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

What's New in Publishing 28 May 2020 07:00

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 (, which became 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…

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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