The funnel: Passé or evolving paradigm?

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Virtually everyone agrees that “the funnel” is outmoded, but we can’t seem to replace it. Remarkably, more than a century after its inception, the sales and marketing funnel is still being talked about—and continually tweaked.  Traditionally, the funnel represents a vendor’s perspective, illustrating how marketers presumably “move” a buyer through distinct, linear stages leading to a purchase. Recent versions, such as the “buyer experience” funnel created by Ardath Albee, reflect a customer’s point of view. By relabeling the stages and turning the funnel on its side, Albee conveys that today’s customers are in the driver’s seat, fully in charge of the purchasing journey. 

The digitally empowered driver

Internet- and socially savvy buyers no longer depend on sales reps to learn about products and services. Through their own online research and social networking, buyers determine the speed, direction and timing of their engagement. They can recommend, criticize, influence, engage and disengage at will, bouncing from brand to brand and from channel to channel.

In the past, it was fairly safe for sales reps to assume that prospects knew little or nothing about their products; now, sales pros operate on the premise that their prospects know nearly everything, including details about competitors’ offerings. Research supports this assumption. According to Sirius Decisions, prospects complete 70% of the b-to-b buying cycle before they engage with a salesperson.

Funnel Vision

The traditional funnel would have us believe that customers receive vendor messages in isolation—and that no other messaging deters them from their progress to the narrow end. Obviously, this doesn’t reflect our digitally connected world, which is continuously populated with user-generated and crowdsourced content. Hollywood filmmakers know this all too well. They can create considerable hype with their carefully crafted campaigns, but an expected blockbuster can turn into an overnight box office flop if Twitter streams light up with bad reviews. The same thing can happen with a product or service, as structured and unstructured information sources can invade the buyer’s decision space at any time, even on the go via mobile devices.

Customer-centric terrain

Clearly, marketers need a new paradigm. Ideally, this schema would be built upon an “outside-in” approach—one that starts with a genuine understanding of a customer’s problems. We need a conceptual framework that encourages us to consider how a value proposition looks within the real-time context of a specific customer. This paradigm, which would depict the buying process, inevitably challenges us to think differently about our marketing tactics. For example, marketers generally think of a trade show as a lead source (i.e., at the beginning of the buying process), when in fact the customer might be attending to connect with a vendor on his/her shortlist for a demo or in-depth conversation.

Imagine the implications this has for content marketing!  Eloqua explores this idea in its version of an updated “funnel,” The Content Grid. But what if we pushed our thinking even more, beyond the buying process? What would our “funnel” look like then? How might Eloqua’s Content Grid be expanded to encompass the entire customer lifecycle?  How might that impact our retention programs?

Where does this leave (or lead) us?  In unfamiliar and, if we’re honest, rather scary territory. The b-to-b buyer’s world is definitely not linear. It’s messy, unpredictable and, to a certain extent, invisible. 
Maybe that’s why we still cling to the “funnel,” even as we reject it.  We’re backseat drivers, traveling on the obscure path of a purchase, and the funnel is our handiest map.

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