Let’s talk about one of the most popular marketing metaphors of all time; The Marketing Funnel.
Sales funnels, marketing funnels and conversion funnels are ubiquitous in the business world. It’s an idea that dates back a hundred years, and it goes like this:
At the top of the marketing funnel you have all these prospects pouring in. Then you apply the tried and true AIDA marketing formula and the money comes streaming out the bottom.
It’s a process that’s been taught in marketing classes for 60 years…
First you build Awareness about your product or service category. That happens at the top of the funnel.
Then you have to generate Interest in your particular company or product. That’s where brand advertising comes in… building interest in, and awareness of, your brand.
Next, moving into the middle of the funnel, the marketing team has to create Desire. Make them really want whatever you’ve got! To me, this is all about differentiation and it can be accomplished with all sorts of marketing tactics.
And finally, you push people into Action with some kind of urgent promotional offer. This is where Direct Marketing and Sales fits in.
Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action. It’s a good old theory, and some of the elements still apply, but the funnel analogy is irrelevant.
Who uses a funnel these days?
Last time I used a funnel was back in college. I drove an orange Chevy Vega that drank oil fast enough to tip a Sheik’s balance sheet. I had to keep a funnel handy at all times… Quick, fill ‘er up with three quarts of 10-30!
But that’s not really the problem. The problem is, marketing just doesn’t work that way in the real world. It’s not a top-down, gravity-fed money machine like many people would have you believe.
Flip that marketing funnel over, add some elevation and exposure, and you have a model that’s a bit more realistic.
Marketing is more like climbing a himalayan peak than pouring in a quart of oil.
Think of your next campaign as an attempt on Everest.
Before you even get to base camp there’s a lot of planning, strategizing and logistics that need to happen; Finding the right guide, hiring a team of sherpas and, most importantly, planning a route.
That’s like Brand Strategy work… It doesn’t guarantee success, but you can’t get reach great heights without it.
In this upside down analogy Base Camp is like the top of the funnel…
You have a whole bunch of hopeful, well-qualified, gung-ho people ready to start the buying journey with you. Awareness and Interest are clearly established. You’ve sorted out the Suspects from the real Prospects and they’re ready to spring into Action, but very few will go all the way.
The air gets mighty thin up there.
A lot of people will get frustrated and turn around before they even get to Camp 2. They still have Interest, but their new Awareness of the environment and the reality of the situation puts a big damper on their Desire to buy.
The AIDA marketing funnel formula gets all mixed up. It’s not a linear, step by step thing. It’s fluid.
Sometimes Action isn’t a true indicator of interest. (Think about all the people who download white papers.)
In other cases, as Awareness increases Desire can wane.
I’ve experienced this as both a seller and a buyer of various B-to-B services. The buying journey is different for everyone, and full of unpredictable detours.
Sometimes you can do everything right, and still inadvertently sabotage your own efforts.
You’re leading a prospect up the mountain, step-by-step, feeding her encouragement and helpful information. You’re getting all the buying signals you need — the micro yesses — but then she wanders into a crevasse of information she can’t get out of.
She discovers conflicting opinions, competing offers and alternative approaches she didn’t know about. Confusion sets in. Her uncertainty makes her question the whole proposition and she ends up sitting on a beach in Tahiti instead.
That’s how I feel when people try selling me marketing automation software.
It’s like the mountain climbing expeditions that are plagued by false starts… groups get to Camp 3 and then have to turn around and return to base camp. Up to Camp 4 and back to Camp 2 to hunker down for a few days. Start and stop. Up and down. Think, re-think.
In marketing, as in business, the path to the top is never smooth, direct or predictable.
Here’s another problem I have with that old marketing funnel analogy; It stops when a transaction’s completed. There’s never any talk of service after the sale, community building and brand loyalty.
That’s like abandoning your customers at the top of the mountain. You can’t do that! You still have to get them down safely. (Many people have died on the way down after summiting Everest.)
Think of the trip up the mountain as prospect relationship management. The trip down is customer relationship management. You need both.
If you’re playing the long game, trying to build an iconic brand, you have to take good care of the customers who have been to the top with you. There’s where reviews come in, repeat business, word-of-mouth and brand loyalty.
A lot of business owners approach marketing as an hour in the climbing gym, rather than a career of climbing mountains.
It’s good training, but they’re just testing the waters. They keep trying different routes, moving horizontally, never getting more than a few feet off the ground. Never risking much.
For many businesses, that’s just fine. That’s all they need. But they’ll never reach the pinnacle of success. They’re never know the satisfaction of bagging the big one.
Many of those people want to skip the first three steps of the old AIDA formula and jump right to the Action by putting all their money into Google’s pay per click ad platform.
Race to the bottom of the funnel… “To hell with brand building! I’m not interested in talking to anyone who’s not ready to buy,” they say.
If that were an effective, sustainable approach to marketing you’d never see any advertising on any platform other than Google for mattress retailers, home repair companies or pharmaceuticals.
But no. You see those companies on TV all the time.
They’ve had decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to test their marketing mix. They know that pay-per-click is just one little foothill in the mountain range of marketing.
Yes, they also do digital advertising, and many are still on the radio. They’re consistently “out there” maintaining top of mind awareness. So when it’s time for a new mattress, or a new roof, or a new prescription, they’re not going with the first, generic search results.
They’re Googling brand names. Skipping over paid ads at the top of the page. Driving past four other stores, and choosing to climb the mountain with you. Specifically.