Finally: the theory of everything for content marketing

Ever since the mid-1800s, scientists have been on a mission to come up with the “Theory of Everything,” the single thread that takes every scientific discovery humankind has ever made and ties it all together in one logical, mind-boggling package.

Don’t tell the physicists and astronomers, but Marketing now has its own Theory of Everything. It’s called the flywheel.

What the heck is the flywheel?

(And did we really need another model?)

content marketing flywheel

If you’re anything like me, you probably get pretty tired of adjusting to every new model or best practice that appears on the horizon. (Lots of times, these new models start out as a way for somebody to explain what their new product does and why you need it.) Once a new model starts gaining traction, however, it quickly becomes a matter of “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” If you adopt if, you may have to (again!) rework your processes to fit. If you don’t, you run the risk of customers concluding you’re not on top of things.

Being a self-proclaimed content heretic, I typically don’t put a whole lot of faith in models. Recently, though, I was hired by a client to write a post on Hubspot’s new flywheel model. And, despite my skepticism, I realized it made sense: It takes bits and pieces from previous models and ties them together in one, customer-centric framework. It’s the Theory of Everything for content marketing.

So, while I don’t see myself urging everyone to jump on board the flywheel model just for the sake of having a model, I do think it has something important to teach us.

The journey to the flywheel

The marketing funnel

content marketing funnel

The marketing funnel is as instantly recognizable to marketers as Einstein’s scribbled calculations are to physicists. Sure,there are a few different versions, but the differences are slight. They all focus on the process of taking a prospective customer from the pre-awareness stage all the way to the decision to buy.

The sales funnel

At some point, businesses realized that, while the marketing funnel does a pretty good job of capturing interest and generating leads, it doesn’t address what comes next. So we came up with the sales funnel as a framework for the sales/buying process.

The customer experience funnel

But that wasn’t quite enough either, because it suggested that the job was done once the customer made a purchase. It did nothing to address the life cycle value of repeat customers. So we added the customer service funnel to address the challenge of customer retention.

But there was still something missing.

We needed a Theory of Everything for content marketing

As helpful as those funnels may have been, they were still a piecemeal approach. There was no single model that encompassed every step of the customer journey. That’s exactly the problem Hubspot’s flywheel was designed to address, because a model that explains the whole is always better than a model that explains only a part. It also focuses on smoothing out the friction customers experience when moving from one funnel to another. Instead of having Marketing focused on generating leads, and Sales focused on closing deals, everybody focuses on what should have been the point all along: the customer experience.

The flywheel model

content marketing flywheel

The flywheel is Hubspot’s response to the need for a Theory of Everything for content marketing. Each of the separate funnels — Marketing, Sales, and Customer Exerience — becomes a segment on a wheel, with customers at the center, driving everything.

Why is that such a big deal? Because:

  • Instead of generating leads, Marketing focuses on initiating relationships.
  • Instead of closing deals, Sales focuses on turning individual transactions into something more permanent by eliminating friction and by focusing on the customers’ needs and how their product or service can resolve them.
  • Instead of resolving tickets, Customer Service focuses on strengthening existing relationships by demonstrating transparency and trustworthiness, as well as by making sure customers are so happy that they’d never think of looking for greener pastures.

In other words, rather than an endless string of superficial transactions — blind dates, so to speak — that lead to customer churn, the flywheel model focuses on start-to-finish engagements that lead to long-term relationships.

Benefits of the Flywheel model

The flywheel model focuses on systems instead of silos

content marketing silos

It just takes one glance at the flywheel to understand that an ongoing circular process fosters more collaboration than the one-and-done funnel model.

What does that look like in practice?

  • Customer Service gives Sales and Marketing a heads-up when they start hearing the same problem or question over and over.
  • Sales and Marketing share customer feedback to make both functional areas more effective.
  • Customer Service is fully briefed on the organization’s strategic goals so that they’ll have the appropriate context when responding to customer needs.
  • It’s easier for the various functional areas to hold each other accountable for making sure actions match the promises made during the Marketing and Sales processes.

In other words, the flywheel model clearly states that, “We’re all in this together.” (That’s why I labeled it the Theory of Everything for content marketing.)

The flywheel acknowledges the fact that customers are the ones in control

universal theory content marketing

Today’s customers have more choices and are better informed than ever. Very few brands can just roll out a product and say, “Come and get it.” Instead, customers tell brands what they want, how much they want to pay, how (and how quickly) they want it delivered, etc.

Just as the sun is at the center of our solar system — and we just circle around it — the flywheel model makes it clear that it’s customers who are in charge.

The flywheel highlights the power of what customers say about you

content marketing customer advocates

We’ve all heard terms like content tsunami, content overload, etc. Whichever buzzword you choose to use, the point is that there’s far more content being produced each day than anyone can consume. So people have to prioritize, filtering out a lot of content as being irrelevant so that they can focus on what matters — and what they trust.

As it turns out, what customers trust is what other customers are saying. In fact, businesses report that they get more referrals from word-of-mouth than anything else. Customers want proof that you and your products/services are worthy of their business. And they trust each other more than they trust you.

That’s the beauty of the Theory of Everything for content marketing: It works just like compound interest: The more customers you have singing your praises, the more people hear about you…and the faster your business grows.

Embracing the theory of everything

Even theories that have you nodding in agreement have to be put into action (which is why I’ve never been a big fan of theories and best practices). Theories only matter if you convert them to actions, and they rarely explain what those actions are. So brands are left to figure them out for themselves — something that all too often gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.

So let me help you out with some things you can do to incorporate the Theory of Everything for content marketing (otherwise known as the flywheel) into your business strategy.

  • Distribute resources according to what works. I’m not suggesting that you give up on blog posts and emails…just that you put a little bit more weight on talking to customers and giving them a voice, whether that means giving customer reviews and testimonials a prominent place on your website, starting a blog post with an anecdote from a happy customer, or reworking your sales materials to focus more on benefits than on features.
  • Align your KPIs. One of the key strengths of the flywheel model is that it breaks down silos so that the KPIs used by each functional area support each other. It doesn’t matter how much traffic Marketing generates, for example, if none of that traffic converts. So, whether it’s Marketing, Sales, or Customer Service, each KPI should focus on what moves customers on to the next stage in the cycle.
  • Eliminate friction. Eliminating friction is the flip side of moving prospective customers on to the next stage of the cycle. As important as it is to know which tactics move customers forward, it’s equally important to identify the touch points where they get stuck or drop out completely. If a lot of people drop out after they schedule a demo with a sales agent, for example, you need to know whether the problem lies with the sales process, the price, the product itself, or even with that particular sales person. content marketing flywheel
  • Develop tactics for keeping the cycle going. What’s the one thing almost all horror movie protagonists get wrong? As soon as they think the monster has been vanquished, they let down their guard and relax…something that rarely ends well. Too many organizations have treated closing sales the same way. But there is no relaxing with the flywheel. You’re never “finished.” Whether it’s watching for opportunities to present new offers or recruiting delighted customers to be brand cheerleaders, there’s no backing off on your standards for customer care.


Once upon a time, we humans thought the sun revolved around the Earth. That may seem silly now, but our ancestors saw it as rock-solid truth…until evidence convinced them it wasn’t.

Our “knowledge” of marketing is going through a similar shift. A number of things we considered to be etched in stone have turned out to be untrue (or, at least, are no longer true). A few examples?

  • The company thinks up a product, and Marketing’s job is to make up reasons why people need it. (Anybody remember the story behind bottled water?)
  • If you create quality content, people will read it and then buy your product.
  • If you create quality content and practice good SEO, people will read it and then buy your product.
  • Your job is over once you’ve closed the deal.

We now know that those assumptions aren’t always accurate. And I think we’ve known that on an intuitive level for a long time, but splitting our efforts into different silos — and having separate KPIs and tactics for each one — made it difficult to fill in the gaps so we could come up with a better way.

Just as discovering a scientific Theory of Everything would shed light on mysteries that scientists in individual fields have been working on for years, the flywheel illustrates the importance of tying all of our random knowledge and activities together so that they make sense and give meaning to what we do. The model also reminds us to eliminate the distractions that lead us down blind alleys, and it shines big, bright, “Look here!” beacons on the paths that make sense and add value.

I don’t care what model you use or what you call it. But I have no doubt that your content marketing and sales strategies will be more successful if they support each other, becoming the catalyst for a cycle that performs better and better all the time, fueled by customers who love your product or service far too much to stop bragging about it to everyone they know.