One of the central concepts of marketing and sales is the funnel — through which companies are supposed to systematically move prospects from awareness through consideration to purchase.
But consumers are now more informed, connected, and empowered than ever. Does the funnel still work in a digital, social, mobile age?
We asked some of the leading marketers in the world — from companies like Google, Intuit, Sephora, SAP, Twitter, and Visa — to assess the relevance of the marketing funnel. What we found says as much about the future of business as it does about the future of marketing.
According to these marketers, the primary problem with the funnel is that the buying process is no longer linear. Prospects don’t just enter at the top of the funnel; instead, they come in at any stage. Furthermore, they often jump stages, stay in a stage indefinitely, or move back and forth between them.
For example, consider items that come recommended on an e-commerce site. With a click you can add them to your cart, moving straight from awareness through consideration to purchase in only a few seconds. The same holds true on items discovered in a Tweet, Facebook post, or Pinterest board.
In both B2B and B2C businesses, customers are doing their own research both online and with their colleagues and friends. Prospects are walking themselves through the funnel, then walking in the door ready to buy.
As an example, Julie Bornstein, CMO at Sephora, has seen social media change how people buy beauty products. Recommendations from friends have always been important, but now these recommendations spread “quicker, faster, and further” at every stage in the funnel. The decision on what to buy increasingly comes from advocates who share their experience in a way that pulls in new customers and informs their purchase decision. Sephora’s response has been to bring all the stages of the funnel together into a single place, creating its own online community where people can ask questions of experts and each other about brands, products, and techniques.
One popular alternative to the funnel is the Customer Decision Journey popularized by McKinsey. A key advantage of this model is that it’s circular, rather than linear. Prospects don’t come in the top and out the bottom, but move through an ongoing set of touchpoints before, during, and after a purchase.
The Customer Decision Journey is an improvement over the traditional funnel, but some marketers see it as incomplete. The problem is in the name itself. Brands may put the decision at the center of the journey, but customers don’t. Jonathan Becher, CMO at SAP, believes that for customers, “the pivot is the experience, not the purchase.” The Customer Decision Journey might be circular, but if the focus is still on the transaction, it is just a funnel eating its own tail.
One of the most critical weaknesses of the Customer Decision Journey is the connection between purchase and advocacy. Almost every marketer we spoke to described how social media has disconnected advocacy from purchase. “You no longer have to be a customer to be an advocate. The new social currency is sharing what’s cool in the moment,” says Joel Lunenfeld, VP of Global Brand Marketing at Twitter.
In today’s marketing landscape, people can experience a brand in many ways other than purchase and usage of a product. These include live events, content marketing, social media, and word-of-mouth. Consider all the members of the Nike+ running community who don’t own Nike products or the half million fans of Tesla’s Facebook page who don’t own a Tesla. Or consider companies where employees use their own devices or download their own software until IT purchases the enterprise version for the entire company. In today’s digital age, advocates aren’t necessarily customers. Marketers who think that advocacy comes after purchase are missing the new world of social influence.
Antonio Lucio, Chief Brand Officer at Visa, believes the solution is to shift the focus from the transaction to the relationship. After exploring the Customer Decision Journey, his team developed what they call a Customer Engagement Journey. In this model, transactions occur in the context of the relationship rather relationships in the context of the transaction.
As an example, consider a real world journey of a family’s trip from the U.S. to Mexico. Visa has mapped out the entire experience, from where the family gets ideas on where to go (TripAdvisor), to how they gather input from friends (Facebook), to how they pay for their cab (cash from an ATM) or hotel (credit card), to how they share photos of their trip with friends back home (Instagram). Only a few of these situations are opportunities for transactions, but they are all opportunities for relationship. “When you change from decision to engagement,” Antonio says, “you change the entire model.”
Market trends suggest the mismatch will only widen between customers’ actual experiences and the models of the funnel or Customer Decision Journey. One key trend is the integration of marketing into the product itself. The funnel presumes that marketing is separate from the product. But for digital products like games, entertainment, and software-as-a-service, the marketing is built right into the product. Examples include the iTunes store and Salesforce’s App Exchange.
Caroline Donahue, CMO at Intuit, oversees numerous web-based products for which “the product and the marketing become one thing.” The funnel changes because “with cross-sell and up-sell, you move from awareness to action instantaneously.” Instead of a Customer Decision Journey, her approach might best be described as a User Experience Journey into which opportunities for transactions are thoughtfully embedded.
Google shares a similar view, taking the fusion of product and marketing one step further. Arjan Dijk, the company’s Vice President for Global Small Business Marketing, believes products should be designed to market themselves. For Google, the question is not “how can we market this product?” but “which products deserve marketing?” Marketing isn’t about “pushing people’s thoughts and actions. It’s about amplification, helping what’s already happening grow faster.”
So where do we go from here? The funnel and Customer Decision Journey aren’t going away. They are useful models, and will continue to be helpful in certain contexts. But marketing today requires a new mental map to navigate a changing landscape. We need a model that informs marketers how to enable and empower, not just persuade and promote. There are a variety of alternatives including journey, orbit, relationship, and experience.
Whatever model you choose, what’s most important is that it addresses: first, the multi-dimensional nature of social influence; second, non-linear paths to purchase; third, the role of advocates who aren’t customers; and fourth, the shift to ongoing relationships beyond individual transactions.
Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.
Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.