Much of it is posturing by companies (big and small) trying to assume ownership of one or the other term, or to demonstrate leadership. None of the prominent articles I could find provided a conclusive and balanced definition of both terms and the real difference or differences between them. In fact they came across a lot like playground arguments about who's Dad is harder.
So what is the difference, really?
The real difference between inbound marketing and content marketing is...
Inbound marketing is a strategy, while content marketing is a tactic. Content marketing is the essential tactic in inbound marketing, but inbound marketing is a wider strategy that integrates many tactics, including content marketing, SEO, email marketing, etc.
Making sense of the confusion.
Much of the confusion between the two terms comes from the perpetual disambiguation and misuse that has beset marketing terminology all along. For example, a hell of a lot of people think they are in 'marketing' when really they are in 'marketing communications' - the former being, in truth, a far bigger and wider reaching concept than the latter.
The fact that both terms, content marketing and inbound marketing, include the word marketing probably worsens the challenge. The common word leads us to think of them as variations of the same thing when perhaps they are very different things.
Strategy vs. tactic
Having looked at this topic from a variety of angles and having read numerous articles on the subject, we have concluded that a safe definition of the difference between inbound marketing and content marketing is that one is strategy and the other a tactic, but which is which?
Pause for suspense.
Inbound marketing is a strategy. Content marketing is a tactic.
At this stage the writers of those vitriolic posts backing content marketing as the superior 'thing' would probably huff in disgust. 'There goes another HubSpot partner hopping on the inbound wagon'. Well, while we are a HubSpot Certified Partner I assure you we have no predisposed preference towards either term. We have simply looked at each in the context of what we do and what the individual words mean and tried to find a robust explanation for the relationship between them. And this is it.
Content marketing as a tactic
Calling content marketing a tactic rather than a strategy is in no way intended to diminish it's importance. It is, without doubt, the essential tactic within the inbound strategy. And, yes, like all good marketing tactics, content marketing can produce its own, measurable results.
Content marketing, defined by many as the creation and sharing of compelling content, feels, as a tactic should, as a specific action designed to take advantage of an opportunity and to achieve a specific result. Inbound marketing on the other hand is no one specific action, but many. Hence…
Inbound marketing as a strategy
Inbound marketing is the strategy for achieving the objective of inbound lead generation and it is broader than just content marketing. Inbound requires the optimisation of a number of tactics, including content marketing, marketing automation, search engine optimisation, etc., around the lead generation goal.
Can you do one without the other
You can certainly do good, successful content marketing without having an inbound marketing strategy.
You could also try to do inbound without content, but you wouldn’t be very successful. Optimising static websites and sending automated emails without fresh content and leads is likely to produce diminishing, if any, returns.
According to some, you can even do content production without content marketing - but this is just the random, un-guided publication of content without any definition of personas or goals etc.
Does it even matter?
Most of the time, it does not, as long as you are doing good marketing that drives results.
When it does matter however, is when you are trying to explain your methods to someone, for example your boss. Clarity of communication is key when trying to get anyone to do anything. So getting confused around these two terms when seeking support could be disastrous.
If you read this post and decide you are comfortable with our assessment of the differences, great. If not, no problem, use another, but just be sure you have one so that when you are put on the spot, you don’t get tongue tied.
The only definition that matters is yours
The reality is that both of these terms are very new and as such there simply is no widely accepted definition. In addition, both terms are nebulous, their meaning changing depending on the circumstances.
At the end of the day, the only definition that really matters is the one you are happy with.