The marketing funnel is a long-established framework. It guides the marketing process from initial awareness through to conversion. Yet, as the marketing landscape evolves, it is time to re-assess this model.
This article explores the limitations of traditional marketing funnels.
The Marketing Funnel
The standard advice suggests marketers should try to move a target audience through a funnel using specific marketing tactics at each stage. The funnel shape indicates prospects will drop out at each step. So you start with many prospects at the Awareness stage to deliver a few customers at the Action stage.
The AIDA funnel dates back to the late 19th century. It suggests a prospect must first be Aware of your brand. They need to be aware, in general terms of your name and what you do.
The theory continues that then marketing should attempt to generate Interest in your solution by highlighting its benefits. Further marketing effort persuades a proportion of prospects that they want (Desire) the solution. The final challenge is to push the prospect over the line by persuading them they need to take Action (to buy).
Funnels have a lead generation focus and neglect awareness (brand) building. They ignore customer retention, referrals and word-of-mouth marketing.
Fuelling The Funnel – Content
The standard model assumes the prospect will fulfil their information needs (inbound marketing rather than outbound). Therefore, the aim is to deliver the right content to the right place at the right time throughout the different stages of the prospect’s journey (AIDA).
So, in theory, during the awareness stage, the prospect finds your carefully placed content. That may be in the search results, in social channels, at an event or in print. They like what they see and go on to view more of your content.
You have now piqued the prospect’s interest and (you hope) the prospect remembers the helpful information and returns to consume your next-stage content. Better still, you capture their details (email). This enables you to deliver content to them directly.
The funnel model assumes everyone has uniform information needs. They don’t; some need an overview, while others want to read an in-depth analysis. Fuelling the funnel with the relevant content is resource-intensive. Worse still, delivering that content to the prospect requires significant effort (SEO) without any guarantee of success.
Outlining The Problem – An example
To illustrate the problems with the standard approach, let’s review a different model and use it to work through an example:
At first sight, this model again looks linear and in some cases, it can be. Let’s assume you run a financial adviser business. Bill is in his mid-50s. At a neighbour’s barbecue, he gets talking to Bob. The conversation turns to retirement and Bob describes his plans. Bill realises he needs to start thinking about his retirement.
This is the trigger. As a financial adviser, you have little (if any) control over when (or if) this trigger occurs.
So Bill is off on his journey. He spends time on the internet and with his pension statements. He may talk to friends or family. He is in learner mode.
Eventually, he knows what he would like to achieve and starts looking at the available options. He has become a shopper.
He then moves into buying mode. He is ready to compare and contrast suppliers and make his purchase. With the sale complete (if everything goes well), he becomes a referrer. Bill is the prospect defined by the AIDA model.
The reality is few prospects follow Bill’s path. For example, Ben works in I.T for a pensions company. He already has a good understanding (because he is in the business) of what he wants to do. Something has already triggered his desire to move forward. He jumps right in at the buyer stage.
Brenda is different to Bill, she is not inclined to spend weeks researching all her options. She is happy to go with the recommendations or advice of friends or family. She jumps in at the shopper stage.
Ben is more likely to come in via Ads than organically. Brenda will have minimal online interaction. The standard model misses Ben, Brenda and the FOGS, it also neglects existing clients.
The Problem With Funnels – A Summary
Even if all prospects were like Bill, the funnel leaks. It assumes a prospect will remain engaged and move dutifully from one step to the next. That is a huge assumption.
There are many problems with marketing funnels, but to summarise the most obvious:
- They assume prospects follow a linear path.
- They disregard the trigger.
- They assume a prospect seeks out information online.
- They assume the prospect remains engaged.
- They assume you can deliver content to the prospect.
- They ignore existing customers and referrals.
They seek to simplify the marketing process. While simplification is a worthy aim, if the end result is a poor ROI, then perhaps it is time for a re-think.
So what’s the alternative? Well, it depends on your customer and your marketplace. I suggest that is part of the problem with funnels. They are applied as a catch-all solution without thinking through the context of a given situation.
What is clear is that marketing is evolving. Approximately 20 years ago, inbound marketing was introduced as a pull rather than push marketing process. The world has (I suggest) changed and it’s time to move on.
Consumers have lost trust in the mass online media and are increasingly locked away in their own little communities. Assuming marketing funnels ever worked (and that is up for debate) they certainly don’t work well in a community-based environment.