Marketing Is NOT About Relationships

A Couple Walking Across the LawnDevelop a relationship. Don’t propose on the first date. Relationships take time.

You talk about relationships as a marketer. You use the same words and clichés. However, you don’t really mean a relationship.

You won’t take a walk in the park with me because we enjoy spending time together and share what we did today just because we want each other to know.

What do businesses really mean when they talk about relationships and what is marketing’s place in those relationships with clients, prospects and the marketplace at large?

Business Relationships that Matter

In the vast majority of enterprise B2B companies, relationships that matter are between people. This is why sales people with existing relationships are recruited and account managers work to develop personal relationships with clients.

Marketing Isn’t About Relationships

Marketing is tasked with reaching the masses, even when the masses are just your 500 customers in the niche market you serve.

Here are three reasons marketing cannot be focused on developing relationships with these people:

  1. Marketing will need to transfer the relationship to sales or account teams. Rather than create opportunities, this creates disruption.
  2. There are far too many people for marketing to develop meaningful relationships.
  3. Marketing is predominantly one-way communication. Outside of social networks, the only dialogue back is a click. That click may be important, but calling it a conversation is an insult to the person with their hand on the mouse.

Marketing’s Real Role In Business Relationships

Marketing doesn’t create relationships, but marketing does have an important role. Focusing on how marketing contributes will position your company to have more meaningful and productive relationships with customers.

Capture Attention
Without someone’s attention, your business cannot develop a relationship. Marketing’s first stepping stone is getting attention, using advertising, content marketing or any other tools at their disposal.

Identify Potential Prospects
Sales is the first stop for relationship building in many organizations, but who should sales focus on? Marketing needs to identify potential prospects that are likely receptive to speaking with sales and beginning to develop a relationship.

Activities ranging from inbound marketing to lead scoring and distribution are critical for marketers to master here.

Support Relationship Building
Marketing can provide the materials (often in various forms of content) that supports sales conversations and the ongoing communications streams that keep your sales and account teams in front of people.

When someone picks up the phone to actually have a conversation in response to any of the material marketing has provided, the conversation is not with marketing and the relationships that develop are not with marketing.

In Summary

The business relationships you need to develop are not relationships with marketing. Marketing must play a supporting, not a leading, role in the development of successful business relationships.

Your Turn

What is your view, has relationship become a thin buzzword in marketing, or do you believe marketing should be the primary point in a company’s relationship with customers and prospects?

Share your perspective in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

Photo by Natesh Ramasamy

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  • Hi Eric! This title grabbed my attention. I think the ultimate goal of marketing should be to build relationships. The key is to create value so that your audiences want to connect with you. To me it’s always been about inspiring them to connect and helping them achieve their goals. Thru this process, the goal is to build relationships. Some will buy from you, some won’t. But at minimum the goal is to make new friends, nurture relationships that inspire people to become brand evangelists even if they’re not buying from you. 

    Yes assuming your only focus is one to many marketing to the masses as you state then yes, it is difficult to foster relationships. However, that’s why the game is changing. I truly believe for the most part the biz’s that will survive long term and win in their niches are the ones who quit and let go of this mentality. 

    Yes, it takes work to foster relationships. However, if you focus on a conversion, communication and relationship funnel that brings them closer to you over time then you can eventually turn that click into a dialog. 

    No, it won’ happen over night. However, thanks to social sometimes it can happen immediately, sometimes it may take longer.

    Good food for thought and I think you have some valid points. I agree there is struggle in larger organization to hand off the relationship. 

    However, it is possible. The key is integrating social media and other communications mediums and tactics into the sales and biz dev functions. We have helped organizations do this and they see much success. They find their time is spent more efficiently, they are building strong relationships and they can more easily reach out to their prospects via the social networks without having to have a formal email, phone call or other more invasive communication. 

    Check out this definition from wikipedia:

    Marketing is “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”[1]For business to consumer marketing it is “the process by which companies create value for customers and build strong customer relationships, in order to capture value from customers in return”. For business to business marketing it is creating value, solutions, and relationships either short term or long term with a company or brand. It generates the strategy that underlies sales techniques, business communication, and business developments.[2] It is an integrated process through which companies build strong customer relationships and create value for their customers and for themselves.[2]

    • Hi Pam,

      Thank you for the counterpoint, I do appreciate it.

      I want to quickly clarify one point. I don’t have a view of marketing as just targeting the masses. Rather, as the first point of contact for many people, marketing simply cannot form enough strong relationships. A company with one or two community managers may have 50 to 250 (or more) sales people that are ready to develop a direct relationship with people.

      I would be interested in your experiences particularly with the handoff of the relationship. I see this as one of the biggest barriers to marketing developing relationships. After all, if it was just a scale issue, you could always put more people in community management. 

      Maybe we need to finally have the phone call we have been threatening.

    • Pam – what does the ‘relationship’ look like? While you posit that mktng should build relationships, you really just list tactics or executables. And while most of what you’re IDing is good work to perhaps move the ball down the field, it’s definitely not a relationship in the traditional meaning of relationship. It’s education.


  • Eric: I’ve always looked at marketing within the organization as “setting up the salespeople to bat” in order to hit a home run. Or, perhaps more like a prep cook in the kitchen who is handing off ingredients to the head chef so he/she can prepare a culinary masterpiece. I think marketing’s role is primarily what you suggested – capturing attention, identifying prospects, and supporting relationship building.

    When people say “marketing is about relationships” I think they’re actually referring to the overall big picture, acknowledging that marketing plays a key role in building and supporting the relationships and connections that are necessary to close a sale. The way I look at it is that strong relationships are the crux of strong business, and that it’s everyone’s job within the business to support those relationships.  It’s the reason why we have client events, why we communicate with our clients through a variety of mediums on a regular basis, why we schedule coffee, wine and lunch meetings, and why we attend industry events. I don’t think it’s become a buzzword, rather I think the phrase “marketing is about relationships” has been somewhat diluted because the nature of the relationship between the organization and its customers has changed with the advent of so many new technologies and strategies available to support those endeavors.  Specifically, it used to be that only salespeople were client facing, but these days everyone within the organization can potentially be charged with building, growing and maintaining a relationship with the customer.

    (P.S. This is @tiffabrown – I accidentally posted as @renoama!)

    • Tiffany, thanks for the supportive comment, I suspect this post will get a couple that are far less supportive as well!

      You are right, “marketing is about relationships” has been diluted, that is a better description than calling it a buzzword. I think some people have taken this perspective too far and are looking to directly establish and own relationships through marketing instead of supporting the business’s need to develop those relationships outside of marketing.

      Thanks again! 

  • This is an interesting post, as relationship has become a big buzzword. Outside of social media, teleprospecting efforts are also giving marketing an opportunity to create the 1:1 conversation with potential clients. By placing non-sales folks into qualification roles that may require building a nurturing relationship over time, marketing has extended its reach into the goal of relationship building. While most of the early funnel marketing efforts are mainly one-way on a 1:1 level, there is a lot of listening to digital body language and social chatter that allow marketers to somewhat build a relationship – particularly from a brand level.

    • Hi Dann,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, teleprospecting is a good example of real two-way dialogue, but it tends to be relatively thin. Ask someone who calls you a relatively basic question about their solution and how they work with clients, and they usually can’t answer, instead they use that as the trigger to connect you with sales. At that point, I would be hesitant to label it a relationship, instead it provides context that positions sales to focus on developing the right relationships.

      Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it!

  • I seriously can’t decide which lines here I love the most:

    You use the same words and clichés. However, you don’t really mean a relationship.

    You won’t take a walk in the park with me because we enjoy spending time together and share what we did today just because we want each other to know.

    When someone picks up the phone to actually have a conversation in response to any of the material marketing has provided, the conversation is not with marketing and the relationships that develop are not with marketing.


  • Julie_Schwartz

    I can’t believe it! I actually don’t agree with you. We see that marketing undergoing a major transformation and one of the new roles of marketing is “Relationship Builder.”
    The relationship builder nurtures relationships with customers and prospects two ways.
    1.       Works through sales to build relationships with customers.
    ·         Improves brand awareness and knowledge
    ·         Creates relevant content and thought leadership
    ·         Provides tools and teaches sales to do thought leadership selling
    ·         Fills the pipeline and manages leads
    ·         Partners with sales to execute Account Based Marketing (ABM) or one-to-one marketing
    2.       Builds relationships directly with customers through on- and off-line community marketing, and customer engagement and advocacy programs. Granted sales and subject matter experts are involved in these initiatives, but these initiatives are marketing led.
    Here are some quotes from our interviews with B2B technology company CMOs:
    “Because sales has been the conduit to customers in the past, there’s a feeling that marketing isn’t close enough to customers, but it’s critical that marketers are able to interact directly with customers.”
    “Marketing and sales are really part of the same function anyway, just working on a different phase of the customer relationship.”
    We also find that with ABM programs, marketing is forging direct relationships with customers via their one-to-one marketing programs.
    However, I think you and I are in agreement when it comes to the idea of marketing building “trust.” How in the world does a blog post build trust? Can marketers really build trust through thought leadership and social media? I think not. But read the marketing literature and it is littered with references to marketing programs building trust. Even ITSMA is guilty of this.
    Having credible thought leadership, ideas, and research does not equal trust. When I interview buyers and ask them about what it means to trust a vendor, it has nothing to do with marketing. It is all about delivery–about delivering consistently and reliably as promised. It’s about knowing them and their issues so well that the vendor can proactively bring them ideas to solve their business problems or to take advantage of new opportunities.
    Trust = They know me. I know them.  They bring me ideas, I bring them ideas. Together we  partner, we experiment, we trust, we are creating more value. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship based on creating value and advocacy.
    Marketing can build relationships. Marketing cannot build trust.

    • Julie – all your points under “1.” are tactical and not relationship-y. 

      You’re arguing against yourself here with your point about Trust. I agree with your points about Trust. However, how can anyone have a relationship with anyone else without “Trust?”

      No “Trust,” No “relationship.”

      “Marketing can build relationships. Marketing cannot build trust.” <– Seriously. That's kinda crazy.

      Also, CMOs claiming something, doesn't make it true.

      Marketers can play a valuable role in education and awareness-building. But why the machinations to call it a 'relationship?'

      • Julie_Schwartz

        I love a good discussion Maureen–thanks!

        Yes, I agree–marketing helps sales with the tactics to help them build relationships. That is how marketing builds relationships through/with sales. (Except when it comes to ABM. Then it is both tactical and strategic.)

        Question for you: Since when is trust synonymous with relationship? It is certainly possible to have a relationship without trust. Trust develops over time based on experience.

        All these debates really end up being about semantics, don’t they? I guess this all depends on what each of us thinks a “relationship” is!


    • Two opinionated people, we were bound to disagree some time!

      That said, looking beyond the fact I think we are using slightly different definitions, I don’t see that much disagreement here. I would actually characterize your point 2 is marketing identifying and supporting relationships in a more hands-on way, similar to the way marketing has an active role in events, yet sales is still ultimately picking up and developing the relationship. 

      You bring up an interesting thought with trust. The challenge I’m having is that trust is contextual. I trust someone’s judgement or perspective about how to respond to a PR crisis, but I do not trust that same person’s judgement on how to handle a three year old’s tantrum. 

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, I appreciate it! Dissenting views are good thing, I will always welcome a dissenting perspective from you.

  • Eric,
    Although I agree with you that relationship can be an overused buzzword by some marketers, I disagree with you that marketing can’t be about relationships.  Let me explain using three examples.

    First example: back in 1998, when I was running SQL Server marketing at Microsoft, it was critically important that we have some customers up on stage when we launched SQL Server 7, to say that the product was stable and ready to handle business-critical applications. We put together a plan, with the support of the development team, to roll out several customers into production on our beta-software. The program was run by marketing, and those customers had to trust us. Barnes & Noble rolled out their eCommerce site, Pennzoil rolled out their SAP system, and Harper Collins rolled out their largest production data warehouse, all on “unproven” software.  To this day, I can call any of those customers, because I had a relationship with them.

    Second example: David Meerman Scott tells a story about Cindy Gordon, VP of marketing at Universal Resorts, who rolled out the Harry Potter theme park by telling “just 7 people” (you can watch the video of DMS telling this story on his Amazon web page).  The 7 people were the most influential bloggers about Harry Potter. By the next day, those 7 bloggers had spread the word to over 350M people.  And she did that by developing a relationship with those bloggers, and trusted them to spread the word.

    Third example: I went to visit an Apple store on the day that the iPad 2 launched. I got there several hours before the time that they would start selling the iPad 2, and there were already over 400 people in line, talking to each other, and they were all very excited to purchase the product that day. I doubt that 1% of those people standing in line were there because of a salesperson in the Apple store.  99% or more were there because of their relationship with the brand; how they feel about the brand, and their trust that Apple is going to produce an “insanely great product”, in Steve Job’s words.


    • Jim, thank you for sharing the examples. 

      Your Microsoft case is a great example where marketing took a very direct lead in forging the relationship. As you point out, it was also an unusual circumstance, likely no one in the company was in a great position to develop the relationship you needed, and marketing stepped up. 

      I actually see the other two a bit differently. The Universal Resorts example is really media relationships, those are led by marketing still and marketing is the end-point for these relationships (they aren’t transferred to someone else). Regarding Apple, I believe this is a case of creating demand. I would like an iPad 2, but it doesn’t have to do with a relationship, it is because Apple has been creating great products lately and when it was released, I believed the iPad 2 would be another one.

      Thanks for the dissenting perspective and adding a great example to the discussion here, I appreciate it!

    • These are great examples and THANK YOU for sharing them. Too many speak in broad platitudes and it’s so nice to see specifics.

      However these are outliers or exceptions to how marketing can and does operate. In giant companies, there are resources to fund marketing having some 1:1 relationships – referral program teams come to mind.

      For most B2Bs I heartily concur with Eric. I’d add that it’s a waste of resources to even be talking about Marketing and Relationships w/prospects and customers.

  • Carlos Hidalgo

    Eric:  Thanks for posting and plenty of food for thought.  I think the way we define relationships in a personal setting is much different than the business setting.  As with any relationship, there must be an introduction, or early stage of the relationship and I do believe that marketing is key to this.  Yes, we are trying to reach the masses, however with targeted dynamic content and an attention to buyer behavior you can create a 1-1 type interaction or relationship that endears the buyer to your organization and allows for deeper engagement.

    As for the passing of the relationship to sales – sales is the human face of the relationship. I do not see this as a disruption, but a continuation of the relationship that the buyer now has a person or point of contact.  Look at the fact that often times in B2B the sale is made and the relationship is transferred to an account manager or relationship manager.  This is not a disruption per se, but simply the relationship changing and often times when done well for the better.

    I do not believe that relationship is a thin buzzword.  I believe that when marketers realize that they can be used to begin the process of building a relationship and in so doing align with sales to make it happen, it will transform the way organizations relate to their buyers

    Carlos Hidalgo

  • Nice to read common sense about marketing for a change!

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  • Aaron Pearson

    Provocative post, Eric. A lot has already been said here and I think the debate over “relationship” is largely semantics, but good to hash out too. I think the biggest problem i have is the characterization of marketing as primarily one-way. If you are listening, you are doing marketing. I certainly hope that listening to customers and prospects and target audiences is an important part of your marketing process.

    • Interesting perspective and good point. I do not believe this is what many marketers refer to when they talk about dialogue or conversation as part of their marketing automation, but it definitely is a way to hear your audience’s side.

      It seems to me like this will one-way conversations going both directions at an individual level. While listening will sometimes open an opportunity for conversation, it doesn’t pick up many of the conversations your content, digital or traditional marketing spark.

      Great point, thanks for sharing here, I appreciate it!

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  • iancleary

    Great insightful article.  You’re right, there’s a lot of talk about building a one to one relationship with your fans but how is that possible if you’ve got 10 million fans!  You have a place to communicate with your fans and if you fans decide they can communicate back with a relationship is far more than this.  

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