The marketing funnel isn’t dead. Sorry Forrester, Aberdeen and HBR, it’s just that you never understood it.Marketing Funnel

The funnel is an old metaphor, and only a loose one: lots of buyers at the top and a few at the bottom, and our job is to move them through. The flaw in the metaphor is obvious: not all buyers move through – even if you are infinitely patient, and so it’s more of a sieve than a funnel. This is the basic idea that I began with when I wrote ‘The Leaky Funnel’ in 2003 when I introduced two terms now in reasonably-popular use in marketing circles:

  • The buyer’s journey (the stages they go through from blissfully ignorant to happy customers)
  • Recycling (nurturing buyers back into the funnel with engaging content).

But these esteemed research houses / publishers are not having a go at this somewhat-obvious flaw in the metaphor, but the fact that as marketers we can no longer ‘work’ our prospects through the marketing funnel. They will have designers build fun diagrams that look more like snakes and ladders than a marketing funnel to describe the circuitous journey that a buyer takes to being a customer.

And they’ll tell you that 65% (or 70% or 80% depending on which research they are drawing on) of the buyer’s journey has been completed before the prospect is willing to engage with a sales person. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it is neither new, nor an argument that the old metaphor isn’t working.

Let’s stand back a bit from the metaphor, and look at what we are describing. The buyer was always firmly in control of their own journey, and the marketing funnel was only ever a loose metaphor to describe whatever of that journey we could see. Certainly with social and search, the buyer is consuming their inputs in new ways, and certainly it’s harder for the sales person to influence that early journey, but there’s an important contradiction in the analysts’ arguments here.

Marketing was never in control of the buyer’s journey; it’s only that they had better visibility of it. When your content (Marketing) or your dialogue (Sales) was critical for the buyer to gather information, absent other ‘informed’ input, you could see what was going on. Now that the buyer has the ability to find broader inputs – even if they are just as biased as they always were – you’ve lost much of the visibility you previously had into the marketing funnel.

So we are still, as we always were, charged with the responsibility of finding tactics that help buyers move through their journey, but much of the content they are consuming may not be yours.

Two points on this:

  • If the buyers are consuming others’ content, and not yours, then more fool you. Build better content, build more content, and make it easier for your target buyers to find it.
  • We may not have lost all visibility.

If we can’t measure every move of every buyer – great tracking techniques notwithstanding – there’s something kind of key that we can track. Do this exercise and you’ll find some gold in your marketing funnel (or at least in your CRM data):

  • Rename the stages in your CRM to buyer-stages rather than seller-stages. Using language like “need agreed” forces you to think about the buyer and not yourself. You might ask yourself “have they actually agreed?” and arrive at a very different conclusion than if you ask “have we qualified the need?”. It’s all about the buyer, not you. In our most recent study into sales and marketing alignment, we found that MQLs from the CRM of a buyer-savvy business were almost twice as likely to close as those using the stages right out of the CRM vendor’s box.
  • Measure how long it takes your buyers to move through each stage of the buyer’s journey
  • Measure how long it takes those leads and opportunities that you eventually ‘leak’ to move through each stage of the buyer’s journey.
  • Compare, go into shock, and come back to the exercise
  • Exclude from this comparison the lag for buyers who get stuck and eventually ‘bail’ from a stage. Firstly, the times will be so long as to be meaningless (just because it took you a year to clean your data does not reveal anything about your buyers), and secondly, the critical measure is not how long they get stuck, but what a ‘leaker’ looks like compared to a ‘buyer’. So you want to consider only the time that it takes to go from one stage to the next, and THEN leak (at the next stage or some later stage). I’m going to call this ‘successful progression’. Regardless of whether they eventually buy or eventually leak, a progression is ‘successful’ if they move from one stage in their journey to the next.
  • So now compare ‘successful progressions’ for each stage between those who do go on to buy, and those who don’t.

You will likely find is that there are some stages in your marketing funnel where slower progression from one stage to the next suggests a prospect who is about to leak. But you might also find stages in your marketing funnel where a buyer who progresses too quickly (faster than the average behaviour of a buyer) is also showing signs that they will likely leak a little later on.

Now you have two choices:

  • Identify leads and opportunities in your marketing funnel that have likely already leaked, and move them into your nurturing program so you can stop wasting time on them right now; or
  • Find out why those too-fast or too-slow buyers are behaving that way, and see if there are changes you can make to your strategy or tactics to bring them back on course.

Long story short: the marketing funnel is not dead, we just need to be better-informed in how we view it.