Is the sales funnel finished?

“…the primary problem with the funnel is that the buying process is no longer linear.”

The sales funnel – the staple of marketing classes, business school and just about every product campaign this side of the 20th century. It’s so ubiquitous because it’s so universal in its truth. But is the age of social chipping away at the infallibility of the sales funnel?

Used to be that, if you were a marketing director or agency account exec, your strategic goal was to get consumers into the first stage of the funnel – awareness. Once there, you gently but firmly guided them through the subsequent stages – Interest, Consideration, Intent, Evaluation – before arriving at their final destination, Purchase.


The traditional sales funnel

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This was all well and good when marketers had more control over access to the funnel and could reasonably expect to move everyone through the first phase and then downward after that. That’s no longer the case, as we’re seeing and as this post from Harvard Business Review helps explain; in today’s disjointed, social and much more democratic media landscape, prospects can enter (and exit) the funnel at any level. “What’s more,” the HBR post argues, prospects “often jump stages, stay in a stage indefinitely, or move back and forth between them.”

Awareness, for example, may not come from the brand. Instead, it can come from a prospect’s family, friends or other social connections, as well as through his or her own research. In the course of that research, a prospect can encounter and act on a recommended product and click a link to purchase it. Just like that, prospect went from awareness to purchase, with little time (if any) for the phases between those two. What’s more, the same trend – the breaking down of the sales funnel – is as true for B2B brands as it is for B2C.

What’s a brand to do, then? Below are some key suggestions – culled from the HBR article and from our own experiences – for brands to better and more effectively navigate a world in which the sales funnel is being relegated to the sideline.

  1. Think circular instead of linear. We know the phrase “circular thinking” isn’t always viewed as a positive one, but it’s instructive in this changing landscape. Prospects don’t enter the funnel at the top and exit at the bottom; rather, they move around a more circular, ongoing process, entering and exiting at different points of their choosing.
  2. Think relationship instead of transaction. In the sales funnel, the purchase or transaction is often the end point. Instead, think of the process as developing, building and maintaining long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with customers. How can you continue to communicate and engage with them post-purchase? How can you empower them to become ambassadors? How easy do you make it for your audience to advocate for your brand or product?
  3. Think experience instead of purchase. Meaningful relationships are built through experiences, not purchases, after all. Your customers can interact with your brand in a number of non-purchase ways – events, social media, branded content and media, etc. Is the experience you’re creating consistent, positive and memorable? Are you building relationships?
  4. Think purchase at every phase of the process. Wait, you’re saying to yourself. Didn’t you just tell me to think experience instead of purchase? Yes, but, at the same time, it should be relatively quick, easy and painless for customers to jump straight to the purchase phase of the process any time they want. Do an audit and answer this question: How many clicks of a mouse would it take a prospect to purchase (or whatever your measurable equivalent may be) your product or service from any and all points of the process? This isn’t to say each phase should be a straightforward, hard sales pitch, of course; at the same time, you should always strive to make it quick and easy for them to move forward with purchase if and when they’re ready.

The most fundamental and important change to what we used to know as the sales funnel is that it is increasingly no longer a linear, subsequent process. Now, it rarely has an end or beginning. This presents new challenges to marketers, to be sure, but it also presents many new opportunities.