Reshape the Funnel (And Line It with Data)


Is the marketing funnel dead? If you do a quick search in Google, you’ll get multiple pages of results with headlines such as, “The funnel is dead, long live the consumer decision journey,” or “In today’s digital world, the sales funnel is dead,” and of course plenty of the simply direct, “The marketing funnel is dead.”

Obviously, a lot of people do indeed believe the marketing funnel is dead. However, plenty of B2B businesses still utilize a sales funnel. If you count yourself among those who maintain the sales funnel has not met its demise, it’s important to realize that – while not dead – it definitely has changed.

Tradition doesn’t apply

The traditional sales funnel simply doesn’t cut it in today’s digital environment. The primary reason is that potential customers can now do plenty of research without you even knowing they’re in the market. In the past, prospects relied on marketing and sales teams to provide them with the information they needed to make purchase decisions. The old sales funnel worked in this outbound marketing ecosystem, but now that inbound marketing is such a major factor in sales, the traditional funnel concept begins to fall apart.

old_marketing_funnelThe biggest deficiency in the traditional sales funnel is the idea of a linear purchase journey. With available access to information, customers now enter at different stages or skip stages altogether. It’s misguided to assume all prospects enter at the top of the funnel and work their way down.

Another problem lies with the traditional funnel ending at the point of purchase. This focus on pre-purchase stages fails to account for ongoing relationships with paying customers. Opportunities exist beyond purchase, including upselling, cross-selling and even brand advocacy.

The traditional sales funnel was simple in its construct, but the B2B purchase journey isn’t as simple as it used to be. Relying on old perspectives is no place for a business in today’s world. It’s time to reshape the funnel.

So, what does it look like?

If we determine the old sales funnel is insufficient (which we have), then what does it look like now? Apparently, that’s an extremely difficult question to answer. Peruse some of those search results we referenced in the opening paragraph, and you won’t find a consistent map of the new B2B customer journey.

All the underlying concepts of the old funnel still exist. Marketing teams still must build brand awareness and attract leads. Sales teams still need to close those leads. The problem is that many of those leads inform themselves. Where they fit into the old funnel isn’t so apparent. Inbound marketing has caused overlap in the border between marketing and sales departments’ roles in the funnel.

Several graphical attempts at a new purchase funnel are out there, but reality points to your business needing its own custom funnel. Depending on how integrated your sales and marketing teams are, your funnel might look different from your competition. How you focus your marketing will also play a role. If you choose to follow a funneled approach to sales, take the time to rethink how your funnel works and design one that defines and incorporates your sales and marketing efforts.

Line your new funnel with data-driven content

Regardless of what your new funnel looks like, there are two things that will help make it effective: data and content. Perhaps this Ad Age article from 2016 (which contends the funnel is completely dead, by the way) stated it best: Data is the master campaign unifier, and it’s the best way to maximize marketing spend in the current funnel-less phenomenon.

Using data and content to drive your marketing efforts will help your prospects at any stage of your funnel and ultimately provide a better conversion rate. Consider this: A 2014 Aberdeen Group study found 94.5 percent of website visitors failed to convert to marketing-engaged contacts. That means only FIVE percent of those prospects who enter the top of the funnel move much further down it.

It’s understood the wide top of the funnel is inefficient, but if marketers were more targeted with their top-of-funnel efforts, it’s unlikely they lose 95 percent of prospects. These targeted prospects mean a much greater percentage who enter the funnel will ultimately convert – not to mention the cost savings over spray-and-pray, wide-net marketing.

Furthermore, engaging these targeted prospects with relevant content can keep them in the funnel for long periods of time. Even if they aren’t ready to purchase now, months from now or years from now, targeted content means they’re always in the funnel and thus, always a prospect.

However, don’t take this to simply mean more content is better. It’s a common misconception of sales teams that the more content you shower upon prospects the better chance at winning them over. A Harvard Business Review study found just the opposite, in fact. It concluded the deluge of content caused an 18 percent decrease in “purchase ease.” In short, buyers are finding it difficult to digest all the content coming at them.

This is where the data-driven efforts win. Targeted content that matches the customers’ location in the funnel avoids overwhelming them with irrelevant information. Prospects who engage with content leave behind further data that can keep businesses aware of where they stand in the purchase journey, allowing businesses to keep tabs on them as they move about their individual paths to purchase.

New times, new funnel

Some claim the marketing funnel is completely dead, while others cede that, at the very least, it has evolved. There is no longer a one-size-fits-all solution for the sales funnel. Businesses can do themselves a favor by defining their own custom funnels based on their sales and marketing approaches, and lining that funnel with effective, data-driven targeting and content solutions.

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