The funnel is dead. Introducing the flywheel – why marketers should make the switch

The modern marketing landscape is operating on a concept conceived more than 100 years ago. The marketing funnel can no longer support brands, says James Gilbert. Here’s how the flywheel can.

In 1898, advertising executive Elias St Elmo Lewis developed the concept of the marketing funnel. Lewis conceptualised the marketing funnel by breaking down the buying journey into distinct stages: awareness, interest, desire, and action.

Rewind another 100 years to when mechanical engineer James Watt invented the flywheel, a wheel or disc on an axis that was incredibly energy efficient. The amount of energy it stores depends on how fast it spins, how much friction there is and the composition of the wheel itself. Flywheels are still used in cars, trains and power plants.

It is the concept of the flywheel which today’s marketers should adopt. Despite the funnel being the first love for many marketers, its linear approach to measuring growth is a huge weakness. Funnels produce customers, but don’t consider how those customers can help a business grow. All the momentum built acquiring that customer? Gone. Each day, each month and each quarter.

This isn’t just inefficient, it’s a major problem. Ignoring how customers can boost growth is perilous in the age of the customer.

Where funnels lose their momentum at the bottom, flywheels leverage their momentum to keep spinning. The rotation of the flywheel represents the growth of a business. Happy customers provide the energy that fuels that growth.

So should marketers use the flywheel as a growth tool? Are we just debating jargon for the sake of it? No, we’re not – when you think of your business as a flywheel instead of a funnel, you make different decisions as a marketer.

Let’s start with how fast it spins. The speed of the flywheel is increased by applying more force in the areas where it can have the biggest impact. In a funnel model, all force is applied to attract and acquire customers. In a flywheel model, force is also applied to delight those customers and make them successful.

Since all sorts of force are being applied all around the flywheel, a business must ensure that no investments oppose each other. A lack of alignment between sales and customer success, for instance, can create unhappy customers and slow the flywheel when they churn. Classic sales and marketing misalignment is another area where the flywheel can slow. Alignment is crucial.

Friction can be reduced by finding the inefficiencies in which customers are losing momentum and making them better. Improving conversion rates, delighting customers at scale and addressing issues that cause customer churn increase the speed of the flywheel.

The other crucial area to consider when thinking about friction is how teams are organised. Silos, handoffs and specialisation all create friction.

As speed increases and friction decreases, it will create more delighted customers. More delighted customers means a ‘heavier’ wheel, and one that produces more energy when spun.

In other words, a flywheel produces more growth as customer count increases. If ‘density’ is added to those customers, by getting them to adopt more products or be more ‘sticky’, even more momentum and growth can be achieved.

Everything a business does should be done with the goal of creating customers who will add positive energy to the flywheel and accelerate growth. Yet, businesses are still suffering from a customer trust deficit.

According to HubSpot Research, when a business says it ‘solves for the customer’ or ‘puts the customer first’, only 4% of Australians consumers believe it. Similarly, 68% agree that businesses stop caring about them after they buy something from them. This represents a massive lost opportunity for businesses.

Delighted customers turn into advocates for brands. Word of mouth is becoming a more powerful channel than sales and marketing. With it being so crucial, losing the momentum generated in creating a new customer is a real drag on growth.

By its very nature, the funnel prioritises marketing and sales over customer service. Closing the deal comes before tending to existing customers. The funnel shows customers as an output, when in fact they are an input. In today’s climate, existing customer relationships shouldn’t take a backseat. Businesses that want to grow effectively, must do away with the funnel and introduce the flywheel as a new way to think about their customer base and drive growth.

James Gilbert is director at HubSpot APAC

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Image credit:Dhiva Krishna