Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
8 mins read

How publishers can use marketing flywheels to gain a significant competitive advantage

The first few years of my career were awful. Drowning in debt, losing nine out of ten pitches for new business, failing to earn clients. It felt like nothing I did moved the needle until I started my blog and slowly, very slowly… things changed.

Gradually, more and more people visited my website (seomoz.org, which became moz.com). The content sucked, but over months and years of practice, it improved. Those visitors came back. They shared it with their networks. They subscribed to our email list. Lo and behold, a few years in, thousands of people were visiting the site. Dozens of them were signing up for our software every month. Then every week. Then every day. Each subsequent post was less work, but somehow yielded greater results.

What happened?!

We (accidentally) built a Marketing Flywheel: a continuously improving set of repeatable, tactical investments that scaled with decreasing friction.

Our flywheel was built on content and SEO, but I’ve since seen dozens of companies with effective marketing flywheels built on practices as diverse as event marketing, LinkedIn email prospecting and cold outreach, PR & press coverage, free interactive tools, incentivized word of mouth, and more. So long as a set of marketing practices have…

1) A consistently-repeatable tactic (or group of tactics)
2) A system for either reaching a larger audience or decreasing the cost to reach each additional potential customer
3) Scalability: each successive investment reduces friction in the system

…it creates a flywheel effect. You put in the same amount of work (or less) each time, and get more and more out of it the more you repeat it. This is a beautiful, highly-rewarding system. But, it usually takes a long time and a lot of effort to get going.

Want to make marketing a competitive advantage for your business? You’re gonna need a flywheel. No individual hack, no short-term set of investments, can compete.

This model is, in my opinion, vastly more effective than some of the popular angles folks have taken on marketing in recent years:

  • The “be everywhere” philosophy of omnichannel marketing might be a nice expansion to a flywheel that’s already working, but it’s overwhelming and ineffective for the vast majority of those in the early stages of building their marketing practice.
  • Likewise, growth hacking in its classic form is often plagued by short-term returns, and processes that quickly stop working once the hack is popularized (or, in the case of more manipulative hacks, discovered).
  • “Content is King” has a somewhat shallow “build it and they will come” mentality that usually falls flat. Even with distribution tactics, it lacks the power to improve ROI over time unless married to a group of tactics that, together, build a flywheel.

The Alternative: Boulder-Pushing

If you don’t create a flywheel that scales with decreasing friction, your only alternative is a strategy built on repeated efforts with the same (or increasing) effort. I’ve done this plenty of times, and it sucks. You make repeated efforts of time or dollars, and get the same return out each time. It’s a slog… usually an expensive one.

Don’t feel ashamed if this is how your marketing model works. For the overwhelming majority of small and medium businesses, it’s how the game it played. Earning customer #1,749 costs just as much and is just as difficult as earning customer #124 was.

Obviously, that’s not ideal, but until you discover a flywheel model that scales, it’s how marketing works. If you’re here today, my best suggestion is to start experimenting with ways to either:

A) Evolve the boulder-push into a flywheel by finding tactics or tweaks that reduce the hill’s slope (meaning each successive investment is easier or cheaper)
B) Use your existing boulder-pushing model to fund experimentation into the creation of a separate, flywheel model
C) If you have the resources, hire a strategically-savvy agency/consultant or in-house team/person to help you build it

Examples of Effective Flywheels

The SEO+Content flywheel is the one I talk about most (because it’s the one I’ve personally used), but it’s certainly not alone. Great flywheels power almost every scaling web property out there. Not all of them call their marketing strategy a “flywheel,” but nearly all employ the philosophy.

Social, Influencer, & Advertising Flywheel

Organic social feeds paid social nicely, because it lets the advertiser do remarketing first, and later, demographic and behavioral targeting (because, once you know who your core customer targets are and how they behave online, you can go reach more of those people with expanded ads, and count on a combination of online spread plus word-of-mouth to give you extra brand lift). If the product resonates with a targeted audience well-enough, and the margins are decent (or it’s backed by loads of VC money that’s happy to go ROI-negative to get growth), this flywheel can start spinning fast. Influencer marketing, if done right, can help overcome some of the model’s initial friction with building suitably broad awareness.

Loads of consumer-focused products popular on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, & TikTok use models similar to this. Makeup brand Glossier rocked this flywheel. Men’s clothier, Bonobos followed a similar path. So, too, did Moment’s photography equipment, Ridge Wallets, and Mahabis slippers.

Press & Word-of-Mouth Flywheel

Getting the press to write glowingly about your product, typically requires solving a problem that taps into a media zeitgeist. No matter how good your PR is, getting lots of diverse news sources (mainstream and niche) to write about a chemical engineering consultancy or a manufacturer of specialized construction equipment is a tough challenge. But if you’re addressing a field lots of publications and people cover and doing so in a unique way, with a feel-good story, you’re set to make this model scale.

Provider of small-ranch meats, CrowdCow, fits this model nicely. So do video game creators ZA/UM, Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable, and Peloton exercise bikes.

Freemium (or Free Trial) Product Flywheel

Key to making a product-centric model scale is the presence of a hook that spreads by virtue of being used. In its early years, Hotmail included a “get your free Hotmail account” message on each email, helping to scale its reach with every email each user sent. SuperHuman has since copied this tactic. Yelp did it with badges (virtual and real) to restaurants. Kickstarter lets its users sell the platform’s story for them. Slack’s only useful if you invite other people to it.

This model often works well in combination with other marketing channels, organic and paid. If the product attracts users likely to share (either because they’re from an “influencer”-heavy group or because sharing is core to how the product works), you need less contribution from external channels. Conversely, if you’re attracting an audience that earns value but isn’t particularly inclined to share, you’ll need more.

TypeformProfitwellSlackKlipfolioIndieGoGoGumroad, and thousands of other software companies and web platforms leverage this model to grow their userbase from dozens to thousands (or even millions) of users.

Loads More Options

These examples are far from alone. You can take nearly any combination of tactics and turn them into a flywheel. Events, conferences, webinars, email newsletters, heck, I’ve even seen companies use cold sales outreach, TV ads, or postal mail flyers with success.

What matters is that the combination of tactics costs less, earns more, or becomes easier the 10th time vs. the 1st, the 100th vs. the 10th, and the 1,000th vs. the 100th. If it doesn’t… you’re just pushing a boulder up a hill. Eventually, someone else in your space will build a flywheel, and when they do, your hill gets steeper.

Organic Flywheels Usually Beat Paid

Not surprisingly, organic channels tend to be great marketing flywheel contributors. Paid ads require capital investments, and while you can build up brand recognition and engagement that plays to paid algorithmic signals and brings prices down and visibility up, there’s usually a limit to how far those optimizations can go.

But if you grow an audience of email subscribers and website visitors through non-paid channels like social, referring links, organic search, podcast appearances, press/PR, guest contributions, etc. you can then use re-marketing to bring ad costs down and efficacy up.

This model gets even more effective if you’re simultaneously building your brand’s resonance with your audience and their sources of influence. Every marketer’s seen how greater brand recognition leads to lower ad prices and higher ad engagement. That’s also true in organic channels. Combine all three practices, even on just a single platform or with a single tactic (like my early blog posts + SEO efforts on seomoz.org) and you get a virtuous cycle where each channel feeds into a section of your conversion funnel: brand at the top, organic in the middle, paid at the bottom.

Smart Flywheels Drive Engagement to Your Website & Email List

Facebook would LOVE to have you build your flywheel on their properties. “Why drive clicks to your website? Sign up for an Instagram shop!” they’ll say. Google tries to do this with your Google Local Page. TikTok wants you to drive subscribers to your profile. YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter… They’re all working this angle.

Don’t fall for it.

Every channel and every tactic should either send you website traffic that can engage, click, and convert on your site OR send you email subscribers. Anything else is a huge waste. Just look at the differences between Instagram and Facebook (via RivalIQ’s panel) vs. Email (via Mailchimp’s panel):

If you’ve got 1,000 page likes on Facebook, your average post will get 1 of those people to engage. Yikes.

Instagram has the highest (average) engagement of any social network, and it’s still ~1/20th of email.

The average click-through-rate of email is more than 2X that of the strongest social network’s engagement rate. Open rates are nearly 20X.

If your goal is to have someone potentially see a message/post of yours, one email address is worth, literally, 17.5X an Instagram follower or 237X a Facebook “like.” Oh, and average Instagram engagement dropped 23% in 2019, so expect it to be 20X or more by next year.

Start Small

You DO NOT have to build a marketing flywheel by combining sixteen channels and dozens of tactics along with a sophisticated paid ad strategy. Start small. Start with one tactic. Distribute to the few channels that make sense. When you’ve got some traction, buy an ad on the platform that makes the most sense. If it’s not working, pull back, and re-double your organic efforts until you’ve got the conversion rates, audience, and scale to try again.

You don’t need to do everything (or even two things!) well. If Instagram posts and a funnel to your email list are working, great! Optimize that and stick with it. Maybe post those visuals to Twitter or Facebook, too. If your blog is finding a groove, terrific! Double down there. Put links to new posts on your LinkedIn pages, Facebook, and Twitter. Maybe pitch each one to a few sources of influence that reach your audience. Find ways to make your writing flow, your posts convert better, your headlines attract more traffic, or your outreach get more engagement.

Over time, a well-designed marketing flywheel can be part of your competitive advantage. Just don’t expect those first few revolutions to be easy…. that’s why it works: few brands are willing to make the investment.

Rand Fishkin
Founder, SparkToro

This article was originally published on SparkToro as “Why Marketing Flywheels Work” and is re-published with kind permission.

About SparkToro:  SparkToro is a new software company from Moz founder, Rand Fishkin. Its mission is to make it easier to discover the websites, blogs, podcasts, social accounts, and publications that reach your audience.  @randfish | @SparkToro

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