“Is the marketing funnel bullshit?” Someone asked me that a while back, and it stuck with me.
I knew where they were coming from, of course. It’s obvious that there’s no one path—nor two paths, nor four, nor forty—that people take to purchase. Person A clicks on a catchy TOFU social ad that takes them to a MOFU guide, skims some case studies and client lists to verify legitimacy, and books a call after mulling it over for a couple weeks. Person B sees a comment from a colleague on a LinkedIn post pushing a video, watches said video and disappears. Nine months later, they pop back up at what’s functionally a TOFU-leaning-MOFU webinar and book a call.
Repeat this a thousand times over, swap the steps, content types and timelines every time, and you’ve got marketing. How can any of us look at this mess and suggest there’s a “funnel” to follow here?
Nuance, that’s how. A true-to-life marketing funnel would look like a Jackson Pollock, and clinging to the traditional marketing funnel model is limiting how we value and use it as a tool.
Here’s what you need to know about today’s marketing funnel.
Let me paint a different picture. 10+ years ago, I attended a conference as a junior marketer and interacted with an account engagement platform called 6sense at their booth. I met their CRO, and remember being impressed with the company’s forward-thinking methodology. But I wasn’t in the market, and thought a little more of it in the years to come.
A few years and companies later, a referral source to my now-CEO recommended 6sense to him, who put it back in my court. From there, a branded search led us into evaluation mode, whereon a sales rep (and serious subject matter expert) took the reins.
Can you see me moving down the marketing funnel? The conference meetup, the booth, the word-of-mouth, the branded search, the sales rep trained largely on product marketing content… this was what the funnel looked like forme. And all but one touchpoint would’ve shown up on a spreadsheet.
We’re building castles of logic around these old ideas, and the sooner we stop, the more we’ll get out of our marketing efforts.
It’s a rough map. It helps us understand how buyers move through the different stages of the purchasing process, from awareness to consideration to decision-making. It’s not a perfect representation of every buyer's journey, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got to an actual system. Without it, we’re just spitballing. We’d never direct people to a purchase otherwise.
Don’t toss it out the window, but don’t make it your holy book either. Direct prospects, but don’t expect them to go where you want. Make sure every piece of branded content leads somewhere sensible (a top-of-funnel blog post shouldn’t lead to a top-of-funnel webinar), but accept the limitations of the marketing medium.
Your job is to pump out strong brand assets at a competitive pace, set the guardrails, and trust that the right people will bite when they bite. Every screen is flooded with competing faces, voices and colors, and your only hope of planting your flag in their mind is to be distinct, and everywhere all at once.
That’s where so many marketers fall short—their teams can only do one or the other. Their design compatriots have no problem distinguishing the brand, but can’t move fast enough to stay top of mind for prospects. Others can move fast, but do so by making concessions with the assets themselves (“it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done”).
In an economy quickly unraveling at the seams, half-measures don’t cut it. That’s why I’m where I am right now: I’ve seen what creative as a service (CaaS) does for us disheveled marketers. It gives us the assets we need just as we need them, and, because we have a long history of giving a shit about quality, delivers the scroll-breaking creative your prospect’s waiting for.
If you’ve got a better plan for constant, distinct brand assets, use that by all means. But CaaS is what’s worked for us, and everyone we’ve partnered with.
To hammer that last point home: Buyers jump ahead, jump back and take multiple rounds more often than they follow the plot. The traditional funnel model assumes buyers move through the stages of the purchasing process in a linear fashion, but it just ain’t so. This makes it hard for marketers to anticipate the buyer's next move, and forces them to be adaptable.
I’ll use my company as an example. We’re a Creative-as-a-Service (CaaS) brand whose marketing depends on folks understanding the strategic advantage of leading with design. Longform pieces like our “Design Dysfunctions” guide are where we lay out our deep-dive case for creative-led marketing. Some months, 15+ folks will read it and book a call. Others, we’ll see one lonely call and a bunch of people who stopped reading halfway through. The marketer in you wants to find out what the hell’s wrong with either A) your content, or B) your market… but slow your roll.
Sure as the sun will rise, in anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 years, some of those stop outs will be back when they need what you’ve got. Your job is to focus on honing the brand messaging, and to keep it coming with regularity so you’re never far from view. Don’t try to control everything. Just plant the seed, and water the plant.
I know the allure of viral content. Watching a relative nobody’s traffic shoot through the stratosphere at the hands of a simple video/meme/whathaveyou is envy-inducing. They seemingly breezed past the need for foundation, did none of the hard work, and can expect effortless fame and fortune for the foreseeable future.
But anytime you think you’ve found a panacea, it’s time to slow your roll. For one, everyone trying to go viral (on whatever scale they imagine) most often fails. Why? Because there’s no formula for viral content. Oh, there are a hundred million blogs offering you the ready-set format for content that takes the web by storm. Their ad banners also typically offer you “muscle pills” and $10K a week for doing nothing.
Internet virality is a flash in the pan, dependent on countless cultural and algorithmic factors that you’ll never control. Taking resources away from more direct marketing initiatives with the intention of producing viral content is like promising to be lucky. You can’t will yourself into being in the right place at the right time. Those who do are, by a huge margin, outliers.
What you can do is put yourself in a position to become lucky. Whatever your marketing M.O. looks like, you’ll have a better shot at tilting the table if you’re putting out good branded content rapid-fire. That one’s just math.
Take the story above as a lesson. Some of your audience are actively in consideration mode (in-market), others are either just browsing or completely oblivious to the problem space (out-of-market). Understanding the level of buyer intent is critical for marketers, as it determines the type of messaging and tactics that’ll speak directly to them. There’s a tacit implication that everyone in space A wants the same thing, and it’s just not true.
Are you tired of hearing me say “lots of strong creative, done yesterday”? Good. That means my own ubiquity is working. I’ll stop saying it when it stops being true.
To me, this hits home the need for variety in how a brand operates online. Having your voice heard in as many channels as you can is the best chance you’ve got at reaching those who aren’t actively seeking your solution.
A wide marketing palette opens new doors and keeps them open at all times: Socials regularly brimming with sharp, good content suited to each platform’s strengths (no IG stuff on LinkedIn); high caliber video content to be used strategically on and offsite—this is how you cover both sides of the fence.
These are all hard pills to swallow for many marketing traditionalists, and many traditionalists are eating it as we enter our umpteenth recession wave. The careful planning of most marketing programs and flywheels still feel mostly like half-assed hunches.
If you take nothing else away from this, I hope it’s this: You don’t have the control you think you do over where and how people find you. All you control is how your message comes across, and how that message is distributed. Focus on being memorable, loud and constant in a noisy space. Take control of the brand message, and drop the rest.
Amrita is a veteran B2B SaaS marketer and the VP of Marketing at Superside. Besides preaching to everyone and their mother about how good execution is the ultimate differentiator for your company, she hosts our monthly Gather & Grow series featuring leaders from Adobe, Dropbox, HubSpot, Intuit, Shopify and more. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter and say hi!
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