Then, yesterday, Mark Bonchek and Cara France published a post on the HBR Blog entitled, “Marketing Can No Longer Rely on the Funnel”. Mark and Cara raise some interesting points about the marketing funnel, but let’s start by looking at what the marketing funnel is.
The marketing funnel
Whether you call is it the marketing funnel, conversion funnel, or sales funnel, the concept is central to marketing. Marketing strategy revolves around driving prospects down the marketing funnel toward conversion.
There’s good reason for the centrality of the marketing funnel. After all, companies are in business to make money and they only make money if the convert (sell) customers. An unfortunate reality in marketing is that tracking prospects as they move down the funnel is just so darned hard because attributing consumer action to a SPECIFIC tactic is challenging and assessing what individual tactics do to the mass of neurons inside someone’s head is nearly impossible. John Wanamaker said it best when he said:
Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the problem is, I don’t know which half.
Over the last few decades, marketers responded to this criticism by becoming increasingly analytic and the holy grail became tracking movement down the marketing funnel. Strategies focused on the funnel and analytics tracked which tactics were most effective.
Even Google Analytics adopts the notion of moving visitors down a funnel, but easily tracking movement through a website from entry to thank you page.
The marketing funnel today
Of course, the marketing world is VERY different today than when John Wanamaker made his famous quote. Digital marketing allows marketers to not only track movement down the marketing funnel, but demonstrate which tactics more effectively drive consumers down the funnel.
Mark and Cara (remember the HBR article above) make some good points about how the marketing funnel is obsolete today. First, they mention that social media now means consumers no longer move in a linear fashion from awareness to conversion. Of course, that’s not really new — consumers NEVER moved in a linear fashion leading to product purchase. Marketers used the funnel as a conceptual framework for the process knowing that consumers don’t move through linearly, but cycle through and jump around. That doesn’t make their point any less valid, however.
The second point made by Mark and Cara relates to the way people discuss and recommend products they never buy themselves. That’s certainly something you really didn’t see in a pre-digital era.
Should we ditch the marketing funnel?
I’m not really sure.
I think you can make a strong case for ditching the marketing funnel.
- You ignore valuable actions OUTSIDE the funnel, such as building relationships and repeat purchase
- It’s short-term oriented and business is a marathon not a sprint
- Conversion isn’t a linear process, it’s circular
- Consumers may do much of the process before YOU even know they exist — they’re getting their information and recommendations from social media
By the same token, if we lose sight of the marketing funnel, do we drift back to the Wanamaker days when we don’t know what’s working and what isn’t? Monitoring consumer movements towards conversion (and maybe beyond) offers a valuable tool for assessing the success of marketing tactics.
Maybe, rather than ditching the marketing funnel, we need to think about what the marketing funnel looks like in the age of digital marketing? Maybe the funnel looks more like this (based on the hierarchy of effects):
Notice, this depiction of a funnel doesn’t contain conversion because conversion can occur at any point along the funnel. That doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the importance of conversion for businesses, it just means that, by focusing on other elements within the funnel, we’re contributing to conversion. Inherent in this notion is the belief conversion is part of a cause-effect relationship and that, by focusing on the “causes” of conversion, we’re supporting conversion in a deeper way than if we focused single-mindedly on conversion itself.
This digital marketing funnel focuses heavily on SOCIAL and recognizes that influences from a community more strongly impact purchase than anything a business might say.
The digital marketing funnel fills in the gaps that led the HBR post to suggest ditching the marketing funnel, while maintaining elements that make the marketing funnel a valuable tool — mainly that it helps evaluate marketing tactics.
Whether you need a complete analytics strategy, some help with brand marketing, or some consulting to optimize your existing social media marketing, we can fill your digital marketing funnel. We can help you do your own social media marketing better or do it for you with our community managers, strategists, and account executives. You can request a FREE introductory meeting or sign up for my email newsletter to learn more about social media marketing.