel typically only requires active engagement when customers are close to making a purchase.
- How they’re similar: Both inbound and outbound sales strategies can scale with your company.
- How they’re different: As your audience size increases, many of your inbound sales tactics will scale automatically. You won’t necessarily need to write more web copy because you have more readers or post more frequently to social media as your followership grows. Outbound sales efforts, on the other hand, need to grow nearly in tandem with reach; if you want to reach twice as many prospects, you’ll need to devote twice the resources to contacting potential customers.
- How they’re similar: Both inbound and outbound target audiences represent your ideal customers.
- How they’re different: Inbound sales materials are broadly accessible—they might be viewed by your entire target audience as well as by individuals who don’t represent your ideal customers (including your competitors). Outbound sales communications can be tailored to specific individuals and won’t necessarily be available to a broad readership.
- How they’re similar: Both strategies can be used by businesses of all sizes in all industries.
- How they’re different: Outbound sales strategies are particularly popular with companies that expect long sales cycles, companies with smaller target audiences, and companies with a larger average revenue per sale. This often describes B2B companies, particularly those that sell to enterprise clients. Inbound sales tend to be ideal for B2C companies that sell relatively inexpensive products.
What are the advantages of inbound sales?
Inbound sales strategies are cost-effective, scalable, and adaptable. Here’s an overview of its benefits:
- Can be cost-effective. Inbound sales strategies allow businesses to reach large audiences with each individual marketing asset. They only deploy your sales reps to interact with customers with a demonstrated interest in your business.
- Highly scalable. As your customer base grows, more people will read your marketing content, but you won’t necessarily need to create more content or add to your team to convert readers into customers.
- Supports the entire customer journey. Inbound sales strategies can generate leads and nurture customers through the sales funnel. Targeted ads might capture their attention, leading them to read a blog post that outlines the benefits of your product, after which they may decide your product suits their needs and make a purchase.
- Doesn’t require customer contact information. Inbound sales strategies don’t require you to have specific information about your target customers. You’ll conduct target market research to gain insights into customer demographics, needs, and decision drivers, but you won’t need names, phone numbers, or email addresses to operate your inbound sales machine.
What are the advantages of outbound sales?
Outbound sales is a very different strategy from inbound sales—and the benefits of each are equally distinct. Here’s an overview of the advantages of adopting an outbound sales strategy:
- Highly targeted. Outbound sales strategies enable highly targeted outreach. Instead of creating content for a large potential audience, you’ll personally contact prospective customers likely interested in your products or services, allowing you to customize marketing language and offers. For example, you might tailor the benefits you describe to match a prospect’s needs or offer a custom incentive to secure a particularly valuable business relationship.
- Can pay off quickly. Inbound strategies can take time to deliver results, but outbound sales strategies can pay off quickly. You won’t need to gradually build brand awareness and credibility to reach your ideal customers—you can just look them up and give them a call.
- Control over the sales pipeline. There’s such a thing as too much success. During the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the meal delivery company Blue Apron experienced such a dramatic increase in inbound sales it was forced to skip deliveries and instead rerouted new customers to a waitlist. Outbound strategies allow you to modulate your efforts to control sales volumes.
5 questions to consider when choosing inbound or outbound sales
- What are your budget considerations?
- How much education does your product or service necessitate?
- What is your average revenue per sale (and per customer)?
- How large is your target audience?
- How quickly do your customers make purchases?
The best growth channel for your business depends on your budget, target audience, and factors relevant to your business niche. Although you may decide to prioritize either outbound or inbound sales strategies, keep in mind many businesses invest in both. Instead of ruling out an entire growth channel, ask yourself the following five questions to determine when to prioritize outbound versus inbound sales strategies:
1. What are your budget considerations?
Evaluate your available marketing budget and business goals. How much money do you have to spend on sales strategies and how quickly do you need to see a return on your efforts?
While outbound sales strategies are more expensive (especially at scale), they can also result in a quicker return on investment (ROI). If you need to increase revenue in the short-term, outbound sales strategies might be the right choice, even if they carry a greater cost per acquisition.
2. How much education does your product or service necessitate?
Consider the following questions:
- How complicated is your product or service (and the problem it solves)?
- Do you offer clear, unique benefits not offered by your competitors, or does understanding what makes your product different require education?
- Do you offer the same benefit to all of your customers, or can individual users customize your product to meet specific needs?
If your value proposition is clear and consistent, inbound sales strategies should be able to effectively communicate why your customers should buy your products. If, on the other hand, your customers require product education to understand the value you bring, or if your products can be customized to meet specific business needs, outbound sales strategies can be a more effective way to communicate value and inspire purchases.
3. What is your average revenue per sale (and per customer)?
Calculate the average value of a sale. The higher the number, the more sense it makes to spend on high-cost, high-touch strategies, like outbound marketing. If the average revenue per sale is low, inbound strategies are more likely to be cost-effective.
Consider the average lifetime value of a customer, too. If repeat sales are likely, you can consider this number in place of the average value of a sale.
4. How large is your target audience?
If you’re targeting a relatively small number of potential buyers, outbound strategies can be effective on their own. If your target audience is massive, using inbound strategies—either exclusively or in conjunction with outbound selling—can help you reach a greater percentage of your target audience at a lower cost.
5. How quickly do your customers make purchases?
If your customers tend to make purchasing decisions quickly, inbound marketing content is critical; if they see your marketing materials and believe your product’s unique value proposition meets their needs, they’ll be likely to make a purchase.
Outbound strategies can be more effective for clients who operate on a longer sales cycle and conduct extensive research. These clients may appreciate personalized attention or require expert insight into your products or services before making a purchase.
Inbound sales vs. outbound sales FAQ
What's the biggest difference between inbound and outbound sales?
The biggest difference between inbound and outbound sales is who initiates the sales relationship. In inbound sales, the prospect reaches out to the company first, while in outbound sales, the sales representative reaches out to the prospect first.
Can inbound sales be integrated with other sales approaches?
Yes. Many businesses use both inbound selling and outbound selling strategies.
Are inbound sales strategies suitable for all types of businesses?
Yes. Inbound sales methodologies can help all types of businesses attract customers.
Can outbound sales be personalized for individual customers?
Yes. Outbound sales and marketing teams often tailor messaging to prospective customers based on the customer’s needs and the customer’s potential value to your business.