Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy? Santa Claus? The Sales Funnel?

Ok, maybe the sales funnel is real, but it has changed almost beyond recognition, as technologies such as the World Wide Web, smartphones, and social media have brought about significant changes in the way marketing and sales interact with prospective customers. These technologies require us to rethink the sales funnel: the traditional picture is a simple and appealing metaphor, but does not reflect today’s reality. It’s no longer true that potential buyers enter at one end of a sales funnel and work their way through it in a nice, orderly way, with some number of them emerging at the other end to make an actual purchase.

The venerable (and creaky) sales funnel

For a concept that is still so widely used, the idea of a sales funnel is surprisingly old. It dates back to 1924 and was a development of an even earlier model first proposed in 1898. Modern versions describe a number of steps in which marketing and sales interact with your prospect. A typical sequence is:

  • awareness,
  • interest,
  • consideration,
  • intent,
  • evaluation,
  • purchase.

However, the reality is that buyers don’t follow a simple, straight path from the start of the funnel to the end, especially in this newfangled digital era. Instead of forming a neat orderly line that works its way through a sales process, now customers maybe first read about your company on a blog. Perhaps this induces them to visit your website. This may even be enough to get them interested and to consider your product or service.

Unfortunately, unlike the good old days when a customer had to actually contact you to get information, you may not know the first thing about this hot prospect’s visit to your website, and have no chance of engaging with them and reeling ‘em in. It is quite possible that they might lose interest or get distracted and go away for several months.

So does this person count as having entered your sales funnel? You would not even know about them unless they have chosen to make themselves known to you. Unlike the old model where they would have to interact with a real person fairly early in the process, their initial experience could be completely anonymous and invisible to you.

They may eventually re-engage, start over, and even go all the way through to a purchase. But this has clearly not been a simple journey through the funnel. And it is much more characteristic of today’s non-linear online sales process. 

So, we ask, is the funnel concept dead? There are 2 broad schools of thought on this. One is that the funnel is still an accurate model, but the way users progress needs to be viewed differently. The other is that the idea of an orderly path is simply no longer tenable and the path to a purchase is more like following a single strand on a plate of spaghetti.

Option A: It’s still a funnel, but buyers progress through it in new ways

One viewpoint is that, while there is still a funnel, customers go through it at their own pace and expect support for self service through a much greater range of their journey, from awareness to evaluation. Much of this experience was previously the job of sales, but now it falls to marketing to offer appropriate resources – web pages, white papers, videos, webinars and so forth – as the prospective customer shows more interest. All this without being overbearing and unacceptably “sales-ey.”

Option B: It’s not a funnel anymore

Other schools of thought assert that there is no longer a sales funnel and, instead, they embrace other models. One alternative view is that there is no single, simple path that the customer follows. Instead, there is a complex lattice of possible paths and the buyer chooses which particular path to follow, just as a vine can follow a meandering path up a wooden lattice in a garden. A variant of this is that the journey progresses not along a single path, but along a series of short paths that are unconnected, or at least not connected by anything the vendor can directly see or control. These “hidden connections” may be word of mouth or third-party web sites, for example.

Whichever of these various views you espouse, one thing that seems to be widely agreed is that the role of marketing is much greater as users expect more choices about how and where they learn about your products and services, and when in the process they want to engage in conversation with you.

It is no longer enough to rely on direct sales contact at a given point in the process - marketing must reach out further and wider than ever before to provide the kinds of interactions today’s customers expect, in a wide variety of formats, including web and mobile content, demonstration and information videos (including YouTube), newsletters, webinars, tweets, and Facebook posts, to name just a few. The good news is that, however you view today’s sales funnel, there is a big role for marketing in the world of Funnel 2.0.

Have a Pawsitively Tail Waggin’ Good Day!

P.S. Ruff Haus Design is a results focused brand consulting company located in San Diego, CA. Let us help unleash your brand image, connect with your customers and gain their loyalty.