The last time you bought something, it probably wasn’t out of the blue.
Even if you made an impulse purchase — hey, we all do it — you likely had some relationship with the brand before you clicked the buy button. Maybe you follow them on social media. Maybe a too-good-to-pass-up discount landed in your inbox. But something tipped you from thinking about maybe buying this thing into a customer.
That’s exactly the kind of journey you have to understand as a creative business owner.
Funnels vs. Flywheels: What you need to know
Traditionally, marketers divide that journey into three cascading parts: awareness (“Oh, that brand sounds cool.” → engagement (“Sure, I’ll subscribe to those emails.”) → conversion (“I gotta have this product!”). There are lots of different words marketers use to describe these three phases, but the structure remains the same, with the inevitable purchase at the end of it.
What is a marketing funnel?
This three-tiered structure is called a funnel, and it’s been the dominant marketing conversation for decades. What it does is visualize how customers go from, “Wow, I am really struggling with X,” to “That’s just the solution I need to solve my problem!” It maps each step from how they first become aware of your brand to choosing to purchase what you create.
But funnels fall short because they fail to take into account the most important aspect of your business: your customers. They often think of the customer piece as the end result of the marketing and sales activities, rather than an integral part of what makes the funnel move.
As a creator, you’re not just selling products or services, you’re building a community and pouring your heart and soul into your business — whether it’s music, art, writing, or something completely new. To see success, you need to put your customer at the center of everything you do.
Funnels can be a great shortcut to visualizing a customer’s path to purchase, or dividing up your marketing activities. But as business continually evolves, and what customers demand from you as a creator changes, you may want to consider viewing your customer’s purchase journey a little differently. Introducing: The flywheel.
What is a marketing flywheel?
Flywheels focus on nurturing relationships with people who want to do business with you and repeatedly delighting and engaging them so they come back to you again and again. This is in contrast to the traditional funnel model which centers around one and done purchases and constantly filling the top with more people.
If you’ve hit a dead end with your creative business, or you’re thinking about scaling in a sustainable way that feels authentic to you, then it’s time to consider the flywheel model.
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How flywheels actually work for creative businesses
Flywheels create growth loops that feed on themselves to grow your business. Instead of filling a bucket at the top and hoping customers come out the other side, flywheels focus on building repeat customers. To do that, you need to think about the customer experience from beginning to end — from the minute they hear about your work to when they make their first purchase.
Think of a flywheel as similar to a pinwheel, which requires force to spin. There are two opposing elements that make this happen:
- Forces: The programs and strategies to speed up the flywheel and deliver a better customer experience. This could be investing more in customer support, creating automations within your email marketing program, or adding freemium offers.
- Friction: This slows down your flywheel by making the customer work harder to purchase from you or gain value from your community, for example, slow manual processes, payment issues, lack of communication, or general misalignment.
Your goal is to decrease friction and increase the forces acting upon the funnel as much as possible — and email marketing is a great channel to do that.
Nick True, podcaster and financial services expert, is a master at this kind of flywheel marketing. Together with his wife Hanna at Mapped Out Money, he shares advice on financial independence with more than 47,000 YouTube followers and 10,000 email subscribers each week.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about helping people better manage their money, and actually use it to do more of what matters to them,” he says. “We offer one-on-one coaching, a group program, and more to help them do that.”
To set up your flywheel correctly, you need to focus on value, engagement, and delight — something email marketing expert Jaina Mistry does every day as a Senior Manager of Email Marketing at Litmus, an email testing company.
Jaina Mistry is a true email geek at heart with more than 15 years of email marketing experience.
“You might think, ‘Ok, I need to hit this figure by the end of the month,’” she says. “But you might be surprised by how much building your brand will pay off for you, rather than just selling all the time. People want to know the humans behind it, they want to know the story behind it. And that’s what’s going to get people to buy into your brand, and eventually buy from you.”
As you get started shifting your model from funnels to flywheels, focus on three overall growth loops: acquisition, engagement, and retention. The best part? You can do all three with email marketing and we’ll show you how.
Acquisition: Building a quality email list
This is where you get the entire flywheel going by applying force. With email marketing, that means growing your email list and feeding your acquisition loop, including increasing online word-of-mouth through referrals. The more subscribers you add, the more people you can engage and delight in the future.
But don’t be tempted by numbers for numbers’ sake. A flywheel is built on customer relationships — and that starts with getting the right subscribers on your list.
“Building a quality subscriber list is super important. You can build really fast and have thousands of people on your list, but if you’re not sending them things of value, you won’t get anything out of it,” says Mistry.
That begins with a solid landing page with an opt-in form that allows you to run different marketing campaigns that feed the acquisition loop.
Offering something of value in exchange for an email address is a great way to determine who is willing to engage with you, but also sets the tone for your relationship with them. Lead magnets, like checklists, ebooks, templates, or other free offers, are a great way to pull people into the flywheel from social media or other channels you don’t own.
True uses specific assets for his YouTube videos to start his loop with ConvertKit’s fully customizable templates.
“I’ll use the ConvertKit built-in form to host landing pages for checklists that are personalized to a specific YouTube video each month,” he says. “I build landing pages for ConvertKit that are specifically for that resource.”
This takes a lot of up-front effort, but for True, it’s paid off. By delivering something specific based on the social media campaign, and customizing it based on the pain points described in the video, he’s kicked off a relationship — not just gained a new subscriber. His personalized lead magnets are one of the main ways he’s been able to grow his email list to more than 10,000 subscribers since 2015.
Engagement: Building a value-based relationship with your subscribers
As the wheel continues to turn, you want to keep your customers (and prospects) coming back for more with dedicated email campaigns.
“It’s a matter of consistency,” says Mistry. “The most important part is to think about what’s valuable to your subscribers. You won’t master everything right away, but starting with email helps you build up an audience and use it to create a relationship.”
With ConvertKit’s email automations, you can do this without constantly maintaining the wheel, and set up multiple mini-loops within your overall flywheel to build engagement. For example, try an automated welcome email for new subscribers. They’ve taken a step forward by giving you their email, so reward them with an offer, piece of content, or a special message.
The welcome sequence is designed to introduce himself and how Mapped Out Money can help solve financial problems. “Most of the people who sign up are looking for budgeting help,” says True. “I want to tell them more about me, but also agitate the problem. Then, in the third email, we give them a welcome offer with our low-price product.”
Build on your welcome campaign with your regular email cadence and one-off campaigns. You’ll be surprised how many touchpoints it takes to land a sale — this is a game of patience, consistency and trusting the value you’re offering. That’s why Litmus sends a monthly and weekly newsletter focused on distributing new content, announcements, and advice from their community. Doing this keeps people from falling out of the flywheel.
But it doesn’t have to be all value, no sell. One of True’s best campaigns is where he shows, rather than tells, exactly what subscribers can expect when they sign up for 1:1 or group coaching. “There’s a real, live person who reviews your homework and gives you personalized feedback [via video],” he says. “That’s a huge benefit our course offers, but it can be hard to explain if they’ve never taken an online course. So before a big product launch, I’ll film an off-the-cuff video exactly as I would if I’m coaching, walking through an example of what that looks like.”
The video not only gives subscribers a sneak peek at the biggest program benefit but also allows them to visualize True as their coach, not just a general expert. That subtle shift can be just what needs to take place to tip someone from subscriber to student.
Retention: Keeping customers coming back again and again
The biggest mistake creators often make? Failing to pay attention to their customers after they purchase. It costs up to 25x more to acquire a new customer than to retain your existing ones, so use the momentum you gain from delighting your customers to build the growth engine for your business. Flywheels only work as well as your retention.
Start with optimizing the customer journey by understanding sales objections and customer feedback. “For me, it’s all about paying attention to when students email me, or when potential buyers email questions about something they’re unclear about,” says True. “When I notice that a few people say the same thing, that’s when I know I have to address it in an email.”
One way to gather that feedback is through regular surveys and opening up responses to emails you send. “I ask anyone who didn’t purchase why they didn’t, and I take that feedback and work it into new product emails and launch emails,” says True.
You also want to pay attention to what customers aren’t telling you, but they’re showing you with their behavior. If you have subscribers who haven’t engaged with your emails for a while or someone who has dropped off your community, then it’s time to consider a re-engagement campaign.
“This is a great automation to build, a re-engagement email,” says Mistry. “It’s one of those things you want to come back and revisit. I would suggest putting calendar reminders for yourself, checking every three months or six months, depending on the volume.”
When it comes to retention, know that you will lose some people in your flywheel. But if you focus on your ideal customer, and deepen your relationship with people who have already purchased from you, the flywheel will keep spinning. True, for example, opens up his group program once a quarter, but rather than send a brand new email sequence each time, he uses a set template that he tweaks and automates using ConvertKit.
“All I have to do is set it up and press start,” says True. “It automatically does what it needs to do, and I can walk away from it and focus on those students who didn’t join.”.
Build your flywheel with ConvertKit
With ConvertKit, it’s easy to keep your flywheel spinning. Our suite of easy-to-use email marketing tools can provide the little nudges your customers need to loop around and around, so you can build sustainable, repeatable growth for your business.