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The Funnel Is Dead, Long Live the Measurable Customer Narrative

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Why the traditional marketing funnel is dead and gone
  • How the measurable customer narrative works

Look beyond the hype of social media, and you'll see that social networks and community dynamics have fundamentally changed many of the most intrinsically understood truths of marketing communications. They have made marketing a much more complex process while creating a more measurable business practice.

This series of five articles will explore those changes (see list at the end of this article for previous and upcoming articles.)

One of those reassuring little white lies we tell ourselves as marketers is this: People make linear decisions. It's simpler to draw straight lines about people's behavior, so to date we have typically pushed people through carefully scripted marketing processes.

But does that really reflect people's actions and the ways they find information? Of course not. We all know it doesn't really happen that way.

But by rejecting that common fallacy we would face some more challenging questions: If we rigidly enforce our own processes, how many people do we leave behind? Can we trigger behavior, and if we can... which behaviors and how? How is the fragmenting media landscape changing the processes by which customers research and make purchases?


Traditional Marketing Approaches Fall Short in the New Customer Landscape

The answers are clear: Marketing has fundamentally changed, and many in the profession are struggling to catch up. The framework by which they understand marketing is not set up for a non-campaign world where they don't control timelines and control only experiences. The so-called sales funnel, if that was ever an accurate metaphor, no longer looks even remotely like a funnel.

Companies tend to view the sales and marketing process as a systematic approach of 7-9 steps that begins with initial contact and pushes the potential customer through sales lead, need identification, prospect qualification, and so on, through to closing the sale and then maintaining the customer relationship.

But that is how sales and marketing teams structure the selling process. The buying process, from the customer's perspective, is nothing like that.

How Buying Works in the Era of Social Media and Online Communities

Buying is a complex process with multiple stops, starts, and options. Each potential customer will move through the process in unique ways (although, in aggregate, demonstrating certain patterns of behavior). The movement is linear in that any two sales will end with the same result, but no two routes to that sale are exactly the same. The same is true for any type of engagement decision (e.g., joining an email list, following on Twitter).

 

The best marketers can hope to do in such an environment is to manage the process so that even though all roads may not lead to Rome, eventually all roads lead to, and through, digital "toll booths" of content and information exchange.

Why don't many marketing organizations view that process as a coherent customer narrative? Three reasons:

  1. Marketing is structured around campaigns, not customers.
  2. Marketers don't measure a linked sequence of customer actions across all touch points yet; they still think in terms of pre-sale and post-sale, not a relationship that can last a lifetime.
  3. Marketers have been determined to control the narrative rather than create digital touch points of content and experience, and then measure how people interact with those touch points.

How the New Customer Narrative Works

Whether they're interested in a new pair of shoes or a new virtual private network, future customers can first engage with a potential purchase in many ways. That engagement could be via a billboard with a URL that they type into their smartphone's mobile browser, or a click on a Facebook wall post from a friend's feed, or a search on Google.

Those are all examples of entry points to a research experience that could initiate a longer relationship between the customer and the brand; the relationship begins with the brand's getting permission to communicate more, and it progresses toward a sale and possibly many sales.

What happens between those start and end points is the complicated part, and the start and the end are almost never directly connected, especially when the activity begins with a discussion on social media or in an online community.

Consider an online relationship with a customer who makes two appliance purchases over four years, and twice shares content:

Today, those start and end points are not connected. By setting up measurement beacons that customers interact with, marketers can understand what each digital customer narrative looks like. And by shaping those experiences with content and the addition of community engagement, you can measure the context and experience of research and customer care from the first interaction and throughout the relationship. In that context, the true measure of influence is how many people take up your shared content.

If you have unlimited marketing budgets and don't care how they're spent, this approach might not matter to you. But it will matter if you're a results-driven marketer with limited resources who wants to really understand how each part of the marketing mix contributes to progression via either relationship or sales conversions—parallel but intersecting tracks that must both be viewed and measured to understand customer/buyer and audience dynamics.

That ties directly into small-movement marketing: By measuring how people progress through digital properties, we can see which marketing investments are performing and which are not.

* * *

In my next article, which will re-examine the sacred cows of marketing, I'll take a look at the role of content in measuring small-movement marketing and why it's not the message or—gasp!—even the copy that matters most anymore.

Articles in this series:

  1. The first article explored how the role of long-ball big-idea marketing is shifting amid the rise of "small-movement" marketing—how marketers are starting to shift away from trying to hit only home runs and are instead trying to foster deeper brand and relationship interactions online at the beginning of the customer relationship process.
  2. This article, the second in the series, discussed the death of the so-called funnel and the birth of the measurable customer narrative.
  3. The third article will focus on content versus messaging and what brands and marketers need to do with content to keep their customers' attention.
  4. The fourth article will look at the shifting role of brand management in the new, fragmented environment.
  5. This five-part series will conclude with an article focusing on the interplay between content and community and the role of community within the sales and marketing cycle.

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Jen Evans is chief strategist at Sequentia Environics, a Toronto-based firm providing strategy and services to help companies generate better business results from their online initiatives.

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  • by John Fox Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Your 3 reasons (...excuses) are right on target, esp. #1. Although I'd rewrite it to read: Marketing is structured around campaigns, not CONVERSATIONS.

    Also, I'd ad a 4th to the list (and elevate it to #1): Marketers lack empathy/understanding for what really happens in the field. By and large, they've never carried a bag in their careers. If they'd spend some time actually trying to sell their products and services, then they'd recognize the pitfalls, the gaps, the stuff that's missing and be much more capable of helping their sales team.

  • by Camille Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Fully agree with the digital interaction. How do you measure/address the multitude of other touchpoints (non digital) that a consumer entertains throughout that non-linear path? As marketers we still need to effectively allocate dollars across multiple touchpoints as not everyone in every industry is living/engaging full in the digital space.

  • by Calvin Carr Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    John Fox's comment about carrying a bag is spot on. Marketers need to experience the objections as well as the success of connecting with a buyer. Tag along on a face to face sales call or eavesdrop on a phone call or online presentation.

    Not only will marketers get a better sense of how the customer narrative works, but they will develop credibility from the sales team. They can then forge more appropriate and effective messaging that will resonate with prospects and customers. There has always been a chasm between sales and marketing and this is one way to close it.

  • by Ric Dragon Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Very thoughtful article - some great thoughts to ponder. BUT! I have to speak out - that old "Marketing Funnel" was never created as a marketing funnel. It was a Sales Funnel created so that sales people could understand that the people we sell to are often at different stages, and that they require different ways of being communicated with. What you're suggesting is still that - only with more layers of complexity. Lets not throw the baby out with the b.w.

  • by Rick Falls Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    I think that many businesses are affixed to the old ways of doing things whether they work or not.

    As you've pointed out, there has to more of an exchange of knowledge and ideas, to open up (and keep active) as many of the paths back to the business as possible.

  • by Jeff Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    I agree with Ric, and that the sales funnel is designed for the complex sale to ensure a company is focused on cultivating early stage prospects for future sales in addition to the crazed focus on current-quarter closing. Buying shoes or a dishwasher is a transactional sale.
    It's also worth noting that the fundamental mental process that a buyer goes through--Awareness, Consideration, Intent, Negotiation, Purchase--has not changed. What this article is really saying is that the channels and touch points with which a buyer proceeds through those mental steps have changed and exploded in number. Marketers need to recognize social media's value in the role they play in awareness, buyer education and peer validation, and not count on traditional marketing methods alone (although many of those still work as well!)

  • by Derek M. Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    I believe that the author's idea posed is certainly growing in popularity among businesses (mostly B2C) and traditional sales funnels are changing gaining new contributory sources as new technology hits the web that advertisers can capitalize on to reinforce there brand advocacy with consumers but by and large- and in most industries social media is not having the full impact once believed and expressed by its proponents on the web. Certainly in the B2B manufacturing landscape these alleged defunct sales funnels are still alive and well.

  • by Miriam Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    I agree with Ric and don´t agree with Jen about Sales Funnel is dead. There are a changing environment, so the sales funnel must be adapted but never will die. This is a way to catch the stages from the BTB sales and a goog one.

  • by Bruce Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    The marketing funnel was always more circular and multidimensional in nature in reality - just even more so now through improving technology.

  • by Jen Evans Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Thanks so much for the comments all.

    John: couldn't agree more. Empathy is so key to how marketing is evolving - but institutionalized empathy takes a lot of change for marketing organizations to make, to genuinely focus experiences from a customer's perspective vs internal corporate structure.

    Camille - agreed, and because so much of marketing budgets are siloed, this will be an issue until organizations start to integrate. I think we will start to see this happen. There are ways to measure across channels, including offline/traditional/broadcast, and I'll cover this in some later articles.

    Calvin: well said, that type of insight and research output is a highly valuable byproduct of this type of approach, and there are many other ways to approach it as well.

    Rick: agreed.

    Ric/Jeff - thank you and agreed, but i'd say it has become a marketing process given the proliferation of media (if not a funnel ;)) that can take many different narrative paths. And buying a dishwasher with information on demand is no longer a transactional sale. I can tell you my boyfriend researched some earrings he bought for me extensively before purchase and joined a couple of sites and communities to research! ;) as you say this started with B2B, with content as marketing, and we are even hearing pushing more of the marketing/sales qualification and education process online as a request from clients.

    Derek and Miriam: my point was not that there is not a process, but that it is not linear. The idea of pre and post sale relationship is obsolete: a company's relationship with its customers and prospects is multidimensional and will not always be based on linear behaviour. How people look for information pre and post sale, consume it, talk about it, and make decisions is far more complex than step one two three, and there are ways to plan for this complexity. More to come on this over the next few articles as well.

    And thank you all again!

  • by Evan H. Fri Aug 19, 2011 via mobile

    Thinking that another crucial paradigm shift is apparent. A salespersons job (abbreviated) has been to introduce a prospect to a brand, provide features and benefits, overcome objections and close the sale, now it seems the salesperson would achieve greater success by playing the part of a concierge (or border collie), guiding the prospect from touch point to touch point where they may uncover information on their own and at their own speed. Being a credible consultant has a new significance since, after all, few brands have the luxury of being ubiquitous. Most companies simply don't have the resources to place a billboard on every possible route in the discovery process. Long live the "trusted adviser" sales pro.

  • by John Fox Fri Aug 19, 2011 via web

    @Evan H: Hmmm.... border collie? Not sure I get that analogy. Here's the thing, your marketing (with marketing automation tools like Pardot, Marketo, et al) can and should be able to do a lot of the "concierge" services. The thing you don't want to do is try to use your marketing as a SUBSTITUTE for what the sales team (presumably) does best, like building long-term relationships with your customers.

  • by Elizabeth Krecker Thu Aug 25, 2011 via web

    Great thinking. Looking forward to Part 3!

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