If you think using a marketing funnel is a good marketing strategy, then you’re dead wrong.
I know. That’s super harsh.
But I have some great news for you.
While all the other articles talk about the what, why, how of a marketing funnel (I’ll show you that too), I’ll show you the data and facts supporting an even better way of marketing beyond the “marketing funnel”.
But don’t take my word for it – just ask Joseph Jaffe, author of Flip the Funnel, about the marketing funnel and how it puts an unhealthy focus on something you probably already do:
“How much of your sales come from repeat business versus first-time customers? Now contrast that against how much money you spend against each segment. If you are embarrassed by the gaping disconnect, don’t worry; you are not alone.”
The reason the marketing funnel is such a popular visual, is because it’s so simple.
See, people most often take the path of least resistance. When it comes to a complicated process, we look for an easy visual – and for a long time, that was the marketing funnel.
The best way to communicate customer conversions is by drawing it on a napkin – the whiteboard of coffee shop meetings around the world.
That’s why the marketing funnel has done so well for so long; anyone can wing a triangle with a poop shoot at the bottom to show the basic steps a buyer makes between discovering a thing and purchasing that thing.
And the wide-eyed, impressionable, new business owner in the armchair, gets it.
That doodle is a dud though.
There’s one or two things wrong with the traditional marketing funnel.
These things were always wrong with it, but the “napkiness” and simplicity of the marketing funnel preserved its longevity.
Anyway, you get it.
Rewind: John Dewey introduced buyer behavior and the funnel concept in 1910.
It was the first time someone mapped out the steps we take between needing something to fix a problem and buying something to solve that problem.
It was a great map.
But getting people to see us and like us enough to buy from us today takes creativity. It also takes momentum/velocity – something the marketing funnel doesn’t have.
The bottom of the funnel is the smallest part. But in real life, it’s the biggest.
The funnel was born over 100 years ago before buyers could learn all about a thing—and that thing’s competition—from the toilet on a phone.
Your potential customers are on multiple devices, reviewing multiple platforms, and entering your ecosystem with different levels of purchase intent.
The marketing funnel didn’t figure for that.
In the simplest terms, here are five reasons why the funnel flops:
- It puts too much focus at the top
- It pretends everyone tumbles in from the top – they don’t
- It leaks effort and opportunity out the bottom (the poop shoot)
- It obsesses over only getting new customers vs retaining current ones
- It doesn’t talk about how buyers can enter into buying mode at any stage
Pretty finger-pointy, I know.
Let’s take a closer look at the marketing funnel (as I bash the crap out of it), and see what it does right. Then, I’ll melt it into a circle and derive better insight from it… then I’ll give it a new shape that’s even better.
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What’s the Marketing Funnel?
A marketing funnel is a flat, linear concept that looks like a meat grinder and treats prospects like juicy chuck waiting to be ground up into money.
The funnel has subsections depending on what iteration you’re staring at on the napkin. But in a nutshell, it has four sections from top to bottom:
- Awareness (customers find you)
- Interest (they think you might be able to help them)
- Consideration (they think you’ll help them better than everybody else)
- Conversion (they decide to buy your thing)
Awareness: Top of the Funnel (TOFU)
The funnel says that a bunch of people wearing the same pants (your target audience according to buyer personas) will find out about you because of your awesome inbound marketing lead generation efforts:
- Your blog post content is top-notch (readers)
- Your podcast is informative and cool (listeners)
- Your high-quality videos rank well on YouTube (viewers)
- Your social media posts are A1
- You’ve researched organic SEO (keywords) to the ends of the earth
- You put some money down on paid Google Ads
That gets people to you.
But odds are that most of those people will climb out of your funnel here. Not all of them. Some will think you’re actually pretty cool. You’ve hooked them and they want to learn more.
Interest: Middle Of The Funnel (MOFU)
The people still in the funnel have you on their list of potential problem-saviors-Giggity! But they’re researching different ways to solve their problem. You might be the most interesting option because
- your website provides an awesome UX
- your downloadables (eBooks, whitepapers) are genuinely helpful
- you actually rank on page one for the search terms they use
- your content (copywriting, case studies, webinars, etc.) looks and sounds better than other stuff they’ve compared it to.
At this point, many of the remaining people will decide that they don’t want to continue with you.
They didn’t care so much about your stuff as how well your stuff could solve their problem. Only you didn’t convince them that you could do that better than everybody else. They’re gone.
But a few of the original bunch will like how you stood out from the crowd and consider you a contender; you might be the right fit.
They’re turning into fans.
They subscribe to some of your stuff, and they follow you on social media channels.
More opportunities for you to shove them farther down the funnel.
Consideration: things are getting tight in the funnel
Who’s left in the middle of the funnel? Not many. And that’s okay!
Those people now know what you’re about, and they feel good about how you can fix their problem.
But they also feel good about how a competitor can fix their problem and they’re looking for a reason to choose you.
So you give them something to pull them into “Camp You”.
And you better have a unique selling point in some way, or all the canoes will leave your dock and “Team Competitor” will paddle across the lake.
What’s your value proposition? What do you do differently?
Now is the time to whip that impressive stuff out and put it on display. And by that I mean:
- Add those interested customers to a nurture email sequence where they get free educational tidbits
- Give them a free trial, course, or demo to get them cozy with your awesomeness
Your customers are looking for one little compelling reason to pick you over all the other competitors out there. So nudge them.
Conversion: Bottom Of The Funnel (BOFU)
The customers still in your funnel jumped in with a problem, sorted through various options as the funnel squashed them, and decided they kind of like the way they feel with your solution.
But they aren’t quite ready to pull out their wallets and throw money at you.
They still need a reason to click your button. What will get them to do that?
- Urgency: Limit the time they have to pick you with a special offer that will go away if they wait too long
- Remove cart friction: the checkout process must be super easy. Use a streamlined cart that integrates biometrics (because passwords kill purchases)
- Discounts, add-ons, and upsells
- Testimonials, case studies, and success stories (because other customers do the real selling)
The few squished prospects in the funnel decide they love your stuff and upgrade to paying customers (convert).
This is where the funnel ends with a bang or a whimper.
The Giant Problem With The Marketing Funnel
If you bang out some customers at the bottom, the funnel doesn’t let you send off fireworks to celebrate.
The funnel throws a soggy box of wet party blowers at your paying customers and diverts all focus back up to the top of the funnel – at complete strangers.
It sucks for the customers who want to be there on your team cheering for your brand (but get no love), and it sucks for you, the marketer, who has to start all over again enticing new people to a party that’s lackluster.
The funnel did three things right
- It gave us a model we could easily visualize (say, on a napkin)
- It introduced the 4-step concept (give or take) of the journey a browser goes through before turning into a buyer, which was
- gain attention (brand awareness)
- keep attention (interest)
- ask could-be customers to try your thing (consideration)
- give them something valuable for deciding to buy-in (conversion)
- It was good for measuring where people left the buyer’s journey
The funnel was good at analytic feedback but it lost energy as it went, dropping a diminishing number of buyers down a one-way tube that ended when a coin pinched out of their pockets.
But the marketing funnel misses the point
For starters, the funnel targets the wrong thing (only new customers).
It asks well-intentioned marketers to expend a ton of energy finding and pushing as many passersby as possible into the giant mouth of the narrowing void.
But too little energy goes into the customers who drop out the bottom.
The funnel only cares about one group of people, squeezing could-be fans through leveled tiers of conversion tactics, optimizing their decisions based on what stage of squish they were suffering, and treating them not-so-well when they stuck with us to the end.
The funnel ignores the people who decided they wanted to be your friends. And if that’s how you treat your friends, your momma feels shame.
The thing to take away from the funnel is that customers take certain steps before deciding to make a purchase.
Usually, those steps go like this:
- Customers see your stuff (drive traffic to your website)
- Customers like your stuff (give them what they came looking for)
- Customers buy your stuff (convert them)
But marketing was never supposed to be a one-way arrow to Dollartown, USA.
That model is disrespectful to your best customers and it runs you ragged constantly hunting for new customers to chase into a big open pit.
So if the Marketing Funnel is Flawed, What’s the Better Model?
The marketing megaphone
Seth Godin suggests knocking the funnel over so it’s a megaphone for your best marketers – your existing customers.
The marketing loop
McKinsey machined a marketing loop that puts the decision to buy in the middle.
HubSpot fashioned a Flywheel that puts the customer first (and uses word of mouth to the sky and back).
I think putting customers first is smart. And I even had Joey Coleman on our marketing podcast, BoostSauce, to talk about his book in regards to amazing customer experience: Never Lose a Customer Again.
So let’s talk about the Flywheel.
Wouldn’t it be easier if the customers who knew about you and already loved you helped you attract other customers who genuinely need your help just like they did?
I’ll answer that for you.
HubSpot thought so too in 2018, morphing the funnel into a rotating wheel and shifting the focus from customer acquisition at the top to customer retention right in the middle.
That magical model became the Flywheel, and it has created feel-good vibes for marketers ever since.
The Flywheel focuses fully on the future fun of your (paying) friends.
Who can draw a circle on a napkin? Kindergarten. Anyone can.
The Flywheel dotes on existing customers who bring friends to the party (wearing whatever they want).
- turns marketers into hosts instead of inviters
- focuses on serving more than selling
- puts the customer first, giving them the information they’re looking for wherever they go to find it
- takes away friction with things like live chat (immediate answers)
- nurtures the customer relationship with stuff customers find interesting
- delights the customer with content they find so valuable, they want to share it
The Flywheel turns buyers (the best customers) into brand ambassadors (the best kind of marketers).
It underscores to all of us that loyalty creates growth.
And the Flywheel addresses what the funnel doesn’t: post-sale attention. Because what happens after the sale is the most important part. Those handful of new customers are fans now. Treat your fans like superstars, and they’ll bring new customers to you.
Here’s how the Flywheel works in a nutshell:
The Flywheel spins when positive energy (from happy customers) gives it momentum.
That means that unhappy customers can slow the wheel down. That means your focus should go toward treating all customers well – even as they leave.
Enter the importance of customer experience: if you do what you can to delight your existing customers, even those who decide you're not the best fit for them won’t throw a rubber wedge under your wheel causing you to drop your ice cream cone on the ground.
If existing customers felt good about taking the ride with you for a while, your wheel keeps spinning.
“If you aren’t thinking about how you can nurture your customers into promoters, you’re missing out on the biggest marketing opportunity in years, and severely limiting your opportunities for growth.”
- Kipp Bodnar.
The momentum might slow, but the positive word of mouth will speed things up again. It’s free advertising.
Only it’s not free because you’re investing in your customers so they share their happiness all over the place.
Only… you’re actually investing in the influencers your customers (and their friends who might not be anything like them) listen to. That way, you grab new customers outside your pinpointed platform of like minded people.
And your previously failed marketing-funnel-acquisition party gets bigger and better.
What good marketing is
Marketing isn’t supposed to be about top-heavy prospect targeting.
Marketing, to the marketer who holds customer experience true to heart, is about delighting existing customers with fresh content that creates loud fans that sing about you to their friends – who aren’t exactly like them.
Because sameness breeds boringness.
And boringness does not a good marketer make.
Good marketing puts energy into standing out.
It finds the influencers and puts interesting, innovative – disruptive – stuff up there that turns heads:
Don’t start with “create this for our customers.” You’re hamstringing yourself, and the results will usually suck. Start with “create this for the journalists, podcasters, authors, amplifiers, influencers, and media that reaches our audience.” - Rand Fishkin
Make it controversial. And make it stick. Press some emotional triggers. Make it worthy of attention.
As great copywriter Dan Kennedy once said:
“If you haven’t offended someone by noon each day,
then you’re not marketing hard enough.” - Dan Kennedy
That’s the kind of stuff that makes waves and gets shared – and that’s when you reach audiences who weren’t part of your world before.
Other people’s audiences are a beautiful way to get exposure. Contact those influencers, get your brand out there, and be happy you stopped chasing just the top of the funnel.
Because the buyers’ journey doesn’t work like that.
Leads come in at different places.
Maybe from a referral or a forwarded newsletter or an industry mention. Or maybe from research that skipped a customer straight to consideration.
Every journey is different – and more informed than ever.
But no journey is linear.
And every journey should end with a warm fuzzy feeling.
That warm fuzzy feeling
This less-linear model gives your paying customers a big ongoing thank you hug and dances around them in a circle of appreciation, continuing to engage with them after they’ve bought your thing.
This makes sense because
- you spent a lot of time coming up with amazing stuff to get their attention (attraction: provide value before you take value)
- you kept them engaged with helpful content (freemium stuff, giveaways, live chat access), and then
- you added them to your list of friends who get the special treatment (delight: free shipping, rewards, helpful educational tidbits).
The more you attract and engage with customers, the happier they are, the bigger and faster your wheel turns.
And that’s why a Flywheel works better than a marketing funnel.
But, whoa Nelly!
We’re pretty caught up in what we can draw on a napkin and all the analogies we can come up with to explain the customer journey. But the journey today is more complex than ever and harder to track.
There are buying signals and different attribution models. When you mix online advertising with other avenues, you get some levels of tracking in some places and in other places you’re screwed (like podcast marketing).
What’s more important is what we give to customers and how we get to that point – regardless of the shape of it.
How do we go omnichannel?
The KlientBoost Marketing Patio (Don’t Worry, this Isn’t Real... Yet)
Relax and put on some flip flops for a minute or two (or, like, forever). Because if we’re working hard to delight customers, maybe we’ll feel woozy doing that while spinning around. Maybe the point isn’t the visualizations or the statistics. Maybe it’s the influence we have on the people we’re trying to help.
“Instead of talking about how many people see your content, we need to be focusing on how much value that piece of content actually brings your audience... Depth over width. Reach does not equal value and follower count doesn’t mean people are listening. We need to stop focusing on optimizing the number of views and instead concentrate on making each one of those viewers care about your brand. - Gary Vaynerchuk
Maybe it would be more fun to conceptualize inviting your customer friends to a virtual island for a weekend getaway. There, you can delight them where palm trees rustle over sun-bleached patios and steel-drum beats drift between grass-thatch bars that serve frosty piña coladas.
If you think of it, on a higher level, delighting customers depends on their own unique journeys. If the funnel doesn’t delight, and the flywheel delights with a spinning momentum, couldn’t things get even better if you delighted customers wherever and whenever they entered your sunshiny patio? Couldn’t you always work hard to make sure there was a tropical treat to give them?
The journey isn’t linear or round. Maybe it’s a patio.
In real life, people have different personalities, different buying styles, and different likes and dislikes. Not all customers need to go through every step of a buyer’s journey before they buy. And not all customers want to start at step one. The funnel did a bad job describing those customers, even if it did an okay job tracking them. The Flywheel does a great job of taking care of the customer at every stage of the journey, no matter where they begin that journey, or how they leave it.
The marketing patio? Why not.
The point is that you focus on a customer’s experience so they bring a friend (on the patio) with them. Today, customers are the most powerful marketing asset out there. And so are the influencers of those customers.
The journey is flexible.
It’s more about how a prospect feels about the journey, and less about incremental notches on a napkin.
More about interactive thought, less about touchpoints.
It’s multichannel, not linear.
When customers write a glowing review, share their amazing experience, or post a positive picture on social media, it can drive new leads. So make sure people like what you’re doing so much that they want to hear what you have to say on your podcast and they want to read your thoughts on your blog and they want to see the impact you’re making on social media – and they are excited to share your story with their friends.
That’s what the takeaway is:
Customers who already know and love what you do will tell your story to an engaged crowd and keep the lanterns glowing.
You can do that without dropping down a chute or rolling around, really. As long as you make a promise to customers to deliver something they truly need in a way they love and create a good experience for the people who want to change the world—the disruptors—from beginning to end, you’re fueling the customer’s journey.
You can do that anywhere with any visual model that works for you.