December 18, 2018

What is Relationship Marketing? Definition and Best Practices

Reading time about 11 min
small business owner looking at his ipad in his store.

It’s always easier to get something from someone if you have a good relationship with that person. Conversely, if you try to ask something from a lead that doesn’t know you and has never been in contact with you before, you’re not going to be very likely to succeed!

That’s where relationship marketing comes into play. It’s the art of getting to know your customers and developing a relationship with them before you ask something from them.

Instead of focusing on promoting your products and being overly salesy, take the time to introduce yourself, let prospects and customers get to know you, and make yourself available to answer their questions.

How, why, and for whom? We’ll cover everything you need to know about relationship marketing in this article!

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Some context

Relationship marketing aims at developing a qualitative relationship between your brand and your customers or people who you want to become customers.

«Know, Like, Trust »

The principle “Know, Like, Trust,” is at the foundation of relationship marketing because it allows you to understand the evolution of your client relationships within a certain framework.

Before making a purchase, customers pass through three different steps:

  1. Getting to know you
  2. Deciding that they like you (and that they want your products)
  3. Placing their trust in you

This evolution takes time, and it requires you to really take the time to develop meaningful relationships with your customers.

A more human approach to marketing

The era of B2B (business to business) vs. B2C (business to consumer) marketing is over. Now, it’s all about H2H marketing — Human to Human.

People don’t really buy products anymore — they buy values and a brand; a story. That’s why relationship marketing is so effective and so important.

How is relationship marketing different from traditional marketing?

Mass marketing vs. individual conversations

The main difference between traditional marketing tactics and those related to relationship marketing is the level of individualized and personalized communication for each client.

Whereas traditional marketing consists mainly of targeting large audiences with the same message, relationship marketing works contrarily to establish a personalized conversation with each client at the right moment.

To accomplish this effectively, you can use marketing automation to send messages triggered by specific actions taken by your customer, and a CRM for collecting all of the data related to your customers’ behavior and interactions with your brand to better understand where they are in the purchase cycle.

Related: Conversational Marketing: Definition, Tips & Strategies

Short-term vs. long-term

Traditional marketing tactics are generally more focused on short-term goals, such as quickly generating more sales for a specific marketing campaign.

Relationship marketing, on the other hand, is about engaging with clients and prospects to create a relationship in the long term. The objective here is to build trust for products with a more complex purchase cycle and bigger price tag, as well as increase retention and extend the lifetime value of your customers.

But why does it make sense to focus more on long-term objectives like retention and increasing the customer lifetime value? Because it’s generally much less expensive to keep a customer than it is to acquire a new customer.

Additionally, loyal customers offer way more value to your brand than a brand-new customer. Returning customers tend to make purchases more predictably and regularly, and they are much more likely to promote your business to other people in your network through word-of-mouth.

Transactional vs. relational

Traditional marketing is essentially transactional in nature (i.e. the ultimate goal is to generate a transaction — or purchase — as quickly as possible). Think ads, prospecting emails, etc.

Meanwhile, relationship marketing is relational, seeking instead to establish a relationship with prospects before trying to sell them a product.

Objectives of relationship marketing

Relationship marketing is focused simultaneously on acquiring new customers and fostering more loyalty among those customers.

Turning visitors into customers (Lead Nurturing)

Relationship marketing starts as soon as a prospect comes into contact with your business for the first time (e.g. clicking on a Facebook ad, finding your site organically from the search results, clicking on an affiliate link, etc.).

No matter how they find you, potential customers will start forming an image of your brand based on their interactions. This is the start of your relationship marketing.

From there, you need to nurture and maintain this relationship in order to transform anonymous visitors into a loyal audience.

You can do this using marketing automation workflows that send targeted messages aimed at moving prospects closer and closer to a purchase through trust building. This is known as lead nurturing.

If you want your lead nurturing process to be effective, it needs to be tightly linked with the key steps linked to progression in the purchase cycle. Once a user subscribes, you can start sending emails that communicate important information about your content, brand, and products according to the recipient’s proximity to making a purchase.

As they grow more interested in your brand and what you have to offer, you can start sending more targeted, sales-focused messages and resources (e.g. sizing guide, case study [for B2B], etc.).

Gauge the interest of your prospects

With lead scoring, you can easily keep track of how interested each of your contacts is in making a purchase from you. This is done by assigning a point value to certain actions that indicate a higher level of interest in your offer (e.g. visiting the pricing page, adding an item to a cart, clicking on multiple promotional emails, etc.).

You can then use your lead score to segment contacts accordingly and send messages that correspond more closely to where each contact is in the purchase decision process.

Extend customer lifetime through customer loyalty

One of the main benefits of relationship marketing is that it doesn’t stop once a prospect makes a purchase and becomes a customer. It continues throughout the entire customer lifetime, working to increase customer loyalty and generate more purchases from existing customers.

Like any other relationship, customer relationships require ongoing attention if you want them to last. Keep in regular contact with them — offering news about your company, highlighting the latest feature updates or product inventory, asking for feedback, etc. This will help keep you top of mind when customers are considering another purchase.

It’s important that your customers remember you, but you also need to give them something they can really connect with. This will help them develop a real link and affection for your brand and product, ultimately leading to more customer loyalty.

As we’ve said in one way or another throughout this guide, the ultimate goal of relationship marketing is to create a relationship with customers that goes beyond a single transaction. This will allow you to make your customers real ambassadors for your brand, which will lead to serious growth down the line.

3 relationship marketing best practices

Now that you’ve got the concept of relationship marketing down, it’s time to talk more pragmatically about how to do it right without tearing apart your entire marketing strategy.

1. Talk to people, not ‘consumers’

It’s important to make customers feel like they are more than just ‘consumers’ and numbers on your marketing dashboard to you if you want to establish a real human connection.

To get relationship marketing right, you have to change not only the way you talk to your customers, but also the way you think about them.

Every one of your customers has their own story, needs, and perception of your brand. That’s why it’s super important to personalize your communications to each recipient and treat them like actual human beings. Small gestures like including their name in your message or sending a birthday email can make all the difference.

To do this, you need to replace your classic bulk email campaigns with targeted marketing automation workflows that are triggered by specific user actions. This gives you much more context to send a personalized and “human” message to the user that corresponds to their interest level and individual situation, which will increase engagement and overall conversion rate.

2. Segment your email lists

Separate your contacts into smaller groups or segments based on similar characteristics in order to create more tailored content.

An example of how you could do this in practice is to separate contacts into “new leads,” “qualified leads,” “loyal customers,” and “top customer” based on their lead score and where they are in the purchase process.

With segmentation, you can easily show your contacts that you’re not just sending them messages randomly, but rather you’re taking into account their specific needs and situation. This makes them much more likely to place their trust in you and stick around for the long run.

Not only does this help with converting leads into customers, but it will also make it easier for you to upsell or convince existing customers to buy more from you. You can emphasize the relationship that you have with them and communicate very exclusive offers based on their level of engagement.

Pro tip: You can use marketing automation to automate your segmentation. Set up specific conditions (e.g. user matches specific behavioral patterns, contact reaches a certain lead score, etc.) and dynamically segment contacts into your targeted list according to these conditions.

3. Create a conversion funnel adapted to your customer journey

The conversion funnel (also known as the sales funnel) is the path that prospects follow from their first interaction with your company all the way until they make a purchase and beyond.

Depending on how much you’ve developed your relationship with a prospect or customer, they’ll be in a different stage of your conversion funnel.

Normally, the conversion funnel is made up of many different touch points:

  • Initial contact (blog article, video, social media, advertisement)
  • Contact information submission (eBook, webinar, online course)
  • Tripwire (small purchase or free trial)
  • Offer 2
  • Offer 3
  • Etc.
steps of the conversion funnel
Illustration of the different parts of a conversion funnel

Having downloadable content or resources on your website allows you to position yourself as a leading expert in your industry or content area, while simultaneously letting you collect contact information from visitors for future follow-ups.

If you’re using retargeting, you can even display your ads on social networks and other websites to help speed up the conversion process for visitors to your site.

As customers and prospects traverse through the different steps of your conversion funnel, you can gradually start offering higher-value products.

Is relationship marketing right for you?

We won’t keep you waiting too long, the answer is YES!

No matter what type of business you have or what industry you’re in, relationship marketing is a great investment for long-term, sustainable growth.

Developing deeper relationships with your customers and prospects will help you be much more effective in your customer acquisition and retention efforts, which will ultimately lead to more profits and a healthier business.


So, what is relationship marketing?

  • Structuring your marketing communications to build a personalized relationship with each of your prospects and customers
  • A qualitative strategy focused on the long term in order to attract and retain more customers
  • Creating content that is more tailored to the needs and expectations of individual customers
  • Building a conversion funnel that is tightly linked to the different steps of the customer journey to achieve more effective communication

Now that you’re a pro in relationship marketing it’s time to start setting up your own relationship marketing strategy.

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