Why inbound marketing costs inevitably increase over time

Mark Schaefer
4 min readAug 31, 2023

One of the tenets of the inbound marketing movement is that using content to attract qualified leads is the most cost-efficient marketing system around.

But with the inbound marketing movement now approaching 15 years, I am seeing certain trends among companies who have been in this awhile that show that inbound marketing costs may go up, not down, over time.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Let’s unpack this economic truth today.

More friction, more cost

The fundamental idea behind “inbound marketing” is that creating helpful content on your website attracts customers auto-magically as they find you through channels like blogs, search engines, and social media. At least in theory, the cost of this type of marketing is supposed to be very low compared to traditional “outbound marketing” of advertising and sales calls.

This model is running into a number of problems and is not the route to easy street many people have hyped over the years. I’ll discuss one of those problems today.

Let me introduce a simple chart that depicts what can happen to inbound marketing costs over time:

When you begin an inbound marketing program, simply creating content in an unsaturated niche will result in awareness that will bring in the “low-hanging fruit.” The sales “friction” is very low. These customers have been waiting for a company like you to come along with helpful content and now that they are aware of you, they’re eager to learn more.

As time goes on, those easy customers become harder and harder to find. In fact, as the leads dry up, inbound marketing requires ever-increasing investment in more content, better content, promotion expenses, and even sales calls.

Rising inbound marketing costs

The problem gets exponentially worse if additional friction is created by content competition in your niche (not addressed in the chart). Now, the cost of inbound marketing also goes up due to the need to…

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Mark Schaefer

Keynote speaker, marketing strategy consultant, Rutgers U faculty and author of 10 books including KNOWN, Marketing Rebellion, and Belonging to the Brand!