Is the marketing funnel still relevant in the digital age?

Since the onset of digitalisation, marketers have had to adapt and sometimes reassess their marketing strategies to fit with the demands of the new marketplace which surrounds them. This shift has also brought about huge changes in the way that consumers buy and research goods and so keeping up with developments has required regular insight generation and a remapping of the customer journey.

The traditional marketing funnel

In years past, agencies and in-house teams alike relied heavily on the marketing funnel to inform their strategy. Sometimes called a sales funnel or purchase funnel, the term is used frequently in marketing and sales teams to map the stages that a customer passes through in order to make a purchase.

Although there are some deviations in how many stages are involved, according to Business2Community the traditional marketing funnel has three stages: awareness, consideration and decision.

Awareness: According to the article, this ‘is the point in which your lead is trying to solve a problem, and they’ve come across the content you’ve created in their quest for a solution.’ In the digital era this is most commonly done online and even when the customer intends to buy in a bricks and mortar store, the research phase rarely moves outside the digital dimension.

Consideration: Once you have attracted the attention of the consumer, it is argued that they continue on to a period of consideration. This can be the most dangerous and competitive stage of the funnel, with offerings from other brands liable to steal your lead or a lack of information quick to prove an obstacle to confirming a purchase. For Business2Community ‘this is where you nurture your leads, and try to build trust between your brand and your audience’ to tackle these issues.

Decision: Last in the traditional marketing funnel is the decision phase, the ultimate end goal of your brand if you are to make a sale. Even at this stage conversion is not a guarantee, and so it is suggested that ‘the right content with the right call-to-action can make all the difference in turning this lead into a customer.’ 

The collapse of the marketing funnel? 

Only a few weeks ago Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, arguably one of the most influential commentators and thinkers of the moment, suggested that perhaps the trusty marketing funnel is no longer relevant in our digital age.

Reporting on her speech at ad-tech conference Dmexco in Germany, Marketing Week quoted Sandberg as saying:

‘The marketing funnel itself is collapsing. It used to take time to go from research to discovery to awareness all the way to a purchase. But now you have digital and mobile that is happening faster than ever.’

Arguing that this means brand communication has never been more important, Sandberg suggests that in order for brands to continue to grow in the digital environment they must focus on three areas. ‘The first is “focusing on your brand mission”, the second “building communities” and the third “engaging that community” for the long-term,’ she believes. Sandberg sees it as integral that brands work towards fulfilling these criteria if they are to adapt to changes in the traditional marketing funnel.

No longer linear, and as Sandberg pointed out happening at ever-increasing speeds across multiple platforms, the marketing funnel has increased in the number of stages it involves and the number of potential obstacles that stand in the way of conversion. As such, marketers need to take clear steps to adapt this model if it is to remain relevant in the digital age. 

What steps can marketers take to retain relevance? 

Although the marketing funnel may be constantly evolving, this does not mean that it has to be dismissed out of hand. Here are three steps that marketers can take to ensure that their funnel is adapted to meet the needs of its digital consumers:

1. Build on what you have

MarTech Today argues that ‘improving what’s working is much more efficient than constantly starting from scratch,’ and as such suggests adapting the stages of the marketing funnel to include stages like “acquisition,” “activation” and “retention” as opposed to simply “awareness” and “decision”. The article also suggests that although the lines between these stages are becoming increasingly blurred, focusing on what the customer needs and wants at various points in their journey is a far more productive way to address the brand-customer relationship, rather than worrying about which exact stage they are at in the funnel.

2. Map a core pathway also builds on this outlook, arguing that in order to better adapt the marketing funnel to the increasingly non-linear customer journey, mapping out a core pathway can help you make sense of the how the funnel can be used. suggests you should be asking the question:

            ‘How do you plan to walk your prospect through the funnel so that logically and emotionally you have the best odds of getting the highest number of them to your desired end result?’

By physically mapping out this core pathway with all the steps and sub-steps that can be taken to the end goal, it is easier to see conversion points and allow for divergences from this presumed route to sale. argues that this allows you to map both logical and emotional decisions, simplify the process by eradicating the unnecessary steps and build a primary funnel that is most profitable or efficient from the point of view of business needs.

3. Focus on re-targeting, re-engaging and re-marketing.

Although the potential for leads to be lost along the way is arguably far higher in the digital age, by having a strategy in place to tackle this challenge, marketers can reintegrate leads back into the marketing funnel.

An article by The Huffington Post suggests that by using retargeted display ads, the kind ‘which are shown to users on other sites on the web after they have left your website,’ is just one way of bringing people back into the fold. By using these adverts to ‘highlight your best content, feature a promotion, or incentivise an action,’ marketers can focus on re-engagement with their brand. This approach also allows better management of the newer phases of the funnel, such as retention and reactivation, that require a more nuanced approach than the traditional funnel allows.

Far from being dead in the water, the traditional marketing funnel needs rethinking and re-strategising if it is to keep pace with the demands of digitally-savvy consumers. Though the funnel may no longer be linear, it still offers multiple insights and uses that marketers would do well not to dismiss.

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