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What Is A Marketing Funnel?

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The marketing funnel – one of the most talked about aspects of a marketing program – must be the most misunderstood aspect of digital marketing – even by the agencies that claim to build them. In basic terms, the funnel is simply the process of taking a cold customer on first contact and converting them into a paying customer (or some other conversion, depending upon your business model). The intent of a funnel is simple: they’re designed to to attract customer attention, awaken their interest, and create conviction (by way of a conversion).

This article serves as a cursory introduction of the marketing funnel and how the buying experience might be best managed. It’s a very general overview and doesn’t touch on the hundreds of factors that apply inward and outward pressures on the funnel journey to alter the behaviour of a user.

The model itself is based upon literature dating back to the late 1800s… although the steps of a funnel were likely commonplace well before they were formally documented. The funnel itself is like the cabbage-patch kid of the marketing world: no two are alike, and there’s no one-size-fits-all method of conversion (although there are rather generic models that do tend to perform well in certain cases). Each funnel is curated, relentlessly tested, and split tested over and over to ensure that the customer is taken on the most relevant journey, and the funnel experience itself provides significant value.

The AIDA Marketing (or Purchase) Funnel

Pictured: The marketing (or sales/purchase/customer) funnel illustrates the most basic journey a consumer will take from first awareness through to the sales process.

The most basic funnels are built upon the principles of the AIDA model (AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action)… with the model itself attributed to the early American advertising and sales pioneer, Elias Lewis . Lewis wrote that the mission of an advertisement is to “attract a reader, so that he will look at the advertisement and start to read it; then to interest him, so that he will continue to read it; then to convince him, so that when he has read it he will believe it.” The statement, however, was directed at what made a good sales advertisement rather than what constituted an effective sales experience (although he did later address the latter later on by way of the AIDA). The first use of the AIDA acronym wasn’t published until 1921 when used by author C.P. Russell, although variations on the theme were published in various journals prior to both these notable gentleman claiming ownership of the actual sales concept.

The association of the funnel model with the AIDA concept (for better or worse) was first proposed in Bond Salesmanship by William W. Townsend in 1924. However, as best we can tell, the first full AIDA concept was first documented in a 1904 copy of “Salesmanship” magazine by Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith.

Early AIDA Scale

Pictured: Attention. Interest. Desire. Conviction. A diagram showing that every sale is offset by attention, interest, desire, and conviction. Source: Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith, editor of 1904 "Salesmanship".

The magazine quotes that “… a sale of any kind has four essential parts: Attention, Interest, Desire, and Conviction. Take these in their proper order. Do not mistake polite attention for interest and do not assume when a desire for possession is aroused that conviction has been reached. In loss of sales it is as disastrous as to not close the sale when conviction is reached”. Not unlike Tesla and others, it appears the contribution to the concept has been lost over time.

Dukesmith’s concept is unique (and arguably more accurate) than the funnel approach because it illustrates the weight of each component, and demonstrates that each step in the sales process is a dynamic variable (as pictured below). Additionally, just like a real scale, the timeline (and weight of each step) will likely vary depending upon circumstances.

AIDA: Importance of each step

In revisiting the principles of sales from over 100 years ago I think we get a far better appreciation of how those long-lost door-to-door methods might be applied in the digital arena. However, in most cases – and the historical concepts aside – the basic model is simple enough in practice for most people that the nuances of its origins are somewhat irrelevant.

In its most basic form, the funnel emulates a true shopping experience.

Sales Experience

This example assumes the funnel journey takes place in one linear web visit. This is rarely the case – particularly for high value items – and it’s in these cases where a truly effective funnel experience should be curated.

The BeliefMedia Marketing Funnel

Dukesmith’s is most like our own concept which is based on a three-dimensional time-variable object with each element of the journey subject to external (and internal) influences that potentially destroy the sales relationship. The most commonly used funnel model (effective for simple interactions) implies a gravitational step-to-step journey without consideration to the thousands of influences that might cause one to abandon their experience, and the funnel neglects to illustrate that each step of the funnel is potentially weighted differently – determined by the market you’re selling to. The funnel also specifies a particular order in which to make a sale… and this also isn’t necessarily true.

We’ve built upon these ideas (with reference to Dukesmith’s scales) and developed our own approach. It’s our unique and somewhat proprietary approach that has seen us curate some of the most effective sales experiences on the market. Our approach to the funnel is based on the cybernetics of human psychology and takes into account the transdisciplinary interaction of online behaviors. We include other ‘steps’ such as research, knowledge, evaluation, intent, commitment, loyalty, advocacy, trust, retention, and so on. As a result of digital technology, online advertising, social media, etc., the AIDA model – while still relevant – is far less reliable as a standalone framework.

The Email Sequence

There isn’t a single email program I’ll see on Facebook, Google or elsewhere that I won’t subscribe to. I use a dedicated email account that I’ll occasionally visit, and I’ll browse through the thousands of emails to evaluate how others are performing in the email space… and I’m constantly disappointed in what others think is appropriate behaviour. First and foremost, if you contact me you should treat it as an absolute privilege. I don’t want to see fake messages urging me to take action before an offer is rescinded, I don’t want to see links to fake ‘live’ webinars, I don’t want click-bait headlines, I certainly don’t want generic content, and I don’t want you selling me another junk product every other day. Above all else, email contact is an opportunity to (primarily) share with me – not sell to me (the latter is inevitable if you do a good job with the former).

Since purchase decisions are rarely made on the spot, an email sequence is used to provide genuine and valuable follow-up in order to address the very specific needs of your customer. While the means upon which to have a visitor subscribe to your list are best left for another occasion, it’s important to remember that the email sequence (not unlike re-targeted advertising and social) is intrinsically connected to your marketing funnel experience; it’s an opportunity to establish you (or your brand) as the individual I should be doing business with. It’s an opportunity to show your value, your product value, and earn my trust. Treat me with any kind of contempt or lie to me and you’ll immediately alienate me. Sadly, it’s the marketing arena where this kind of wayward conduct is most prevalent. Just one email that fails to deliver upon expectations is enough to have a subscriber vacate your email list and filter their way out of your primary marketing funnel.

We’ve developed a proprietary framework for email campaigns we refer to as the Symphony Sequence. Based on the formulaic construction and development of a symphony, our email campaigns start with our Sonata sequence (over the first 6 to 10 days) before making its way through the other movements. The details of our high-performing framework will be discussed here shortly.

The most important takeaway from constructing email sequences is that your job is primarily as an educator serving only high quality content. Don’t try and sell.

Segmented Audiences

Each audience you attract into a funnel should be appropriately segmented so that the information, emails, or follow-on advertising they receive will be highly relevant. Your audience is all looking for a specific type of service and your follow-up is irrelevant if you don’t provide your audience with immediate pain relief, or the answers to the questions that drew them to your funnel in the first place.

Take our financial clients, for example (an industry where we tend to attract a large portion of our business). A prospect might be looking for refinancing, their first home, investment loans, reverse mortgages, and so on. Each of the follow-up email sequences and re-targeted advertising should be tailored specifically for that audience. In the case of finance there’s absolutely no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. Sadly, however, segmented audiences is an area we’ve never seen those that consider themselves our competition actually implement.

The process of segmentation is easy: either ask a question when a lead joins your mailing list, automatically filter them based on the page of your website for which they subscribe, or include an option in an email for the most appropriate information (clicking a link will unsubscribe them from one list and add them to another). Segmentation by country or state (when subscribing to an email) might be created automatically based on resolving an IP address.

Email Segmentation on Click

Pictured: The image shows how a user might be unsubscribed from one list and moved to another based on clicking a link or opening an email. You don’t want to degrade trust, for example, by offering a discount coupon code to a product after a purchase is made (the same segmenting action might be made at checkout). It’s one example of many of how email is managed to deliver the most relevant content.

We advocate segmented communication for existing clients as well. Our SMS text messaging system, for example, includes recipient lists based on occupation, employment type, and loan type. This automated segregation is supplemented by user-defined lists of connected people.

SMS Segmented Audiences

Pictured: As with email, we highly segment our SMS (text message) audience into segmented lists. For our financial clients, the custom lists allow the refining of audiences by bank, loan type etc. The income and occupation type further allows them to send to only the most relevant audience.

Any question you might ask in a form at the time of subscription – such as state or country (and particularly attributes such as phone numbers) – further increases the ‘barrier to entry’, and decreases the subscription rate. We’ll be building additional features into our email system over the next few months to mitigate this double-edged sword by even further segmenting automation.

The Lead Magnet

A lead magnet (we tend to call them “relationship offers”) is a free download, video, or other opt-in-based giveaway on your website that seeks to answer some of the questions that drove your visitor to your website in the first place. Its purpose is simple: have an individual qualify themselves as a prospect and have them dig a little deeper into your funnel journey (they’re already in your funnel since they’re already on your website… but they haven’t started a journey until they express interest).

Not unlike email lists we highly advocate multiple lead magnets based on the interest your user has expressed in your services and/or product. For example, we occasionally selectively show a splash screen, popup, or other offer on pages, but the offer will almost always be relevant to the content they’re viewing (our own popup plugin, due for another major release sometime soon, serves content based on geographic or parameter based segmentation, leading to a massive increase in conversions). The follow-up sequences might provide the ‘other’ offers, but we’ll always show a relationship offer that our page content (or user analytics) deems most appropriate.

The lead magnet is a second chance to make an impressive first impression. Provide junk, something of poor value, or anything that isn’t entirely relevant, and you’ll immediately alienate that potential lead.

Not unlike the marketing funnel, the lead magnet itself is derived from its historical use. When published you’ll find our article on lead magnets here.

Conversion Rate Optimisation

We can’t introduce basic funnel concepts without at least a cursory look at conversion rate optimisation strategies to improve upon funnel effectiveness. The funnel-shaped AIDA sales model is drawn in the funnel-shaped manner because of the filtering of various buyers en-route; a large number enter the funnel while a smaller number convert on the other side. It stands to reason that if you filter more people into the funnel, or you increase upon the effectiveness of those stages within the funnel, more will be likely to convert.

While conversion statistics were always long part of the marketing , it was Chet Homes, author of “The Ultimate Sales Machine” that tends to get credit for the modern day model of the buyers pyramid. In any given market, about 3% are ready to buy now, and another 7% are open to it. The remaining three areas of the triangle are those that “are not thinking about it”, “don’t think they’re interested”, or “know they’re not interested”.

The Buy Now Market

This model translates to a “buyer heatmap”. A digital strategy should be applied on each of the segmented areas – and no market should be ignored (those that are in the top 3%, for example, are when Google AdWords might be best suited. The “open to it” area might be the focus of a Facebook campaign. While all platforms are always considered, the most relevant and highest return medium is where the majority of your budget should be allocated in order to generate the highest returns).

Most will flock to Facebook for advertising because of its highly targeted options and reasonably low cost per customer. The buyer’s triangle model implies that we’ll have to reach 100 people (in a cold and unsegmented market) before putting our advert in front of the ideal 3% audience that are interested (this approach doesn’t consider targeting, which invariably increases the conversion rate)… so our campaign should be highly curated to ensure we capture their attention. It’s now our job as marketers to go to war with others that are fighting for that small piece of the buy-now pie. It’s here where you absolutely need to set yourself apart; mediocrity will reward you with nothing.

In a sense, our Magic Lantern approach (as pictured below) works by establishing trust during the funnel journey (know you, like you, trust you, and work with you). The notion of establishing this trust should underpin all your email efforts (no direct selling – they’ll come to this decision themselves). It only takes one bad email or adverse experience in the funnel journey to have your potential client retreat into that big black never-to-be-heard-from-again void that sits somewhere on the Internet.

Magic Lantern Approach

We’ve worked with a model that isn’t totally unlike the ‘buyer’s pyramid’, and we’ve referred to it as the ‘buyer’s filter’ since the late 1990s. We’ve worked with a “20-12-8-3-1 rule” that says for any market, twelve won’t be overly interested, eight will be interested, three will almost convert in some way, and one will convert into a higher-level customer. In our experience, for each twenty leads that opt into your online programs, three will almost certainly convert in some way (making it around a 15% conversion). Curated correctly with highly targeted options, we routinely see conversions of around 30%, and sometimes as high as 70% (one of our own marketing experiences converts consistently at over 90%). These higher conversions come to us by virtue of highly targeted advertising options available via most social and search platforms. So, in essence, we can reach that ‘buy now’ market directly (which is what makes Facebook and Google advertising so effective). Targeting this red hot market that are genuinely interested in hearing from you – or at the very least a highly segmented portion of the market – exponentially increases the likelihood of a conversion. Google AdWords is an excellent example of highly targeted advertising because a user has expressed direct interest in your services by way of a search (and this is why SEO is a standard component of the majority of our Growth Programs). This market is extremely likely to call you, visit your landing page, or opt into your email sequence (conversion rates are usually far higher than the wide(ish) net cast via Facebook advertising).

The '20-12-8-3-1' Model of a Buyer's Filter

Pictured: BeliefMedia’s late 1990s model of the “Buyer’s Filter”. Technology has made the “20-12-8-3-1” filter more relevant today than it was when used at a time before highly targeted advertising. That top 5% is now used to illustrate the portion of a market that ops into more profitable areas of your business.

Of course, there are literally hundreds of back-end and consumer-facing experiences that will ultimately determine if you convert a particular client or not, and it’s our twenty years dominating the digital space that usually guarantees us conversions far higher than those that consider themselves competition.

The Landing Page

In most cases, sending a user directly to your website achieves very little since it’s unlikely to address the very specific questions the visitor has, and certainly won’t honor the promise made by your advertising. For this reason, it’s normal to send your advertising traffic directly to a landing page that is designed to capture user attention, spark their interest, and have them call you, buy from you, or – at the very least – have them opt into an email program via the lead magnet as discussed above. The landing page is free from distraction and is designed to convert.

Keep in mind that every web page on your website is a potential entry point and, ipso facto, a landing page, and it should be treated as such. The difference between having your website built by a ‘web designer’ and marketer is that the former will likely make your website look pretty… while a marketing agency will make your website look good and convert. With this principle in mind, we advocate that every page on your website offer conversion opportunities. This doesn’t mean that you neglect the core expectations of each page, it just means that while your page serves its expected purpose it also includes elements designed to subscribe a visitor to a relevant segmented list, or have your cold visitor call you.

Should I Use Lead Page or Click Funnel Style Websites?

Despite becoming somewhat commonplace, the notion that you’ll send a cold visitor to a third-party website is somewhat absurd. If you’re using a third-party landing page website (and you have your own website) you’re costing yourself conversions – simple as that. Directing a user to a landing page within your own website adds trust, gives you complete ownership of content, and ensures your page fully complies with its own data collection and privacy policy (by using third-party landing pages a good portion of the finance industry we deal with are potentially breaching privacy legislation or the governing conditions of their Credit Licence).

If you’re indexing landing pages (so, you don’t prevent search engines from having them indexed), the pages will contribute towards your own SEO score, and if a user isn’t interested in your offer they’re on your website and might seamlessly navigate to other pages of interest (that are also designed to convert).

Other than the issues discussed, landing page ownership doesn’t incur additional fees that often amount to hundreds per month, they’re easy to create, easy to track with analytics, and all the features of these ‘premium’ third-party websites can be integrated with little or no cost. If you already have marketing representation and they’ve provided you with a paid third-party landing page service, it’s time to let them go. If you don’t have your own website you have bigger problems altogether.

Outside of Online Marketing

The AIDA model also works well for inbound telephone inquires, and we advocate its use in some of our classes. While you have their attention early on (unless you’re cold calling), it’s important to garnish the interest of your audience, create a desire for your services, and always try to close. While a little unrelated, we always have our clients say “we’ll send you some information while we’re talking”. In this way, you’ve plugged that individual into an email campaign and they’ll immediately receive additional information of value. The follow-up in this case adds additional value to our Magic Lantern method because the lead already ‘knows you’.

The AIDA model is one of many we use for effective telephone communications.

Conclusion

We’ve provided a basic introduction only. The funnel concepts – particularly the methods we employ internally – are a little outside the scope of an introductory article, but we will revisit them sometime soon. Our funnel approach is infinitely more effective than the generic models floating around, and they include far too many elements to squeeze in here.

We sketch out the funnel journey journey on a whiteboard before we even consider building the online components, and we suggest you do the same. It’s essential that you mindmap your funnel journey before trying to build the experience within a website. Even once you have a funnel complete, keep in mind that you’ll be relentlessly split testing every creation to determine what journey converts best. The split testing exercise is one that never ends.

It’s important that you build workable and unique technology to ensure your funnel works as you want it to rather than building something that fits with an existing framework (the “tail wagging the dog” approach is boring). By definition, if you’re using a generic off-the-shelf solution, you’re offering the same boring product everybody else is.

Keep an eye out for our next article on email sequences.

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