16 Dec 2014

How Content Marketing Axed the Marketing Funnel

As a marketer, you are well aware of the “funnel.” While it’s true you should attempt to create content that aligns with a prospect’s stage in the purchase path, there’s a notion that I would like to dismiss.

The likelihood that a consumer in 2014 is going to enter the top of your company’s marketing funnel, and then smoothly follow a pre-determined path you have created for them all the way through to conversion, is an antiquated idea.

Instead, today’s customer journey is incredibly fragmented. Prospects can consume a wide variety of content on brand websites, social media channels, review sites, or e-mail newsletters, or their mobile devices. They might experience brands offline, too — at live events, on TV, or via word-of-mouth. Consumers flock to content that is relevant to them, but frequently migrate to other networks or sources because:

  • Additional content is easily accessible online
  • They still have unanswered questions

With so many possible entry points, touch points, different approaches, and varying content offerings across the web, a consumer might realistically find you at any point in their journey. Consumers arrive at brands and content in many different ways, on different devices, and at different times. All of this makes consumer patterns nearly impossible to track or predict, and it greatly diminishes the relevance of the traditional funnel.

Marketing and Content Realities

Many marketing leaders have proposed new approaches that focus on the customer, rather than the brand. Research continues to back up these ideas. These philosophies consider the consumer’s holistic experience and relationship with a company, across multiple media and over a much longer timeframe.

Consider the following:

  • At Content Marketing World 2014, marketer Andrew Davis balked at the notion of the marketing funnel, and instead proposed the idea of a “loyalty loop,” where customers choose brands that inspire them among the melting pot of available content across the web.
  • Forrester detailed a “Customer Life Cycle” approach in a 2013 study, where each phase “is about what the customer does, not what marketing seeks to achieve.”
  • The Harvard Business Review earlier this year quipped that “the primary problem with the funnel is that the buying process is no longer linear” because consumers are now “more informed, connected, and empowered than ever.”
Forrester customer life cycle

Source: Forrester

All three of these approaches stress that the customer’s lifetime journey should remain at the center of any visual aid for marketers. Your marketing efforts should begin with great content that educates and inspires, and if you can deliver on the promises your content makes, then you are on the path toward earning loyal customers.

First Impressions

Instead of trying to shove your prospects along, understand that they may be coming to you as someone who:

  • knows almost nothing about your industry or services
  • is embarking on a 30-, 60-, or 90-day research period
  • is comparing multiple merchants or features
  • is ready to purchase

Maybe they’ve spent time on your competitor’s website. Maybe they’ve visited your brick and mortar store. The point is — we rarely know where the online visitor is in his or her decision process, so you want to ensure that you make the most of this first impression. After all, this might be your only chance to speak to this potential customer.

With that said, your focus as a content marketer and a solutions provider should be to:

1. Make your content stand out with relevance
As more companies adopt a content marketing philosophy, good content becomes more prevalent. You need to have great content available for all types of audiences, no matter who or where they are in their “journey.” Relevance means having appropriate content for the novice as well as the expert, and it means aligning your content offerings with precise, long-tail SEO keywords. Offer laser-focused, rich content to ensure this isn’t the only time this prospect interacts with your brand’s content.

2. Respect the user by being transparent.
Remember, there are dozens of other places and websites where someone can visit to glean information. So if someone isn’t getting what they want in a way that suits them, you’ll lose. Once they’ve arrived on your site, strive for clarity and transparency, both in your content and in the user experience you provide. This will also help turn that prospect into a repeat visitor, and perhaps a customer in the future.

Control

Content marketing has helped shift control — of cadence, information, and experience — from marketers to consumers. Today, Good marketers understand this. We’re evolving from an antiquated “me-centric” brand approach, focused on funnels that end in transactions, toward a “consumer-first” content marketing approach, focused on developing mutually beneficial relationships.

Many of you have likely seen the statistic that 57 percent of the buyer journey is complete by the time a potential customer is ready to speak to a sales person. Other studies say it’s closer to 70 percent. Regardless, the number is trending upward, thanks to consumer demand, competition, and content marketing’s ability to educate consumers and help them make informed buying decisions.

As the sales process continues to shrink, the content we create is becoming less interruptive; it’s now rooted in value and education. The push toward content marketing means marketers are embracing an approach of focusing on customer needs, so why are we holding on to the idea of the “brand-centric” marketing funnel?

2 Comments

  • Scott Frangos Dec 19, 2014

    Hi Drew –

    Interesting piece, thanks. I think there might still be a funnel in terms of starting points following through to lead conversion and final customer acquisition, but it is definitely not linear and definitely not happening all at one website from one device, as you point out.

    The one possible exception might be B2C eCommerce sites, but customers for those are often fragmented in their “landing approach” as well. I saved a couple of items in my shopping list on a cart at Amazon from my laptop, while on the “phone” (Skype) with family. Then later in a real world meeting, I modified the order on my tablet and checked out. This said, I still had to:
    Discover the company ==> Review what they have ==> Compare (break out of the linear steps and look at other sites) ==> Make selection choices ==> Add to Cart ==> Purchase and check out.

    B2B is arguably a different beast — but it has always been so. Then there are those long scrolling sell type sites which behave as a kind of Vertical funnel you can measure (relation to company name intended… say hello to Arnie for me).

    Bottom line for me is that there is always a sequence in sales, but the mobile angle makes it less direct. And the idea of controlling prospects completely in a funnel is gone, but you can still learn from a good navigation flow analysis showing how the do funnel toward a purchase. Some of those steps may still be influenced by smart marketers as A/B testing has shown.

    – Scott

  • Drew Eastmead Dec 19, 2014

    Hi Scott – thanks for the feedback! Agree with your points, and the mobile angle is so interesting. It will definitely lead to even more fragmentation as more and more people begin their research for products & services on mobile devices.