pyramidIf you’ve been venturing a bit in the online marketing world like me, I’m sure you’ve heard the term “marketing funnel” before. To be frank, it was never something that appealed to me. It always seemed like just a way to optimise how many people are giving you money, which doesn’t seem very caring.

So when I came across this post by MailChimp co-founder Ben Chestnut about why he hates funnels, I was excited to see that the traditional funnel isn’t the only way successful companies do marketing.

In fact, Ben’s company has taken the funnel and turned it on its head before applying it, and the results seem to be working out well.

The upside-down funnel, or how to love your customers

In case you’re not familiar with the idea of the traditional marketing funnel, it works like this: you get lots of visitors to your site—they’re in the top of the funnel. As they get closer to paying you money (the tiny bottom of the funnel), more and more of these visitors drop out of your funnel. Your customers are the few who are left at the bottom.

Ben explains the process of converting these visitors into customers like this:

Some of them become leads, and then after you do something (the usual recommendation is to bombard the leads with marketing automation) they relent and pay you money, thus becoming a “customer.”

At MailChimp, they’re not content to push customers through the funnel this way. Instead, they’ve turned the whole idea upside-down:


What I love about this approach is that it’s all about loving the customers you have, rather than chasing down people you don’t even know yet. And Ben makes a great point that when you’re at an early stage with your business, this can work especially well:

When you start a business, you don’t have a budget for marketing. You probably don’t have the time or talent for it, either. The only thing you’ve got is your passion… Take that passion and point it at your customers.

That’s about the most exciting way to describe marketing that I’ve heard lately (or ever, probably). And though Ben admits it’s a pretty weird approach to marketing compared to the norm, it seems to work:

The more I look around, the more I think this is the most normal, most human, most sustainable way to run your business.

In fact, research actually shows that 70 percent of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated. In light of that, loving the customers you have makes total sense.

Before we move on to some great examples of other companies doing this and ways you can do it too, let’s just distill the idea into some concise points:

  1. Love your customers—go beyond the norm
  2. Focus on the customers you have now, and keeping them around
  3. Let your existing customers spread your brand for you

I wouldn’t say this is easy, because delighting your customers is always going to take effort, but it definitely seems more fun and less icky than the traditional model

3 powerful examples of putting the upside-down funnel to work

There are a few companies around who are already working the upside-down funnel and amazing their existing customers. Here are just three lessons we can learn from their examples.

1. Make your customers feel part of the club

One of the MailChimp examples that Ben talks about in his post is the way they use traditional advertising—radio ads and billboards—to target the customers they already have.

By putting up billboards that show just the MailChimp logo, they’re not trying to target anyone who doesn’t already know what that logo is related to, or what MailChimp does.

Instead, they’re giving existing users that great feeling of being in on a joke that other people don’t get. We all love an inside joke, and in the case of marketing it’s a great way to add some humor and personality to your brand.


Implementing a special VIP status for your customers can also have this effect. A study by researchers from Standford and Harvard actually found that we live up to labels we’re given. When the researchers labeled half the participants as “politically active” and gave no label to the other half, those with labels were more likely to vote.

The bottom line: Make your customers feel like they are part of something. Not just once, but repeatedly—this is what MailChimp does for its users, every time they hear an ad on the radio or see a billboard that’s just for them.

2. Make providing more, free value for existing customers your priority

This part of loving your customers certainly hits home for me, since it relates to what I do every day. Content marketing is a great example of providing value for your existing customers beyond the product or service they purchase from you.

In fact, the cool thing about sharing content like we do at Buffer is that we get to share it with so many more people than just our existing users. Even if lots of our readers never sign up for Buffer’s social media management tools, or never upgrade to a paid plan, sharing our content helps us to connect with way more people than traditional marketing ever would. And in fact, through social media and our blog comments, we actually can connect with you guys—it’s not a one-way channel like most traditional marketing.

I love Ben’s quote on how we should treat customers who want to enjoy our content:

Empower them. When I say “empower them” I mean empower them for free, with “no strings attached.” Because when companies make people sign up and register to download their content, we all know they’re about to feed us into the automation meat grinder.

We all know that feeling, right? We grudgingly hand over our email address, then gingerly check our inbox for the expected 3+ emails within the first five minutes, just because we really want that content. And usually, we don’t even know if we like the content yet. If it’s an eBook or a PDF that we’re about to download, we can’t even check it out first to see if it’s worth giving up our email address for. It’s not a great experience for the customer, is it?

But as marketers, we know how valuable those email addresses are. So what can we do? Wistia has a great policy for asking for email addresses when people watch their videos that we can learn from:

In the Wistia Learning Center, we use post-roll email forms at the end of each video. These forms do generate new subscribers for us, but just as importantly, they make sense for the person on the other end. It’s unlikely anyone is searching for a way to subscribe before viewing the content, but afterwards, the form makes sense contextually.

I love that last sentence. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Nobody wants to subscribe to something they haven’t tried yet. We want to see and evaluate the value first. The team at Wistia even admits that this could hurt their numbers, but it’s worth it to make their customers feel like they’ve been treated well:

The softer approach may cost us in terms of subscriber numbers, but it’s proven to be a better way to establish trust over time.

And after all, if people are handing over their email address when they don’t really want to, those are just vanity metrics anyway, right? What a waste of our time. Better to spend our time surprising our existing customers with more and more great value and building trust with them over time.

The bottom line: Give your customers more than what they pay for, even if they haven’t paid for anything yet. Surprise them by giving them more all the time. And don’t ask for anything in return. If you’re really generous towards your customers, they’ll return the favor without you needing to ask for it.

3. Make your customers feel important

Being part of a club is a great feeling. We all like to belong. But being an important part of that club is even more exciting.

This is why we see customers wearing branded shirts or bragging about who they know at X company. If your company is the kind of cool club everyone wants to be in (see #1), it’ll seem even better to be more than “just a member.”

A great way to do this is to highlight your customers’ achievements or success stories in using your product. IdeaPaint showcases examples of customers using the product on their Facebook Page:


Another example of this strategy is the task management company, Todoist, showcases user stories of success with their product on the company blog.

We recently shared some stories of legendary customer service on the Buffer blog which included some great examples of companies making their customers feel important. One was the story of three-and-a-half-year-old Lily, who pointed out that the name of Sainsbury’s “tiger bread” didn’t make any sense, since the bread looks more like the pattern on a giraffe.

After the name was changed thanks to Lily’s suggestion, Sainsbury’s stores put up notices to credit Lily with the change.

The bottom line: Make your customers feel important by showcasing their successes and rewarding their efforts. Acknowledge their input and they’ll be more likely to care about seeing you succeed.

There are so many different ways to love your existing customers. What other great examples have you seen?

Image credits: Ben Chestnut, IdeaPaint

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • Beth London

    I loved this post. Thank you!

  • Reader

    I’d spellcheck that title if I were you

    • LeoWid

      thanks a lot for the heads up. Fixed!

  • Jeff

    The only thing is…real marketing doesn’t involve “spamming the fuck” out of anyone. It involves smart, educational emails and useful resources to teach and provide value to a prospective client, in hopes that by providing value and demonstrating your expertise that it will make you the obvious choice when they are ready to buy someday. All strategies can be used positively and negatively. Of course focusing on your current or past clients is a huge priority, but so is the “before” part of the buying process.

  • Creating client advisory boards, influencer communities, and special events are all great ways to keep a focus on your clients and their happiness. And building those relationships has the added benefit of enabling feedback from existing clients that can help you improve your products+services, and attract new clients.

  • Yay! Finally a practical post on customer centric marketing where everyone wins. We will be putting this to the test soon with our own informative and social events for our best customers, hopefully they’ll appreciate the effort! I guess as businesses we should always be asking first “what’s in it for them” because we (hopefully) should already know what’s in it for us!

    • Belle

      Thanks Rita, so glad you liked this.

  • I loved this post. For those of us just starting out in the blogging world these tips are invaluable. Thank you.

  • bioniclily

    I can’t agree more with your post. I hated them too. I always felt like I was trapped like a victim being robbed on the street. I am so happy that I am not alone. I know who invented a funnel. I even felt like sending him this article, I have it saved
    thank you

    • Belle

      Awesome, so glad you liked this one.

  • Steve Monahan

    enjoyed this post. We always have to question so called conventional wisdom

  • Mayer Seidman

    Terrific post! An example about company loving it’s customers? Look at anything Zappos does!

  • Tal Zilberman

    Great article! But it is not new, there’s a book about it by Joseph Jaffe:

  • Eric Leszkowicz

    Although I am not opposed to the sales funnel going in, the funnel here going out is far more important.

    I agree. Great concept.


    Great ideas. As a startup just developing our inbound strategy, it’s easy to be greedy and try to nab as many subscribers at any cost as quickly as possible. I like the idea of providing some content first, followed by a subscribe form, which would then allow for more access to similar content. It’s an even trade that will put the user at ease.

  • You missing the point here. You do not “bombard” leads
    with marketing automation !? What the heck does mean, anyway? But rather
    nurture and educate them with good content.

    That is what you do, if you know how to handle marketing automation software !

    There is a lot of misunderstanding around marketing automation and most
    people don’t know what they are doing. Marketing automation does not
    mean marketing on autopilot.

    It requires effort, good planning and lots of testing.

    Well deployed marketing automation software allows company to “personalize”
    messages send to specific customers. And that means, sending messages
    only when customer is interested. That is shown by her “digital body
    language”. Marketing automation software responds to what person is
    interested in while visiting company webpage or reading company’s

    There’s much more to say about marketing automation, but it should get you started. Do you feel “bombarded” by Amazon’s marketing automation? Because that’s how they are communicating with customers. Isn’t that they send tailor made and time specific offers? Personal, I would say.

    • William Steward

      Completely agree. Marketing automation is a tool that can be used well or used badly, like any other marketing tool.

      It also depends hugely on who you are targeting. These kinds of marketing strategies work great for low value transactions ($10/mo SaaS subscriptions for example) but are considerably less effective if you are selling e.g. enterprise software into huge companies, where the funnel becomes a lot more important, and word of mouth happens on a smaller scale.

      For low value transactions the funnel is very short, so much so that it can basically become irrelevant. (I decided to sign-up for buffer in ~a few minutes.. I don’t make that kind of decision when I commit to a 12-month £10k software contract.. rather I make that decision over time, perhaps years, as a pain slowly increases and I go through a buying process).

  • Micheal Bian


  • margiezablefisher

    Great post!

  • SlowEntrepreneur

    I’ve built a niche brand off this concept and its served me well so far. Seth Godin talks about it ALL the time. What I’ve found difficult though, is finding deeper advice for really keeping customers at the heart of everything you do (product development, partnerships, etc.) when there’s so much noise out there that isn’t about loving your customers.

  • Chip R. Bell

    This is a great post! Such deep insight into today’s customers. People don’t just like Harley-Davidson, they show their love by wearing their brand as clothes and tattoos! Why! Because Harley involves them thru HOG (Harley Owners Group); they make them feel important and valued, and they treat old customers with the same care and respect they treat the prospect kicking the tires in a Harley dealership. For more insights into how to build long-term customer loyalty, check out:

  • Haig Panossian

    really good advice, Belle. Certainly, focusing on existing customers is necessary in any marketing strategy. And to help them organize and apply customer insights, businesses and organizations could use the Empathy Map I discuss on my blog: