Inbound lead generation should be a major component of any business’s marketing strategy.

What is inbound lead generation? Simply put, inbound lead generation is the practice of drawing prospects and users to your brand in such a way that they choose to become leads.

Inbound lead generation takes place when leads come to you.

Inbound lead gen is, without question, one of the most important marketing activities businesses should be conducting.

This article is intended for sales or marketing professionals of medium to large businesses who want a powerful inbound lead generation strategy.

Here’s what you can expect from reading the ultimate guide to lead generation:

  • Know exactly what inbound lead generation is (and avoid useless or time-wasting inbound tactics)
  • Execute the five most successful inbound marketing tactics available
  • Use tools and processes that will streamline your inbound marketing practice, leveraging it into an ultra-powerful source of high-converting leads

What Is Inbound Lead Generation? A Definition

Boiling down the essence of a packed term like inbound lead generation to a simple definition is challenging. It’s hard to encapsulate every angle and nuance to the term in just one sentence.

We’ll get to our definition momentarily, but first, let’s set forth some basic lead generation terminology:

  • A prospect is a person who belongs to the market you’re targeting.
  • A lead is a person who has demonstrated an interest in something you have to offer.
  • Lead generation is turning prospects into leads.

Lead generation has two basic forms: inbound lead generation and outbound lead generation. (We’ll examine both of these here, with a strong emphasis on the inbound side.)

The term “lead” has some ambiguity to it. (This is intentional.) Demonstrating interest assumes some level of action. That action, of course, depends on where the lead is in the sales cycle and how you capture that lead’s sustained attention.

What is inbound lead generation, then?

Inbound lead generation is the process of gaining leads through prospect-initiated interactions by means of valuable digital content and promotion.

Breaking Down the Definition

This inbound lead generation meaning has a lot to digest, so let us break it down a little bit.

Process: Inbound lead generation isn’t an event or an initiative. It’s a strategic process

Leads: Here’s the crux of inbound lead gen. These leads come to you willingly.

Inbound leads come to you willingly. Never underestimate the importance of this reality. Leads gained through inbound marketing are predisposed to be interested in you. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have taken action to access your content in the first place.

You’ve sparked something, often something emotional — curiosity, anger, excitement, humor, annoyance, whatever. That emotional spark produces a volitional action.

The prospect perceives himself or herself in control of the marketing cycle, even though they’re not thinking of it in such an objective way.

They initiated contact. They conducted research. They clicked your link.

Prospect-initiated interactions: In a sense, you didn’t start this conversation. The prospect initiated it — querying something on Google clicking a Facebook or Twitter link, or finding your content some other way.

Valuable content: But in another sense, you did start this conversation. Here’s one of the biggest keys. Prospects find you because your content is findable. This is basic SEO stuff. More importantly, it’s truly valuable stuff. It ranks well for the terms they are searching for. And they convert to leads because your content provides real value to them.

Inbound lead generation as defined above is accomplished through a variety of strategies, chief of which is creating both evergreen and timely search-optimized (SEO) content that provides real value to your target audience.

Types of Inbound Leads

Okay, definition aside, there’s a whole next layer to discuss regarding inbound leads.

Inbound leads are not equal.

Within the category of inbound leads, there are four distinct types. The deeper you go when reading about lead generation and related topics, the more frequently you’ll encounter these terms and their acronyms.

It can get overwhelming.

Here are the four main types of inbound leads.

Marketing Qualified Lead

A marketing qualified lead (MQL) is your most basic inbound lead. This person has interacted positively with your brand by responding to a landing page, claiming a free resource or signing up for your email list. But they aren’t quite ready for a sales effort.

The goal with MQLs is to nurture them into the next type of lead, the sales qualified lead.

Sales Qualified Lead

A sales qualified lead (or SQL) is one who has indicated to you that they could soon turn into a customer. An SQL is a step up from an MQL in that the lead is closer to considering a solution

Someone with questions about a specific paid service or item (rather than mere general interest or questions) is usually considered a sales qualified lead.

Product Qualified Lead

A product qualified lead (or PQL) is someone who has used your product (whether a sample or a free trial or has participated in a live demo) and seems like a possible paying customer based on their actions.

Here’s a real-world example you’ve probably experienced. If you’ve used Adobe’s free Reader application, you’ve probably clicked on one of the tools you don’t have access to at some point. When you did, you became one of Adobe’s PQLs.

(And Adobe responded with a pop-up encouraging you to pay for Acrobat Pro, right? That’s one tactic for inbound lead conversions, something we’ll get to later on.)

Service Qualified Lead

Similar to a product qualified lead (PQL), a service qualified lead is someone who has expressed interest in paying for a service you offer. A current customer who is looking to upgrade to a higher service tier is a service qualified lead.

Generally, service qualified leads are already in your system and may already have an account manager or similar agent assigned to them.

That’s why this is an important distinction. Most businesses wouldn’t want their service qualified leads getting chased by a second sales team member unless that team member is doing so in coordination with the primary account manager.

Some sales and marketing professionals also discuss an IQL, or information qualified lead. According to this taxonomy, information qualified leads share their contact information to access gated content such as an ebook or whitepaper on your website.

This next level of complexity introduces a new problem.

How do you keep track of the lead alphabet soup? Perhaps you also use a lead scoring system to rate your leads.

Other Perspectives on Inbound Lead Generation

Above, we discussed just one way of understanding inbound lead generation.

There are others that can help broaden your understanding of the term. We’ll turn first to two experts in the space for their takes.

Lindsay Kolowich at Hubspot defines inbound lead generation by what it helps you stop doing. Lindsay describes it as the tool that gives you leads without turning you into the annoying business cold-calling her during dinner.

Kolowich’s point-proving anecdote reads like this:

Just as you twist your fork in the pasta, spear a mouth-watering meatball, and go in for the first savory bite … the phone rings. “May I speak to Lindsay Kow-low-witch?” asks the telemarketer on the other end. “This is an important message regarding your oven preferences.”

In a more positive direction, Lindsay describes inbound lead generation as “a way of warming up potential customers to your business”— and moving toward a sale or purchase.

Brad Smith writing at WordStream makes the point that inbound marketing is indirect.

He obviously doesn’t mean indirect in an ineffective way, however. It’s indirect in that it may not deliver instant results. Most inbound strategies are long-game methods that deliver well when executed properly.

The Inbound Lead Generation Process Visualized

We can visualize the inbound lead generation process as a linear progression.

This progression takes strangers along a path all the way to becoming customers or, even better, evangelists of your business, product or service.

Hubspot has described the inbound lead generation process as a journey from strangers to visitors to leads to customers and ultimately to promoters:

lead generation inbound marketing methodology

Each point in the process requires effort on your part.

First, you have to convert strangers into visitors.

This is where the bulk of inbound lead generation strategies take place. You have to give strangers a reason to find you (valuable content) and an avenue to do so (search engine optimized content, social media posts and more).

Next, through additional strategies, you convert a visitor into a lead. The following step is to convert a lead into a customer. At this point, some customers’ journeys will be complete.

But others will come back for more. With some additional effort, you’ll be able to turn a subset of your customer group into promoters. By doing this, you complete the progression. Even better, you supercharge your lead generation efforts, because promoters will help to turn strangers into visitors, expanding your reach.

What Is Outbound Lead Generation?

To understand what makes inbound lead generation so powerful, it’s important to understand the main alternative: outbound lead generation.

Outbound lead generation is traditional, “old-school” lead generation, where your marketing or sales team initiates conversations with prospects or reaches a broad audience through traditional or digital advertising.

Outbound lead generation basically boils down to cold calling, traditional advertising, direct mailing, mass email and other similar methods. It puts you in the driver’s seat, but that’s not always a good thing.

inbound lead generation - inbound vs. outbound

With outbound lead generation, you take more direct initiative or control of the process. But you’re also inherently an outsider, and you’re often unwanted.

Remember the pasta phone call example cited above?

Worst case scenario, your outbound efforts can even feel invasive. There’s a reason outbound lead generation gets described as “interruption marketing.” Your phone calls interrupt dinner or (in today’s robocall world) look like spam.

The emails that get through the spam filter still get shoved over to a “promotions” tab and fight against the noise of a thousand other emails.

In the best case outbound scenario, you’re still an interloper hoping for an audience.

One way to situate the difference between inbound and outbound is the marketer driving push vs. the consumer-driven pull, as Software Advice does.

inbound lead generation - outbound and inbound marketing comparison

Feelings aside, what does the data say? In the end, you want something that is effective.

Pivan reports a 3x discrepancy in efficacy. Inbound wins the day, generating three times as many leads as the outbound corollary.

inbound lead generation - inbound generates more leads than traditional marketing

Let’s throw in the cost factor. Which costs more — inbound or outbound?

inbound lead generation - outbound marketing costs more

Hubspot’s annual survey data makes the answer apparent.

Using aggregated CPL (cost per lead) data, Hubspot reported that inbound lead generation cost 62% less than outbound methods.

inbound lead generation - average cost per lead

Salesforce echoes this data with their study, showing that outbound leads cost 61% more than inbound leads.

inbound lead generation - outbound leads cost more

Now, none of this is to say that outbound lead generation is terrible or that it’s never effective. It’s still a big piece of the marketing process. But if all your marketing dollars and energy are going into outbound, you’re missing out on an entire cadre of leads.

Inbound Lead Generation vs. Outbound Lead Generation

Just because we’re using the pugilistic term vs. doesn’t mean that one is bad and one is good.

Inbound lead generation and outbound lead generation both have their strengths, weaknesses, attendant complications, and a place within a robust marketing method.

Most companies will use a blend of the two to form an effective marketing front, as Hubspot survey data conveys.

inbound lead generation - inbound and outbound tactics are both necessary

It’s also important to know that from the perspective of the customer journey, outbound and inbound are both part of the process.

inbound lead generation - overview of the inbound and outbound marketing process

So what are the similarities and differences between inbound and outbound lead generation?

First, the similarities. Both methods seek to bring in leads or customers, and for either method to work well you need a good grasp on your prospects or targets.

Aside from these basic common traits, the two lead generation methods differ in almost every way.

With outbound lead generation, your marketing team takes the lead in every interaction. They start the conversation and hope to convince a prospect to become a lead or a customer. With inbound lead generation, the prospects come to you and make the decision to convert when they feel like it.

With outbound, you gather leads quickly and at a very high cost (from direct mail to TV advertising, the costs are steep). But the quality of the leads is questionable: you’re going to them on your own terms, after all, and trying to convince them they have a problem you can solve.

With inbound lead generation, the leads come more slowly and indirectly. The costs are lower, though, and the quality of the leads is quite high, according to data from MarketingCharts.

inbound lead generation - quality assessment of lead sources

They came to you because you could solve their problem or answer their question. They’re already groomed to like you, and they have chosen without coercion or high-pressure tactics to sign up for or follow one of your marketing channels.

Outbound lead generation requires traditional sales tactics, plus plenty of time and effort. Many digital inbound lead generation tactics require newer areas of expertise (like content strategy, content marketing, and search engine optimization), though overall cost and time may be lower.

When thinking about inbound vs. outbound lead generation, make sure your team is asking the right question. Again, it’s not an either/or conversation or a fight to determine which is better. For most businesses, both are essential parts of a cohesive marketing strategy.

That said, for digitally savvy businesses (especially startups) or those with limited marketing budgets, we recommend weighing your marketing strategy toward inbound efforts.

Data suggests that SMBs and larger companies may be in a better position to afford the higher cost of outbound lead generation.

inbound lead generation - average cost per lead by company size

Businesses with a less-flexible marketing budget are often forced to rely on inbound methods, which isn’t altogether a bad thing.

Forming an Inbound Lead Generation Strategy

Now that you understand the terms and definitions, it’s time to form a basic inbound lead generation strategy. The goal, of course, is to start to increase the number of leads (and customers).

Here’s the basic model of how it’s accomplished.


The first step in inbound lead generation is pulling strangers in and turning them into visitors. This is where your basic content strategy makes or breaks you. Through targeted web content and strategic social publishing, you must be reaching the keywords that your prospects are searching for.

Find the questions they are asking that are related to what you do, sell or provide, and answer them well. Doing so can take the form of blog posts, white papers, topic-specific landing pages and more. And be certain that you’re implementing best practice SEO strategies in this content so that your leads can find you in the first place.


Don’t stop at merely providing helpful answers to prospects’ questions. You can stop there and hope that prospects take additional initiative to interact with you, but there are so many better tools that help you turn visitors into leads.

The basic level includes a CTA (call to action) at the end of a piece of content that invites visitors to sign up for a newsletter, download a free ebook, or some similar action. You can also implement a pop-up CTA that triggers when visitors begin to navigate away from your page.

You may also implement a landing page. Visitors who click a link in an ad or email or at the end of a blog post may get pushed to a page like this, which encourages conversion.


Once you’ve converted visitors into leads, the next step is to close the sale. Whatever product or service you’re targeting, now is the time to sell it. This part of the process can look like a sales funnel, with emails and automated workflows. You’ll likely operate this part of the process using CRM tools, as well.


Some leads will become customers, and that’s the end of the journey for them. That’s OK.

But others have one more step to take. You want to move as many customers as you can into the Promoters category. Developing a customer relationship to the point that they are pleased enough to recommend your product or service to their peers, naturally and for free— that’s a big deal.

Sometimes the product or service itself is almost enough to do this. You’ll increase your numbers, though, with a little effort. Publish intelligent content regularly, and reach out to your existing customers with that content.

If you continue to solve new problems for them, you’ll delight them.

You can also continue engaging with your customers through surveys and social monitoring. Keep nurturing customers into promoters, and you’ll reap an ever-increasing reward from free, grassroots marketing help.

Inbound Lead Generation Techniques: 5 Techniques to Implement Now

Whether you’re retooling existing inbound lead generation techniques or just getting started or the first time, these tips for lead generation campaigns will help you as you build or improve your lead generation strategy.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is one of the most significant inbound lead generation strategies. People search the internet for everything, and if you can provide real value by answering their questions, you’ll make a solid impression.

Your content must be detailed and insightful if it is going to stand out. The content marketing space is admittedly crowded, and quality is higher than it’s ever been.

You also want to present thought leadership in your field. While it’s true that there aren’t that many new, good ideas, you don’t want to fall into the trap of merely parroting ideas from others. Whatever expertise you have in your field, leverage that into unique insights that readers can’t find elsewhere.

Providing quality content is a service to your users and prospects, but to be effective it needs to be tied directly into inbound lead generation. Make sure your site is set up to capitalize on inbound traffic. They come for the content, and with the right conversion strategies, you can turn a searcher into a lead that’s well on his or her way to becoming a customer.

Video Content

Your content strategy should include video content as well. If that sends chills down your spine, don’t fret. Video content is easier than ever to produce, and it doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective.

Look at all the inbound marketing in the SaaSOptics case study. And, look at how simple it actually is.

Most of the video is simply a capture of an interview we did using a freely available video chat application. We added in some royalty-free music, some text-only slides, and a couple of screen captures.

Search Engine Optimization

Of course, for your valuable content to matter, people have to be able to find it easily. Let’s say you sell potatoes, and your website has the absolute best answer to the question “what’s the secret to a perfect baked potato?”

That’s relevant content that could certainly be linked into selling potatoes, so you’re off to a good start.

Here’s the thing: that answer does you absolutely no good at generating leads or selling potatoes unless it’s easy to find. If it’s not in the top few Google results for the search “perfect baked potato,” then it may as well not exist at all.

It’s a silly example, we realize. But we hope the point is clear: to win at content marketing, you need valuable content. But you also need content that’s search engine optimized, or SEO-rich.

For more specifics on what it means to implement search engine optimization in your content, check out this guide from Jonathon Pavoni at Hubspot on how to implement SEO for inbound lead generation.

Social Media Marketing

Leverage the power of social to extend your reach. The first step is to determine which networks are relevant to your prospects. If you’re a B2B-centric company, LinkedIn makes sense. If you’re in a visually heavy space, Instagram is a no-brainer. If you’re targeting general consumers, Facebook and Twitter should be in the mix.

The great thing about social is that most of the work is already done. You already have the content and the destination figured out. All that’s left is to customize an enticing message to get users to click through to your site.

Marketing Automation

As you turn visitors into leads, you’re growing an email list or lead database. Reaching those leads through email marketing is an essential part of your strategy.

The best successes here are found using marketing automation tools (Hubspot is the king, and there are many others in the space).

More than just a sales funnel, marketing automation tools empower you to create custom email sequences based on specific triggers and actions. Once your sequences are set up and automated, the machine runs itself.

Leads get a targeted, customized series of messages that always seem to make sense in the context of their actions. The result? Leads convert to sales.

Keep Exploring

There’s so much more to say and to learn about techniques for inbound lead generation. The ins and outs of how to excel at content marketing alone could fill volumes of books— and the strategies change every few years.

If you want to keep learning on the strategy and technique side of inbound lead generation, we can point you to an excellent podcast on the topic.

Check out our podcast episode with Benji Hyam on mastering lead generation strategies, The Formula for Creating Exceptional Content that Attracts the Right Customers.

Inbound Lead Generation: Conclusion

Getting leads through inbound lead generation is only the start of the sales process. To operate at your best, you need capable tools to help you qualify and assign those leads. You need the ability for those leads to reach out directly or schedule a meeting instantly. And you need an intelligent team handoff solution.

Originally published here.