Put simply, a marketing funnel — digital or otherwise — is simply a way to think about any sales or conversion process from beginning to end. It offers businesses a conceptual apparatus for planning and strategy, namely the ability to effectively engage consumers from the inception of their relationship with said consumers to whatever happens next.
The idea of a digital marketing funnel isn’t rocket science, but nor should it be ignored in any organization that’s committed to refining its online approach.
To be sure, some have already begun to declare the end of such marketing funnels, preferring alternative models instead.
In 2015, Practical Ecommerce’s Phil Frost argued that the traditional conception of a marketing funnel had become obsolete on account of its overly linear approach to the consumer’s journey. The conventional funnel model—which dates all the way back to 1898—holds that consumers first become of aware of a product or service, then develop an interest therein and finally find the desire to actually take some kind of action. As of 2015, Frost came to believe such a process was archaic.
“Today, however, the marketing funnel is nearly obsolete,” he writes. “The new customer path to purchase is much more winding and sophisticated, and smart companies have begun to adapt to the new approach.”
How has the consumer’s path become more complicated?
“The rise of the Internet gave consumers more options than ever before,” Frost adds. “Even more importantly, prospects now have the ability to perform many of the funnel tasks on their own. From researching features to talking to current product owners, consumer education has largely become a do-it-yourself effort.
“Prospects engage with companies at various points in the process, and each comes to the interaction with a different level of knowledge, interest, and sophistication. What was once a linear, guided process is now a complex, non-linear journey.”
Frost wasn’t alone in declaring an end to the marketing funnel as we know it. In March, Marketing Cloud’s Karalee Slayton sounded a similar tune.
“Now, the balance of power has shifted,” she writes. “Thanks largely to the influence of social networks, search engines and ubiquitous mobile devices, customers are on journeys of their own designs. They have assumed control of researching their options, seeking trusted opinions, resolving issues, and deciding which brands have the privilege of communicating with them.”
A moment for caveats is probably in order. After all, it’s fun for pundits to proclaim that 100-year-old principles are dead and gone—maybe a little too fun. Has the nature of marketing funnels changed in a fundamentally digital age? Of course. But increased complexity doesn’t mean that the basic concept of a funnel (even with less funnel-like architecture) has become entirely extinct.
Marketing Profs’ Matt Banner adopted a more sober approach to the conversation in March.
“It’s true that what used to be a linear path from attracting leads and converting them into customers is now a multi-faceted process than can start and stop in various parts of the funnel,” he argues. “With so many key entry and engagement points and possibilities, many have abandoned the idea of a funnel entirely.”
Banner goes on to reproduce a re-conceptualized version of the funnel (courtesy of a 2013 piece from Moz’s John Doherty), one that’s pictured as more of an hourglass than funnel. Though it’s worth checking out the design and details directly, the newly conceived process follows this path: Exposure-Discovery-Consideration-Conversion-Customer Relationship-Retention.
Back in 2010, Forbes’ Steven Noble had a similar inclination. Like other writers mentioned herein, his rethinking of the marketing funnel began with a belief that the old model had lost its explanatory and strategic value.
“For example, consumer behavior is less funnel-like than previously thought—Forrester data show that 53 percent of U.S. online consumers research products online that they’ll then purchase in the store,” he notes. “This process exposes consumers to brands they might not have previously considered, expanding their consideration set at exactly the point where, according to the traditional funnel, it should narrow. Additionally, the funnel neglects customer lifetime value and profit since the model is purely volume-based, representing a customer as a customer and a sale as a sale. So in order to understand marketing’s true role in creating business value, we need a model that focuses on the customer.”
For Noble, that new model was a “customer life cycle”: Discover-Explore-Buy-Engage.
Whether you prefer describing these models as funnels or cycles (or any other kind of process) is relatively unimportant. More than shapes and the infographic representations thereof, the important part is understanding the different stages and using them to plan accordingly.
As a shape, the funnel may well be dead. As a concept, however, the need for such a model remains alive and well. Using the variant referenced by Banner, we’ll explore the different stages of today’s digital marketing funnel and discuss some of the strategies implied thereby.
While this should serve as a useful introduction to digital marketing concepts you may not have fully explored just yet, remember that consultation with expert specialists can be particularly helpful when it comes to further planning and implementation. Don’t hesitate to reach out when the time comes to put theory into practice.
Broadly speaking, exposure refers to the various steps businesses take to generate traffic to their websites or online presences. In addition to advertisement (including search, display, affiliate, video and social), this stage of the funnel includes organic search, social media, content, community, press, blogs, forums, referring links, email and word of mouth. This is a vital prerequisite step to any kind of digital marketing funnel, evidenced by trends like search engine optimization (SEO), social networking strategies and the rise of content marketing.
As Emarkable’s Richard Coen put it in 2014, “To be successful with a funnel you will need to send traffic to the start of your funnel to convert it into leads. With digital marketing there are literally dozens of different strategies you can use to send traffic to your squeeze page. Social media marketing, SEO, Adwords, solo ads, media buys, sponsored blog posts, an affiliate program, forum posting and other strategies can be used in combination to send tons of traffic.”
Indeed, much of the material published at Adapting Online revolves around traffic generating strategies—and for good reason. If your business’s end goal is to build relationships with consumers and encourage conversions, that process has to start somewhere.
This probably comes as no surprise. If anything, your company may well find itself so focused on improving exposure that it underinvests in other stages of the digital marketing funnel. That said, focusing on exposure doesn’t necessarily mean you’re handling it the right way.
For one thing, various attempts to increase traffic are often viewed in isolation. Whereas a comprehensive digital marketing strategy requires you to integrate different strategies in a mutually reinforcing way (e.g. using social media to enhance your SEO efforts), it’s tempting to get carried away with the newest fad or marketing gospel.
Advertising budgets will vary. And the ability to execute other elements of a digital marketing strategy will depend on resources to a large degree. At minimum, however, a cost effective approach to increasing exposure will likely involve some combination of social media, SEO, content and email marketing. While you may choose to emphasize one or more of these campaigns, they’re at their best when used in concert.
Though you’ll find plenty of other posts (at Adapting Online and elsewhere) that deal with these strategies in more granular fashion, it’s worth remembering some of the big picture priorities associated with each of these pillars of increased exposure.
Social Media: Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have quickly become one of the principle means by which businesses increase their brand awareness—sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. There are powerful structural reasons these platforms have become centerpieces of many digital marketing campaigns. The consumer’s ability to re-share or repost content has the force multiplying effect of turning your message into a self-replicating narrative with nearly limitless reach.
Social networks are also an ideal channel for defining and highlighting your brand’s unique voice. There are few better ways to distinguish yourself from the competition while building an identity that situates your business as a trusted industry leader.
Optimizing your social media presence is often as simple as providing unique and engaging content in the form of brief tweets or Facebook posts. Regular and useful content can help you build a loyal following. Social networks are also a useful way to interact with current or potential customers, particularly in the context of customer service itself. Devoting some resources to responsive and creative social media management can go a long way toward turning your digital marketing efforts into a dynamic and successful strategy.
SEO: Optimizing one’s website for search engines has become a staple of virtually any digital marketing strategy. The increasingly widespread use of search engines typifies the extent to which consumers have taken control of the exposure stage of the marketing “funnel.” Whereas advertisement once served as the dominate means of generating exposure, web users now find their preferred products and services simply by performing queries. Non-branded searches (wherein the user doesn’t include the name of a specific brand in said query) are especially valuable tools for increasing a brand’s exposure, highlighting the need for businesses to have their websites rank highly in results.
On-page and off-page factors both play integral roles in SEO, and it’s worth spending significant time researching best practices and equipping your business to take advantage of those practices. Given the sometimes technical nature of those best practices (e.g. ensuring your site is mobile optimized), this is also an instance in which consulting with specialists may be advisable.
Email Marketing: Though email marketing can increase new traffic through shares or forwarding, it’s best equipped to prompt repeat traffic among consumers with whom you already have a relationship—current customers and/or those who’ve signed up for your mailing list. From that perspective, email marketing is important both in terms of generating increased exposure and in terms of relationship building (and retention).
Among the various keys to an effective email marketing strategy are segmentation (dividing recipients into appropriate groups and targeting them accordingly), providing a valuable service (e.g. free content, news, etc.) and creating incentives for further interaction (offers, deals, coupons, etc.). While email can become a turnoff if it’s interpreted as spam, it shouldn’t be ignored. Executed effectively, it’s an important strategy that enables direct and sustained engagement with those who’ve already indicated interest in your products or services.
Content: Engaging content in all its forms (written, images, video, etc.) has become central to a number of digital marketing strategies—including social media, SEO and email marketing alike. Content serves as a reason for consumers to check out your social media accounts, website and emails. A well-crafted blog can become the engine that fuels a wide range of marketing efforts, providing people with a useful (interesting or entertaining) service that ideally keeps them coming back for more.
In addition to taking advantage of visually stimulating elements, good content should be substantive and regularly posted. Rarely updated blogs full of snippets can send the wrong message altogether. While you may think of content as a separate service you’re providing, it’s often viewed as a first impression or integral extension of your brand. Developing and maintaining quality content may require some resources, so small businesses may look to have the same officer oversee social media and content (and/or other digital marketing campaigns) alike. However the efforts are managed, a commitment to valuable content is increasingly indispensable for any business attempting to establish a reputable online presence. And compared to other ad-based alternatives, this kind approach is generally pretty cost-effective—especially over the long term.
Once someone has been exposed to your brand, the next step often involves learning more about what you do—who you are, where you’re from and what products or services you offer. This stage of the process isn’t entirely one dimensional, especially in a day in age in which comparing alternatives often takes just a few minutes. That means a consumer may be discovering more about your business while also exploring other businesses (or entirely different uses for the available dollars in question).
Whatever the consumer’s intent (and level of interest), there are a number of things you can do to create a digital environment that’s conducive to learning that’s quick and thorough alike.
First, you should create a range of direct and descriptive copy on a variety of well-organized pages. Current or potential customers should be able to explore your site effortlessly and get a complete grasp of what you’re all about. Some of that information (e.g. regarding your products or services) should be especially concise and informative. There’s no need to get overly creative when it comes to the essential facts. Other parts of your narrative can be a bit more interesting. When it comes to telling a story about where you come from, your mission and your view of customers, a little extra flare doesn’t hurt.
Second, make it easy for consumers to readily find basic information. While it’s tempting to feature your life story front and center, many visitors won’t be immediately interested in all the details. Instead, they may be looking for something as simple as your location, contact information, pricing or hours of operation. Mobile users will be especially wary of having to spend a long time to find that kind of information (or having to scroll around multiple pages in the process). Note that featuring these kind of basics isn’t just a website guideline—it’s also particularly important for any directory listings or social media pages you may use.
Third, just as your regularly updated content should adopt a variety of visually engaging formats, so should your basic web copy. Video can be a perfect platform for telling restaurant goers more about your head chef or shedding light on your ownership and the principles that define your business. Photographs may be the ideal avenue for giving consumers a tour of your establishment or offices. Charts or infographics can help distinguish you from the competition or better explain why you’re a leader within your industry. Don’t underestimate the power of images (moving or otherwise) and interaction when it comes to informing consumers and holding their otherwise divided attention at the same time.
Fourth, remember that your website isn’t the only channel by which you can encourage discovery. In addition to the social networks and directory listings mentioned above, advertisements, email and word of mouth can all be extremely informative—even with comparatively small doses of information. Put another way, any time you’re putting information into the public sphere, you’re creating an opportunity for discovery. That’s one reason that brand management is so important. Word gets around, and you want to ensure it’s the right kind of word. Featuring testimonials on your website (or elsewhere online) is one way to help consumers discover the best of your reviews. But doing business the right way in general will help immensely when it comes to third-party reviews (on Yelp, Google+, etc.). There’s really no shortcut to ensuring that the discovery stage of the process portrays your business in the right kind of light.
Between exposure and discovery alone, you’re likely realizing that a lot goes into a complete digital marketing strategy. But alas, there’s more. Before you start feeling overwhelmed, just remember that digital marketing can and should replace many of the traditional marketing campaigns to which you may be more accustomed. In other words, those billboards and Yellow Pages advertisements are quickly becoming a (pricey) thing of the past. Spending your dollars in a digital marketing funnel will invariably make a lot of sense when you seriously consider return on investment (ROI).
Once a visitor has learned more about your business, products and/or services, they’re likely to more seriously consider whether you’re the right fit for their needs or interests. If you’ve gotten this far, it means you’ve done a pretty good job on the front end of the digital marketing funnel. But your job is far from over.
Indeed, this stage of the process is absolutely critical to achieving conversions. And for many businesses that’s the initial—if not primary—goal behind this whole saga.
Incentives (offers, coupons, specials, discounts) can play a crucial role here. So too can adequate information about your products or services, information that might include price or quality comparisons with competitive alternatives. It’s also worth featuring testimonials that encourage confidence in your offerings. Let actual customers do some of the work for you, instilling a better understanding of what you do and why it works.
All told, the consideration stage is something of a paradox. On the one hand, you absolutely want consumers to have ample opportunity to think through a purchasing or conversion decision—particularly if it’s a pricey proposition. On the other hand, you don’t want them thinking about the decision for too long. Overly extensive consideration can increase the likelihood that competition snatches someone away. It can also allow cognitive dissonance to creep in and distort an otherwise promising assessment of your offerings.
To that end, you should feature calls to action (CTA) in a way that’s direct but unobtrusive. In other words, there should be readily apparent conversion opportunities that don’t rush a visitor into action.
Interactive elements can also be useful at this stage of a customer’s journey. Allowing them to compare things in a tangible way can give them the feeling that they’re controlling their experience and taking ownership of their purchase.
Note that honesty is especially important throughout this part of the process. Some businesses attempt to use gimmicks or dishonest ploys in a bid to short circuit the consideration stage and secure a superficial conversion. This can backfire in the longterm and significantly hinder attempts to build relationships and increase customer retention. And in the short term, these kinds of tactics can lead to returns and complaints. In short, don’t go there. It’s one thing to create a legitimate sense of urgency or interest. It’s quite another to put pressure on someone or mislead them altogether.
From a short-term perspective, conversions are the primary goal among most business’s digital marketing efforts. Though they can include a variety of actions (e.g. signing up for a newsletter or even participating in a survey), most companies treat a purchase itself as their primary conversion goal. For the purposes of most contemporary marketing funnels, businesses will generally associate conversion with an actual dollar transaction. The other stuff is nice and all, but there’s still a financial bottom line at stake.
Securing conversions requires some patience and planning, and the process of maximizing your conversions (and the efficient generation thereof) is typically described as conversion rate optimization (CRO). Though a website can increase conversions by simply driving up traffic, it’s even better to improve that conversion rate itself. Upon doing so, a greater portion of any increase in traffic will subsequently convert. That’s made CRO something of a science in recent years, and it’s just as important as SEO campaigns for many a forward-thinking company.
So how can your business increase conversions at this stage of the digital marketing funnel?
The first step is better understanding the consumers themselves. You’ve probably begun thinking along these lines already in a bid to improve exposure. But understanding what gets a consumer’s foot in the door is a bit different from knowing how to secure conversions. This part of the process requires an even deeper grasp of people’s interests and needs—particularly as it pertains to your business’s products or services.
Developing personas is a key starting point. These include hypothetical information about different types of people—where they live, their marital statuses, levels of education, employment statuses or career paths, daily routines and interests. You can also think of people in terms of demographic segments, grouping them according to common characteristics rather than isolating them as types of individuals. You’ll also hear words like psychographics thrown around, references to the extent to which businesses look to define and explore consumers’ internal thinking.
Another way to think about consumers is by outlining their journeys. These aren’t entirely unlike the marketing funnel itself—an expression of where someone’s awareness of your business begins and how they progress through the various steps of investigating it and comparing alternatives. You could even think of the journey beginning with a general interest in a category of products or services (or, perhaps, the need or desire that produced that interest in the first place).
An examination of people’s journey might begin in broader terms and become more granular as you dig into their experiences of your website. What are they reading and clicking? Are they interacting with surveys or other elements? Which products or services are drawing their attention? Software like Google Analytics, Crazy Egg or ClickTale can seriously advance your understanding of what happens when visitors come across your site. And beyond analytics, testing can give you concrete data about what’s working and what isn’t.
Once you’ve developed some kind of apparatus for understanding consumers, you can spend a bit more time focusing on your CRO strategy itself. Best practices are always helpful, but every business is different. Generally speaking, though, the next step involves performing diagnostics on your website. Determine what’s successful. Figure out what isn’t. And do so systematically. This shouldn’t be an exercise in baseless opinion or speculation. From there you can come up with concrete solutions that address real needs and improve your conversion rates.
Those solutions often fall within one of two categories: design or content. The former speaks to the look, feel and usability of your website. Expert web designers can help you move forward on this front, especially when working hand in hand with CRO specialists. The latter refers to your messaging (written or otherwise) and the extent to which it’s effectively engaging visitors. Between those two pillars of conversion strategy, you’ll come across a number of helpful tips (using clear language, avoiding visual clutter, establishing a competitive advantage, making it easy to contact your company, etc.).
Regardless of the strategy and tactics you adopt, remember that closing the deal is important. CRO is a giant reminder that complete digital marketing strategies go way beyond generating exposure (e.g. traffic) and impressing consumers on the front end of their journeys. All the exposure in the world won’t count for much if your visitors aren’t taking meaningful action after exploring and considering your products or services.
Even after turning visitors into customers, there’s still plenty to be done in terms of relationship building. This stage of the process broadly includes customer service, fulfillment of any existing obligations, communication and the customer’s happiness with the product or service you’ve offered. If you’re sincerely interested in keeping customers around and ensuring a positive experience, this part is just as important as increasing exposure or CRO. But it also requires that you really do business the right way—no matter the cost of inconvenience.
The good news is that much of the post-conversion experience is easier than ever from a business’s perspective. Social media and live chats have transformed the customer service experience from painful phone calls to real-time interaction. In turn, you can answer questions and address concerns more readily than ever assuming you’ve positioned and equipped personnel enough to do so.
Concretely, you should also think about using surveys (or other electronic communication) to ensure you’re doing a good job. Though listening to criticism can be difficult, there’s almost always some room for improvement. Failure to solicit that kind of feedback is the kind of missed opportunity that will almost invariably allow your competition to gain an edge.
The idea of relationship building isn’t especially new. Retaining customers is far more cost effective than attracting new ones, and the very best companies have long understood the value of doing things the right way.
In almost every industry, there’s at least some sense in which you can retain customers. From significant purchases (real estate, legal services, travel, etc.) to minor shopping (groceries, gadgets, home decor, etc.), most consumers enjoy some measure of consistency and familiarity from one experience to the next. That’s a golden opportunity to keep loyal customers in the loop and build repeat business.
And remember, this is the kind of business you can win without having to spend additional advertising dollars (or commit the kind of resources associated with SEO, social media outreach and so on).
Effectively executed email marketing can be an excellent way to keep a consumer base informed, and it’s not a bad way to provide incentives for further interaction or business, either. Building a social media following that’s largely composed of previous customers is another way to stay in touch and encourage further purchases.
Some businesses have made the grievous mistake of ending their marketing funnels after the conversion stage, treating customers as one-and-done propositions. That’s horrible for ROI and sends a highly negative message about your brand.
Your business don’t have to think about the distant future to appreciate the value of customer retention. It just has to remember that the contemporary marketing funnel looks a bit different than it used to.