November 24, 2023
|
9 mins

What marketers need to know about funnels

…and it’s not what you think.
MarTech

You know that old adage: Stick a hand into the internet and you’ll hit another article on marketing funnels. The seventh circle of Hell might just have devolved into an eternal slide of ToFu/MoFu/BoFu at this point.

Well, despite all that beating into the ground, there’s life in this horse yet. 

In this piece, after I 

  • review the different stages of the marketing funnel, 

I’ll get into:

  • some excellent arguments against funnels (insights borrowed from Scalecrush founder Vince Moreau),
  • what it means to build evolved funnels that work (with contributions by content strategists Vivek Shankar and Afnan Rehan)

Strap in!

The lowdown: What are funnels?

Marketing funnels are an expression of the famous AIDA concept, which was first formulated in 1898 (more than a century ago!). 

AIDA suggests four basic hierarchical steps in a consumer’s purchase journey:

Attention: The consumer becomes aware of a brand or product, or a problem they’re facing.

Interest: The consumer becomes interested in the brand or product’s benefits, or in solving their problem.

Desire: The consumer develops longing for the product or solution.

Action: The consumer forms the intention to engage in a trial or to buy the product.

In one form or the other, funnels are meant to correspond to these stages. They map the marketing activities that attract and engage audiences, from initial awareness to becoming qualified leads. 

4-step funnels are directly analogous to the AIDA stages, but the concept holds true for the popular 3-step funnels (ToFu/MoFu/BoFu) and more advanced 5-step funnels as well. (You can read about 4 and 5-step funnels in more detail in this piece.) They’re all widest at the top, and as people exit at each stage, narrow towards the bottom.

The AIDA-inspired funnel. Attention corresponds to the top, interest and desire to the middle, and action to the bottom.
The AIDA marketing funnel.

If the whole process sounds reductive or simplistic to you, you’re not alone. 

But before we get into the arguments against funnels, let’s look at how they’re commonly used.

Top of the funnel (ToFu) marketing activities build awareness

At the ToFu stage, marketers try to attract and engage with a broader audience. It’s the discovery stage, where potential customers get introduced to your brand or product. 

Activities here try to capture audience attention and secure brand visibility, whether through advertising and inbound marketing, or presenting at conferences and networking events for the B2B folks. ToFu is meant to cast a wide net, and then push increasingly qualified leads down the funnel. The ROI of these efforts isn’t direct sales, but brand awareness.  

Middle of the funnel (MoFu) activities cultivate and educate prospects

Could the MoFu stage be a victim of middle child syndrome? Well, marketers tend to direct more resources and effort on the initial awareness (ToFu) and final conversion (BoFu) stages—and spend less time on MoFu activities that emphasize lead nurturing and relationship-building. 

One reason for this might be that it’s more challenging to measure the impact of MoFu activities compared to the more quantifiable metrics associated with ToFu and BoFu stages. Marketers may allocate more resources to the stages with more immediate impact on awareness and revenue, and thus deprioritize MoFu.

In the context of the AIDA consumer journey though, ignoring MoFu can be a mistake. The MoFu stage nurtures audiences who have shown interest in your brand through activities like retargeting campaigns, case studies, or expert consultations. It’s where marketers can show audiences what differentiates their brands from others. 

Neglecting these leads could cause them to disengage and seek solutions elsewhere—in turn lowering the ROI of awareness campaigns.

Bottom of the funnel (BoFu) activities push conversions

At the BoFu stage, the primary goal is conversions and sales. It’s the action stage. 

The people at this part of the funnel are primed and ready to buy. The marketer’s job is now to leverage the trust and interest they’ve cultivated in the earlier stages and guide prospects to make the purchase decision. This could be through free trials and demos, direct sales outreach, or content like product comparison guides and landing pages. 

So far so cool. But are funnels really how customer journeys work?

Fun exercise: Do a quick Google search for “I hate funnels.”

You’ll see a bunch of these pop up.

some of the first-page results for the phrase "I hate funnels."
Clearly, funnels are a contentious topic. As would be any concept that’s been around for a century.

Scalecrush founder and CEO Vince Moreau’s been an outspoken critic of the funnel—and he makes some excellent arguments as to why it outright doesn’t work in an immensely readable piece. 

Because when was the last time you as a customer followed the buyer’s journey, as outlined by AIDA? 

Say you’re buying a new laptop after your old one started slowing down. Did you progress through the linear stages outlined above in logical robotic fashion? Did it look something like:

ToFu: 

  • You conducted online research about common laptop performance issues and stumbled upon a tech blog post discussing the signs of an outdated laptop.
  • You subscribed to the tech blog's newsletter to stay updated on the latest laptop trends.

MoFu: 

  • After reading several articles, you realize you need to consider buying a new laptop. You start researching different laptop brands, models, and specifications. 
  • You watch video reviews, read product reviews, and compare prices on e-commerce websites. 
  • You join online forums and ask for recommendations.

BoFu: 

  • You’ve narrowed down your choices to two specific laptop models that meet your requirements and budget. 
  • You visit the official websites of the laptop manufacturers to compare their warranty and customer support options.
  • Finally, you purchase the laptop from a reputable online retailer, taking advantage of a limited-time discount.

Written out like that, it’s a bit of a ludicrous proposition. As Moreau points out, customers don’t stick to this neat script in the real world. Buyer journeys are messy and a lot more non-linear than this simplified representation. 

It would more likely look like:

  • You start researching laptop issues and potential solutions online (ToFu).
  • You see and click on an ad for a well-known laptop brand to learn more about its specifications (MoFu).
  • You discover your college friend recently purchased a laptop from the same brand and ask her what she thinks (out of funnel).
  • You continue researching the laptop brand and read reviews from tech experts (MoFu).
  • Based on your friend's recommendation and your own research, you shortlist this brand as a potential option (BoFu-ish).
  • Your laptop suddenly starts working again and you forget about getting a new one (out of funnel).
  • A month later, it’s fizzled out again and you check your computer history to review what you’d researched a while ago (ToFu, MoFu and BoFu all together).
  • You compare the shortlisted laptop brand with a competitor's offering (MoFu).
  • You join a laptop enthusiast group on Facebook for advice from experienced users (out of funnel).
  • You decide to purchase the laptop from the competitor brand and do so from a secondhand laptop website (the final purchase is out of the funnel!)

This sort of journey tears holes in the funnels concept. You’re not being guided down the funnel—you’re jumping backwards, forwards, and out of it. 

For Moreau, the only real solution to the conundrum is moving away from funnels entirely. He advocates a “commitment gauge” framework instead, which is a valuable perspective you can read up on in his piece. 

I find considerable merit in Moreau’s point—but.

I still think funnels are salvageable.  

What does it mean to build an evolved funnel?

While FinTech content strategist Vivek Shankar agrees that buyer journeys are too messy to be contained by linear frameworks, he doesn’t believe funnels should be thrown out of the picture.

Shankar thinks the problem lies with treating funnels as a marketing strategy, when really they should be an internal framework that helps marketers classify content and marketing activities. 

The funnel should not function as a guide to or representation of purchase behavior. Instead, it should aid in organizing marketing activities to address different stages of the buyer’s journey, no matter how complex it is. It should meet customers where they are, not force them into a made-up shape. 

The funnel-as-framework can help you present your product to customers no matter what level of buying intent they’re at. Shankar’s visualization of the funnel thus boils down to:

Are we talking enough about how we solve issues? (BoFu)

Are we including enough contextual talk about the environment we operate in? (MoFu)

Are we addressing common questions? (ToFu)

Such a conception hits upon the idea of the dark funnel, or the idea that a portion of the buyer’s journey that happens offline and can’t be tracked by attribution software. This includes touchpoints generated by PR events, user-generated forums or social media posts, or a bunch of friends discussing the pros and cons of the latest iPhone. 

The funnel should not function as a guide to or representation of purchase behavior. Instead, it should aid in organizing marketing activities to address different stages of the buyer’s journey, no matter how complex it is.

Content strategist Afnan Rehan stresses the significance of the dark funnel. “No lead should be expected to go through the top, middle, and bottom of your funnel in that order without looking elsewhere,” she says. 

“They'll do their research, they'll be bombarded with ads, and they might even find out about a competitor of yours and go down a whole new rabbit hole just a few minutes before they're ready to hit buy on your website. 

Again, most of this isn't in your control. 

What you can control is the relationship you build and the clarity you offer to your lead before they even reach that last stage. If they find enough value in what you can do for them, going through the whole process with a competitor starting all the way back from discovery calls might not be worth it.”

Rehan suggests integrating darkness into your funnel to help you account for the unattributed or less visible interactions in the buyer’s journey—the ones that are more or less out of the influence of traditional marketing activities. 

"AI-powered tools can help marketers collect data on these shadowy dark funnel activities. 

You could monitor online forums, social media discussions, and customer reviews for mentions of your brand or product. 

You could analyze website behavior patterns to identify users who have visited specific product pages or conducted research without directly interacting with known marketing channels. And you could look at the content consumption patterns of audiences engaging with your brand on external platforms," Rehan says.

All this data can be used to inform marketing activities to meet audiences where they are—not to push them down a funnel. 

“Setting up funnels to achieve marketing or sales goals is about understanding your target audience’s pain points and buying process. This does not look the same for everyone,” Rehan cautions. “AI tools notwithstanding, I try to be part of at least a few customer calls and demos to have a rough idea of how they come to the buying decision.” 

“What people get wrong about funnels is the excessive generalization and lack of research. The process isn't linear and never will be. Nor can you expect to see similar results with every lead. Factors like budget, team size and current tech stack (especially for SaaS) will always be different, and impact the buying process.” 

Manal Yousuf

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