The Ultimate Guide to Using Digital Advertising in Your Inbound Marketing Strategy

Digital advertising has become a critical component of most marketing plans today. And it‘s no wonder why – global digital ad spend is projected to reach a staggering $626 billion by 2024. As more and more audiences shift their attention online, brands are investing heavily in digital channels to reach and engage them.

But for marketers practicing inbound marketing, digital advertising presents a conundrum. Inbound is all about attracting prospects through helpful, customer-centric content and experiences. It emphasizes two-way conversation and building relationships over time. A lot of digital advertising, on the other hand, still relies on interruptive, one-way messaging that feels more like old-school outbound marketing.

Many of the most common digital ad formats are exactly the kind of experiences inbound marketers try to avoid:

  • Pop-up ads that block the content people are trying to view
  • Auto-playing video ads that disrupt the user experience
  • Flashing banner ads designed to distract and divert attention
  • Generic retargeting ads that make users feel stalked around the internet

It‘s no surprise then that digital ads tend to provoke negative reactions:

  • 40% of internet users say digital ads are intrusive and annoying
  • 27% of US internet users use ad blockers to avoid disruptive online ads
  • 33% cite security and privacy concerns with digital advertising

All of this leads to an important question: is it possible for digital advertising to align with inbound marketing principles? Can you use digital ads in a way that doesn‘t undermine the customer-centric foundation of your inbound strategy?

The answer is yes – but it requires rethinking many of the conventions of digital advertising. The key is to approach digital ads as an extension of your content marketing efforts, not a separate tactic. When done right, digital advertising doesn‘t have to be at odds with inbound. It can become a powerful amplification engine for getting your best content in front of the people who will find it most valuable.

Here are five best practices for making digital advertising work hand-in-hand with your inbound marketing:

1. Prioritize native and social advertising

When ads look and feel intrusive, they generate a negative response. But when they blend seamlessly into the user experience, audiences are much more receptive. That‘s why inbound marketers should focus their digital ad efforts on native and social advertising.

Native ads match the visual design and editorial tone of the content around them. They appear as promoted stories on news sites, sponsored posts on social media, and other content-like experiences across the web. When executed well, they don‘t interrupt the user experience but actually enhance it by surfacing relevant content.

Sponsored social media posts take this a step further by enabling users to engage with ads just like any other post in their feed. People can like, comment on, and share social media ads, creating a two-way interaction. This aligns perfectly with inbound marketing‘s emphasis on conversation over broadcast messaging.

Just how effective are these formats compared to traditional digital ads? The numbers speak for themselves:

  • Native display ads have an 8.8x higher click-through rate than typical display ads
  • Sponsored content on news sites increases purchase intent by 14%
  • Social media ad spend is forecast to reach $166.8 billion in 2024
  • LinkedIn Sponsored Content ads see 7x higher conversion rates than outbound tactics

2. Use ads to amplify your content marketing

Inbound marketing revolves around creating content that pulls people toward your company and products. But in today‘s crowded digital landscape, it‘s getting harder to ensure your content reaches the right people. Even the most compelling content can get lost amongst all the noise.

That‘s where digital advertising comes in. Paid digital promotion is becoming an essential part of content marketing:

  • 80% of B2B marketers use paid distribution channels for content marketing
  • 69% of the most successful B2B marketers use paid ads to promote content
  • 55% of B2C content marketers say paid content promotion is a top tactic

By incorporating digital ads into your content strategy, you can dramatically expand the reach of your best assets. Critically, this doesn‘t mean promoting your products or services directly. You should focus on amplifying educational, top-of-funnel content that speaks to your audience‘s needs and pain points, not your own offerings.

For example, you might run LinkedIn ads promoting your latest industry research report. Or you could sponsor a thought leadership article on key trends on a popular trade publication site. The key is to make sure your digital ads are pointing people to genuinely useful content, not just gated sales pitches.

One powerful technique is to use ads to increase registrations for content-centric lead generation campaigns. For example:

  • Webinars and virtual events
  • Ebook and white paper downloads
  • Industry survey and benchmark report access
  • Online tool and template usage

By gating your highest-value content behind registration forms and promoting it via digital ads, you can fill your pipeline with engaged, qualified leads to nurture over time. Here‘s proof this approach works:

  • Marketers see 7x more site visitors turn into leads when they use gated content
  • White papers, ebooks and guides rank as the most popular types of lead generation content
  • On average, 65% of B2B marketers say their content generates leads through gated assets

3. Get granular with audience targeting

One of the most powerful aspects of digital advertising is the ability to target granular audience segments. Platforms like social media networks and search engines provide a wealth of demographic, psychographic and behavioral data you can use to engage very specific groups of people.

For example, you can target social media ads based on attributes like:

  • Job titles, company industries, and organization sizes
  • Professional skills, interests, and group memberships
  • Buying signals like recent company funding or executive moves
  • Content engagement and website visitation patterns

And with search advertising, you can surface ads to people based on:

  • The exact keywords and questions they‘re searching for
  • Their location, device, and other contextual signals
  • Previous interactions with your site and content

This precision targeting is essential for aligning your digital advertising with your inbound strategy. Rather than blasting your ads to broad audiences, you can deliver the right content to the right people based on who they are and what they need.

When you target ads to specific buyer personas and their stage of the customer journey, you create a much more pleasant, helpful ad experience. The messages are relevant, rather than disruptive. This relevancy also translates into better business results:

  • 80% of marketers say audience segmentation improves campaign performance
  • Segmented ad campaigns have 21% higher open rates and 57% more clicks than undifferentiated messaging
  • Marketers see 3x the revenue per dollar spent on segmented campaigns

4. Focus your digital ad creative on educating, not selling

Many digital ads make the mistake of being overly promotional or sales-driven. They focus on pushing products and offers, rather than helping people. This is the exact opposite of an inbound approach, which builds trust and credibility through educational, customer-centric content.

To make your digital advertising align with inbound principles, you need to rethink your ad creative and calls-to-action. Don‘t make your ads all about you – make them about your audience and the problems they‘re trying to solve. Promote content and experiences that deliver value and nurture prospects along their journey, not just drive them straight to a sales conversation.

For example, an IT security software company could run ads like:

  • A CIO‘s guide to evaluating cloud security solutions
  • Case study: How Company X cut cyber risk by 50%
  • Webinar: Top cybersecurity threats of 2024 and how to stop them
  • Benchmark report: Industry cyber preparedness trends

These types of ads put the focus on helping over selling. They pull people into your ecosystem by providing value, not pushing them to buy. This inbound approach to advertising creative not only feels better to your audience – it produces better results:

  • 94% of B2B buyers consume 3-5 pieces of content before engaging with sales
  • Interactive content generates 2x more conversions than passive content
  • Case studies, how-to guides and research reports rank among the most popular formats for lead nurturing

5. Optimize for down-funnel metrics that matter

Finally, to make digital advertising successful for inbound, you have to rethink the way you measure and optimize your ads. Many marketers default to focusing on metrics like impressions, clicks and click-through-rates. But those don‘t tell you anything about the actual business impact of your ad campaigns.

To gauge the true effectiveness of your inbound-centered digital advertising, you need to track lower-funnel metrics that reflect your ultimate goals. Some of the most important KPIs include:

  • Marketing qualified leads generated
  • Sales accepted and sales qualified leads driven
  • Pipeline revenue and closed/won deals influenced
  • Total ROI and customer acquisition costs

By tying your digital ads to these types of metrics, you can make smarter optimization decisions. For instance, you may find that certain audience segments, creative messages, or content types are far more likely to convert into sales opportunities. You can then double down in those areas, while cutting spend on less effective targeting and tactics.

This metric-driven approach is how the best inbound marketers make the most of their digital advertising investment. Case in point:

  • Only 22% of businesses are satisfied with their conversion rates
  • But companies that excel at lead nurturing generate 50% more sales-ready leads at a 33% lower cost
  • And nurtured leads, often coming from digital ads, make 47% larger purchases than non-nurtured leads

Bringing it all together

At first glance, digital advertising and inbound marketing can seem like strange bedfellows. A lot of online ads are the epitome of old-school, outbound marketing – interruptive, irritating, and impersonal.

But when you approach digital advertising from an inbound lens, a different picture emerges. Suddenly, you see online ads as an opportunity to amplify your best content and engage audiences in new ways:

  • Native ads and sponsored social posts that match the user experience
  • Promotion of ungated thought leadership and open access interactive tools
  • Ultra-targeted creative and calls-to-action based on buyer interests and intent
  • Optimizing ad spend for qualified leads and closed revenue instead of just clicks

Far from being at odds with inbound marketing, this evolved form of digital advertising becomes an essential piece of your inbound strategy. You‘re able to extend the reach of your content, bring in more qualified leads, and accelerate the buyer‘s journey.

The end result? Ads people actually appreciate and engage with. Experiences that build your brand instead of detracting from it. And most importantly, better returns on your digital advertising investments.

Ready to bring your digital ads into alignment with your inbound marketing strategy? Check out our free guide: The Inbound Marketer‘s Primer to Digital Advertising. It‘s packed with tips, examples and worksheets to help you build high-converting digital campaigns that put your audience first.