The funnel is not dead, just different

Ange Dunn, Senior Business Director at Perceptive, highlights the changing landscape of marketing funnels. With the rise of digital channels and data-driven insights, traditional models no longer suffice. Dunn explores new strategies for building effective funnels and staying ahead in today’s dynamic market.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen a startling number of articles disbarring the brand funnel.*

“The sales funnel isn’t changing—it’s completely and utterly dead,” says one

“Who killed the marketing funnel?” proclaims another.

If you’ve studied, worked in, or worked with marketing and marketing teams then you have probably come across a fair few of them. Here’s a standard one from Perceptive.

* Also called the sales funnel, marketing funnel or purchase funnel. While the name varies, the concept doesn’t. 

It’s true the funnel has changed. But in speed, not shape. 

Digital and e-commerce are compressing the time consumers move through the stages. While consumers may appear to jump from finding a product to buying said product in a matter of seconds, they are still going through a brand funnel—just at breakneck speed. The stages of awareness, consideration and preference that a prospect goes through before usage and advocacy have simply been compressed. 

So why are people claiming the funnel is dead?

Despite this compression, the marketing funnel still has its place and a role to play. However, there are several key misunderstandings about the role of the marketing funnel that has led to the belief that it is dead and buried.

Misunderstanding #1: Assuming if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

The funnel is a near universal tool, but not a case of ‘one brand funnel to rule them all’. Adopting a cookie-cutter marketing funnel means you not only end up with a funnel that doesn’t accurately reflect your business and industry, but you could potentially end up devoting time, energy and money to improving metrics that don’t actually have any impact on your bottom line. 

No one category or industry has the same funnel. They all vary to reflect the way consumers interact with them. For example, even within the goods category, the funnel a consumer may go through to buy a chocolate bar is very different to the funnel they’d go through to purchase a fridge. The metrics that drive each of those purchases are different, and as a result, your funnel needs to be too.

This is why I always advocate for a bespoke funnel approach.

Awareness, consideration and preference are the core metrics of most brand health tracking programmes. Each of these stages represents a stage in your brand’s conversion funnel. However, some brands may have additional steps, such as Trial, Usage and Research, to reflect the journey their customers take.

A bespoke brand funnel not only allows you to understand the broader purchase funnel of your industry or category but also how your brand performs in relation to its competitors, and the areas where it excels and underperforms. All of which gives you a clear picture of what you need to focus on, along with the knowledge that doing so will actually move the dial. 

Misunderstanding #2: Assuming all funnel metrics are moved the same way and at the same pace.

A misnomer of doing tactical activity is thinking it will improve your top of funnel metrics at the same pace as the behavioural metrics at the bottom of the funnel. To avoid any confusion, when I say tactical activity I mean short-term marketing activations, such as an ad for the latest model of iPhone, a JB HiFi Black Friday sale, anything that is intended to be a short and temporary effort to drive people to buy your product or service. Short-term tactics can and do drive consumers through the funnel, particularly through its bottom stages (i.e. usage and advocacy). As a result, bottom of the funnel metrics tend to improve quickly in response to short-term campaigns and promotions. 

However, where marketers come unstuck is expecting their short-term activities to improve their top of funnel metrics. Spoiler: it doesn’t. Instead, what you really need is long-term brand building. Moreover, as Les Bennet and Peter Field have evidenced in their seminal work The Long and the Short of It, brands that combine both short-term tactics and long-term brand building are the most successful.

Ange Dunn.

Long-term brand building doesn’t happen overnight

Long-term brand building are the activities and activations that continue day-in day-out, often over several years. As its name suggests, this strategy is a slow burn and it takes a methodical approach. However, it is critically important to building brand awareness and consideration over time. In short, it fills up your top of funnel stages. When done right, it increases your pool of potential customers by a significant margin, some of which will filter all the way through your funnel to become customers.

It takes time to shift top of funnel metrics

Long-term brand building takes time. So unsurprisingly, it also takes time for your top of funnel metrics to grow in response to these activities. A common misunderstanding we encounter is clients assuming their brand building activity will shift top of funnel metrics as quickly as tactical activities do for the bottom of the funnel.

For this reason, it’s critically important to use the funnel to measure both long-term and tactical approaches to understand the speed at which your relevant metrics are likely to improve. 

Mistake #4: Not realising there are two distinct phases to the funnel

While it’s easy to think the brand funnel has a singular focus—acquiring new customers—it actually has two distinctly different phases and businesses need to adapt their focus to match each one.

The first is the acquisition phase, which equates to the top and mid funnel stages (i.e. awareness, consideration and preference). The goal of this phase is to reach new customers and move them down the funnel towards purchase and, as such, it relies on your long- and short-term activations to drive consumers through the awareness to preference stages.

However, once the customer has purchased the product or service, the funnel shifts into a retention phase designed to help move the customer through the usage stage and onto advocacy. This phase relies on delivering superb customer experiences to move customers through the funnel. This can include the quality of goods delivered, the purchase experience, availability, convenience, value for money as well as various customer service touchpoints such as troubleshooting, warranty, or delivery of a project. 

The importance of the retention phase

While acquiring and moving prospects through the acquisition phase of the funnel is important, particularly for your bottom line, the retention phase is also critical when it comes to business and brand growth. A poor product or customer experience could see customers leave with little chance of coming back as soon as you win them over. However, if you excel at the retention phase, there’s a greater chance of seeing customers become repeat shoppers and recommending your brand to others. With 93 percent of consumers turning to friends and family to seek out information about brands and friends and family recommendations having the most influence over purchase decisions (65 percent), nailing the retention phase of your funnel not only gives your brand an extra word of mouth bump but also aids brand reputation and trust. This, in turn, increases the number of people coming into the top of your brand funnel and helps convert them to your brand during the consideration stage.

In short, focusing on the retention phase doesn’t just keep customers around for the long-term, it attracts more people to your brand. 

Mistake #5: It’s not funnel vs customer journey—it’s funnel AND customer journey

Customer journey mapping (CJM) is designed to uncover the critical moments and touchpoints that have the greatest influence on customers’ decision-making. It can help you understand where your brand needs to show up in the market to the key features of the service or product that move customers from one stage of the funnel to the next. In other words, CJM helps you understand which customer experiences matter the most. 

On the other hand, the brand funnel measures performance. (And if your brand tracking is comprehensive, it will likely measure the performance of your brand and your competitors.) It is a tool to understand where your brand is and isn’t performing. 

Customer journey mapping was never intended to replace the brand funnel. It is designed to complement it. When used together, they become a powerful strategy for building your brand and its customer base. Customer journey mapping identifies the “how”; the key moments that make customers choose you. The brand funnel measures whether your answer to the “how” is effective or not.

Add data modelling for a powerful insights tool

At Perceptive, we use this combination of brand funnel and customer journey mapping to help us understand the performance of an organisation’s overarching strategy and the tactics and touchpoints that move consumers towards purchase and use. In many cases, we’ll also use data modelling to uncover the most closely linked steps in this journey (i.e. how linear the relationship is), and where your strategy and customer touchpoints are most and least effective. 

Different is different, not dead

It’s true that customer journeys have never been more varied; the tactics, touchpoints, mediums and channels we use to market our brands are constantly evolving. However, despite this and the speed at which consumers traverse the funnel, its fundamentals haven’t changed—and aren’t likely to for the foreseeable future. A leopard doesn’t change its spots for a reason. Those spots work. They bring home the bacon, so to speak. The same goes for the funnel, it isn’t—and shouldn’t be—going anywhere.

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About Ange Dunn

Ange Dunn is Senior Business Director for Perceptive.

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