Almost Timely News, 28 August 2022: Why Flywheels Are a Bad Marketing Analogy (8/28) :: View in Browser

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Almost Timely News, 28 August 2022: Why Flywheels Are a Bad Marketing Analogy
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What’s On My Mind: Flywheels

Let’s have ourselves a super nerd moment and talk about flywheels, because I have some issues with them. You’ve doubtlessly heard or seen mention of the concept as it relates to marketing. Many companies have incorporated the marketing flywheel into their overall strategy.

Here’s the catch: Most of what’s been written about it is conceptually wrong.

Why? A flywheel is an energy storage device. It’s usually something big and heavy on an axle, like a big chunk of stone or iron. Energy goes into the system from some other source, and the wheel turns – slowly at first and then faster as you add more energy to it. It’s basically a mechanical battery.

When you need power later, the flywheel’s stored energy turns magnets attached to the same axle which produce electricity. Flywheels have a ton of real world applications, but you see them most with unstable power sources like wind and solar because what flywheels do best is smooth out irregularities.

For example, suppose you have a windmill. At any given time, that windmill could be generating a little bit of power or a whole lot of power. If the windmill’s power generation is put into a flywheel, then instead of fits and starts of energy generation, it smoothes out the power into a much more consistent flow. Sometimes it gets a lot of extra momentum from a strong wind, and other times it’s spinning – and slowing down over time – but still spinning when the wind isn’t blowing as strong. With something like solar power, the application is even more obvious – solar power makes energy during the day and not at night, so the flywheel stores excess energy from the day and slowly returns that energy at night when you need it and the sun isn’t out.

Some enterprising marketer got it into their heads that this was the perfect analogy for marketing, that it explains modern marketing really well. One prominent vendor promotes it heavily because it helps them sell more of their suite of software products that are otherwise somewhat disconnected.

In the context in which most marketers use it, I don’t think it’s a particularly good model. They have this belief that if you do a bunch of marketing to a customer, that builds the customer relationship and then that relationship powers sales.

I suppose in the abstract that could be true; the more you put into a relationship, the more you get out of it is generally true unless the person on the other end of the relationship doesn’t see it as reciprocal. But where all these flywheel analogies go of the rails is that they all presume the flywheel analogy means that the relationship is generating energy in excess of what’s put into it. “Invest in marketing and you’ll make tons of money in sales” is the general pitch.

And with actual flywheels, that’s never, ever true. No flywheel system ever generates more energy than you put into it. In fact, every system returns LESS energy than you put in, due to basic physics. The function of a flywheel is to smooth out irregularities in inputs.

The analogy breaks down in other ways, too. In a mechanical system, if you put in a negative input, the system draws energy to deal with it, but generally a short shock won’t bring the system to a screeching halt. In a customer relationship, if you screw up just once and perhaps not even that badly, you can permanently wreck the relationship. Relationships break much faster than they’re made, because it’s hard to gain trust and easy to lose it. Flywheels presume linear inputs and outputs, and relationships just don’t work that way.

Finally, the flywheel analogy in marketing really breaks down most when it’s self-centered. If you operate under the belief that doing a bunch of marketing is building a relationship that creates a social debt, an expectation of sales, you’re in for a bad time. In general – and it’s a broad generalization because there are a decent number of examples to the contrary – the way most people do marketing is they create content that serves them. If the customer gets any value, it’s incidental, like every whitepaper ever which professes to examine an industry but inevitably concludes that the vendor who produced the paper is the only rational choice for the industry’s problems.

The flywheel analogy is still useful in a couple of ways. First, it’s a warning, a case study that you probably shouldn’t borrow concepts from other disciplines if you don’t fully understand them, because you tend to look foolish to anyone who has domain knowledge of that discipline.

Second, the concept of having some kind of buffer, something that you invest in that gives smaller returns over time is still a good idea. Investing in people, investing in relationships, investing in providing more value than you take – those are still generally good ideas.

Here’s an easy test to see if you, personally, do this. Look back on your career and the friendships you have. How many friends do you still have today from past customers? If you’ve ever really gotten to know a customer and built a true friendship with them, one that outlasted the commercial relationship, then you understand what the flywheel is really all about – giving more than taking, and being present for your professional relationships.

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ICYMI: In Case You Missed it

Besides the new Google Analytics 4 course I’m relentlessly promoting (sorry not sorry), I would recommend the piece on whether AI is going to eliminate creative jobs. The short answer is no. The longer answer is much more interesting.

Skill Up With Classes

These are just a few of the classes I have available over at the Trust Insights website that you can take.

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Folks who post jobs in the free Analytics for Marketers Slack community may have those jobs shared here, too. If you’re looking for work, check out these five most recent open positions, and check out the Slack group for the comprehensive list.

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What I’m Reading: Your Stuff

Let’s look at the most interesting content from around the web on topics you care about, some of which you might have even written.

Social Media Marketing

Media and Content

SEO, Google, and Paid Media

Advertisement: Google Search Console for Marketers

Of the many tools in the Google Marketing Platform, none is more overlooked than Google Search Console. Marketers assume it’s just for SEO, but the information contained within benefits search, social media, public relations, advertising, and so much more. In my new Google Search Console for Marketers course, you’ll learn what Google Search Console is, why it matters to all marketers, and then dig deep into each of the features of the platform.

When you’re done, you’ll have working knowledge of the entire platform and what it can do – and you’ll be ready to start making the most of this valuable marketing tool.

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Tools, Machine Learning, and AI

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Events I’ll Be At

Here’s where I’m speaking and attending. Say hi if you’re at an event also:

  • Content Marketing World, September 2022, Cleveland, OH
  • MarketingProfs B2B Forum, October 2022, Boston
  • Heapcon, November 2022, Belgrade, Serbia

Events marked with a physical location may become virtual if conditions and safety warrant it.

If you’re an event organizer, let me help your event shine. Visit my speaking page for more details.

Can’t be at an event? Stop by my private Slack group instead, Analytics for Marketers.

How to Stay in Touch

Let’s make sure we’re connected in the places it suits you best. Here’s where you can find different content:

Required Disclosures

Events with links have purchased sponsorships in this newsletter and as a result, I receive direct financial compensation for promoting them.

Advertisements in this newsletter have paid to be promoted, and as a result, I receive direct financial compensation for promoting them.

My company, Trust Insights, maintains business partnerships with companies including, but not limited to, IBM, Cisco Systems, Amazon, Talkwalker, MarketingProfs, MarketMuse, Agorapulse, Hubspot, Informa, Demandbase, The Marketing AI Institute, and others. While links shared from partners are not explicit endorsements, nor do they directly financially benefit Trust Insights, a commercial relationship exists for which Trust Insights may receive indirect financial benefit, and thus I may receive indirect financial benefit from them as well.

Thank You!

Thanks for subscribing and reading this far. I appreciate it. As always, thank you for your support, your attention, and your kindness.

See you next week,

Christopher S. Penn


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