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Is The Sales Funnel Broken?

Few concepts in marketing are as widely accepted as canon as the sales funnel. But, is it time for us to reexamine the sales funnel’s lofty status and possibly scrap it altogether?

Last week I came across an article that made the claim that the concept of a sales funnel was “the cockroach of marketing concepts.” The author stopped short of saying that we need to squish this pesky bug of a tactic. He did, however, make a strong case for some evolutionary changes that could be made.

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think of another conical shaped instructional guide from my youth: the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food pyramid. Let’s take a moment to consider what these two tools got right and where they may have gone astray.

The USDA’s original Food Pyramid Guide…a carb lovers dream

Shaping The Direction

The USDA unveiled their original Food Pyramid Guide in 1992. Previously, Americans were only urged to be sure to eat foods from all four of the basic food groups (milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals). Pretty simple stuff. Eat some amount of food from each group each day. The food pyramid was created to teach us actual quantities of each of food group we ought to be eating. Of course, food industry groups lobbied behind the scenes to alter the look of the pyramid. They sought to protect their reputation as part of a healthy diet. The USDA was pressured to maintain some of the status quo of the American dietary landscape. They didn’t follow the data. The food pyramid was released and accepted as the dietary guidelines for the country. For now, at least.

The sales funnel as a marketing strategy has a long history. The author of the aforementioned article walks through the creation of the sales funnel concept and it’s rise to marketing prominence. This is where the trouble begins. Take a concept invented in the early 1900’s, drag it through huge changes in the spaces and ways that we market to potential customers, and you can end up with a strategy that doesn’t sync up with current data driven marketing science. We have plenty of data on how consumers actually behave. But, just like the USDA, we aren’t following that data when we use an old sales funnel model rather than updating it to work in today’s marketing world.

This alone doesn’t mean that we need to scrap the sales funnel concept. We can adapt the good old sales funnel to our modern marketing universe.

Altering The Course

In 2005 the USDA created a new version of the food pyramid, My Pyramid. My Pyramid updated the dietary guidelines they had put forth in 1992. They changed the layout of the pyramid, opting for vertical wedges rather than a horizontal stacking of food groups. But, more importantly, they updated the amounts of each food to be consumed. The original food pyramid suggested we all consume 6–11 servings of breads, cereals, rice and pasta. That was double that of fruits and vegetables combined! Great news for the carb lovers. My Pyramid applied new nutritional and health data. Suddenly, the ratio of breads and cereals was shrunk to be nearly equal to that of vegetables alone. Clearly a move in the right direction. New data, new guidelines.

The sales funnel also deserves a second look. We live in a time when, for better or worse, the amount of data that we can collect on consumer behavior has grown exponentially. That data is showing that a consumer’s route from discovery to purchase isn’t always a straight line. Many consumers jump back and forth through sections of our funnels before making a purchase. Awareness, consideration and conversion (or AIDA, depending on which funnel model you were taught) are still part of the picture. Each component, though, needs to be looked at, expanded upon, and synced up to what consumer behavior dictates.

So, where do we go from here? We’ve got the data we need. Is it time for us to think outside the funnel?

The Shape Of Things To Come

Eventually the USDA abandoned pyramid shaped dietary guidance altogether. In 2001, My Plate was introduced as new visual form of dietary guideline. The wedges and blocks of the old pyramids were gone now. Now we have a simple plate, divided into different sized portions of each food group that make up a healthy meal. No more counting up servings of food groups. In it’s place, we got a simple case by case, or meal by meal, version of reality. People don’t eat from triangles or pyramids. They eat from plates.

I see the idea of a modern sales funnel working in this case by case version of reality. Take the individual elements of the sales funnel and shape them to match our customer’s journey, rather than sending them down a one size fits all funnel. Each marketing campaign needs to be tailor-made. People don’t always cycle through a purchase decision in a nice linear way. So let’s change up the shape of our marketing strategy. You may have to take more than one swing at converting a customer if they are price conscious and you have a high dollar item. If you are just getting your company off the ground, you will need to really focus on being discovered before you get to trigger any buying impulses. Answering all the questions that your customer may have about your new product line will be a crucial part of persuading them and putting their mind at ease.

Fine Tuning

There isn’t one path to take your customers down. And that path is not going to be straight. The sales funnel serves as a helpful guide. In fact, there are already plenty of examples of people adding on extra layers of funnel rungs to account for things like customer loyalty and retention. That is why a nice, niched down marketing strategy can’t be beat. Anticipating the needs of your audience, and being able to accommodate them, will keep you top of mind when they are ready to buy. We don’t have to kill off the idea of the sales funnel. In fact, it will probably outlive us all.

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