A New Way of Thinking
Start building your funnel based on your customer's needs, not yours.
Start With a Plan
Every success that you hope to have hinges on being able to align your story and brand with the customer's needs.
Nurture Your Growing User Base
Offer value to your users by continuing to provide content that solves their pain points.
Turn Customers into Brand Advocates
The journey doesn't stop at the purchase. Leverage your customer relationships to expand your brand reach.
Would you believe me if I told you that the idea of a sales and marketing funnel is well over a century old?
I hope so, because it turns out that the AIDA sales funnel (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) was first developed and outlined in 1898. We take it for granted now, but this method of defining the customer experience and segmenting sales and marketing efforts was radical for its time and is still well-known to this day.
Our world is wildly different from anything they could have imagined. A strong majority of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations and perform online research before shopping. Most adults use Facebook and check email at least once per day.
A lot has changed since the 19th century, resulting in a new breed of consumer. But a lot hasn’t changed, too.
Why the Old Sales Funnel Doesn’t Work
The original sales funnel was developed for a completely different world. In fact, the entire concept of advertising was different from what we—as consumers and marketers—see and experience today.
And yet, at almost any given company, you can find something just like this drawn prominently on whiteboards:
I have two major problems with the way funnels are commonly used in organizations today:
- Oversimplification. I’m normally a big fan of the KISS principle, but companies do themselves and their customers a huge disservice when they water down the funnel.By outlining your processes and tools in this format, you are essentially writing your own proprietary recipe that is designed to create loyal customers. And, as well all know, recipes don’t work so well when you skip over key preparation steps or vaguely describe the ingredients.
- The Destination. In the old sales funnel, everything culminates in “action,” which translates to The Purchase. But the ultimate goal isn’t a single purchase—you need loyal customers and advocates that will continue buying and steer other customers to your products.Think of this in terms of a relationship. Do you want your customers to think of your brand as a fling that they will leave behind when something better comes along? Or do you want to foster a long-term relationship with them? Of course, the answer is obvious—every company, regardless of industry, size, or business model, has to attract and keep customers to stay in business. But treating a single decision as the only important indicator for the larger sales and engagement process is astonishingly short-sighted. And yet I see it all the time, even at established, profitable companies.On top of that, other aspects of the customer experience tend to suffer when sales is at the center of a marketing strategy. No one in their right mind says they want to alienate users as soon as they become customers, but organizations tend to do exactly that when they focus exclusively on converting leads to customers. Everything else automatically becomes an afterthought.
The traditional funnel represents the old marketing mindset of volume and attrition: push as many leads as possible into the top of the funnel and expose them to cold calls, billboards, and magazine ads until they became prospects, and pitch the product until those prospects turn into customers. Then start back at the top and figure out how to get more and more leads.
But, little by little, marketers began to think that maybe—just maybe—we ought to try approaching things from the customer’s point of view.
The Complexity of the Modern Buyer’s Journey
The mindset behind the traditional funnel isn’t the only problem it has—its structure is woefully outdated in the context of today’s market. Although it broadly summarizes the basic steps a customer takes on the way to purchase, it doesn’t get even close to representing the complexity of the modern buyer’s journey.
Think about it: The buyer’s experience with your brand starts long before he or she becomes a customer. Thanks to television, the Internet, and the 24-hour news cycle, people have incredible access to information about whatever they want, whenever they want it. So if your brand is out there, people are forming impressions about it well before they think about opening their wallets.
That’s why the old sales funnel—the concept of pushing people into buying your product—is no longer a viable solution for long-term growth. Today’s consumers don’t seek out ads or salespeople when they want to buy something. They go on a journey of self-discovery, where the destination is finding the right product for their needs at the right time.
For this reason, organizations need to embrace the modern customer journey funnel with its many stages—each step is an opportunity for you to connect with a potential buyer and give him a unified and integrated experience that results not just in a customer, but in a brand advocate.
The Customer Journey Funnel
As you may have guessed already, the modern marketing funnel isn’t comprised of four steps, and it doesn’t suddenly stop at the purchase. It is designed to accommodate many of the complexities of the end-to-end customer experience, from prospect to buyer, and beyond.
There’s plenty to talk about at every stage of the customer journey funnel, but let’s start with a brief summary:
The customer journey marketing funnel provides a way for you to create an immersive experience across channels, devices, and more, to interact and engage with potential buyers—and ultimately turn them into advocates who will bring more buyers directly to you.
By now you’re probably ready to see it in action, so here it is:
Before we dive into each section, understand that this graphic is not exhaustive—it is still slightly simplified to encompass more of what is involved in turning leads into customers, but a truly comprehensive one would be massive (and change constantly). That said, there’s a lot to take in here, so let’s dig into this framework and see how it can help you grow your business and increase your revenues.
Start With a Plan
The first thing I want you to notice about this funnel is that it doesn’t start where the old funnel did. Before you start creating a brand-new, immersive experience for your customers, you need to plan.
This kind of planning isn’t the sort of thing you can do in a single afternoon. And, while it requires thinking, it’s the kind of thinking that requires heavy research and multiple documents. This applies to new and existing businesses alike. This doesn’t mean that you’ll anticipate every possible outcome on paper before implementing your ideas—you’ll need to accept that you’ll never have a 100% perfect plan. Get the essentials lined up, launch, and refine.
This is your Why—the core of why your business exists in the first place.
Simon Sinek has a great summary of what this means:
See the difference between these examples using Apple? Starting with the Why isn’t as easy as coming up with some feel-good excuse to sell a product—it’s how you build your company and a growing user base, and it will inform every aspect of your business, starting with the essentials.
Here’s what those essentials look like:
- Examine your product/market fit based on your ideal buyer and your Why, and make necessary adjustments.
- Evaluate your People for growth mindset, commitment to the Why, and ability.
- Explore the Growth Team concept and create a plan for filling those roles.
- Review your current Processes and Platforms to see what changes are needed, and set a timeframe for implementation.
Without product/market fit, you won’t have customers. So take a good, long look at your ideal customer and dig down into what he truly wants and needs, and make sure that you can deliver on that.
You’ll notice that this list also includes the 3Ps. Within the framework of the funnel, you have your People, Processes, and Platforms — but remember that you can only start working on those after you’ve determined your Why and done the work of StoryVesting.
Your People must be vested in the Story of your company. They should be overflowing with ideas and excitement. With the right People in the right places, you can take small ideas and turn it into something big. Everything always goes back to your People, so put in the time to get the right People on board.
Once you have the right People, lock down the Processes that will get the job done in the most effective and efficient way. As tempting as it is to settle for what works, doing so will cost you dearly — in time and in money — down the line. Better to make mistakes when you have a mailing list of 20 than when you have a list of 20,000. Perfect your Processes from the start and review them regularly.
Use the right Platforms to save time and money and to keep your People from getting unnecessarily frustrated. Recognize the difference between making a strategic decision to use a free or low-cost alternative that does 90% of what you need and forcing your People to use a cobbled-together solution that requires significantly more time and energy without producing real results.
The truth is, you won’t get far without planning. You need to answer the critical WHY and get your People, Processes, and Platforms (3Ps) right, because everything else relies on it. If you don’t plan, you can’t move on to the next level, let alone optimize your site, personalize a campaign for particular prospects, run your A/B tests, and all the other cool stuff that most of the big names in digital marketing talk about all the time.
You have to start where you are. You have to plan properly. You have to use the framework to guide your actions. You simply can’t run an A/B test until you have an audience. I realize exactly how overwhelming it is to build a modern digital marketing plan, and that’s why I always take a step back to prepare for everything else that needs to happen.
Attracting an Audience
Before we move on from planning, take a moment to realize that you won’t ever be done planning. After all, planning is a process, not a single event. It’s an integral part of creating a digital marketing machine that runs smoothly and generates revenues. It never ends — but after a certain point, you can move forward. Don’t forget that you’ll need to constantly revisit and reevaluate your plan by changing what isn’t working, incorporating new Platforms that can do the job better than your old ones, replacing People as needed, and revisiting your plan to ensure that your StoryVesting findings are still relevant. Because over time, your ideal customer might grow and change — and his needs will grow and change, too.
Now you can start to create and distribute valuable content written specifically for your ideal customers. There’s a good reason the infographic gets a bit busy during this stage of the customer journey funnel—it’s not as simple as putting out a company blog.
This section is made up of many pieces that comprise an inbound content marketing engine, the system that delivers your content to your customers. You might not use all of these components, but they should be considered when you’re mapping out an inbound strategy.
The Value of Inbound
Outbound marketing, which can include advertisements and popups—things that interrupt the user while doing research—still has its place, but the beauty of inbound marketing is that you can reduce ad spend while connecting directly with the people who are most likely to buy from you. According to Hubspot, around 50% of companies report higher ROI using inbound compared to 15% that report the same for outbound.
So what is it about inbound marketing that makes it more effective? The value it provides to the user.
When you have a question about something, what do you do? You Google it. You pull out your phone, your tablet, or even your laptop, and you type your query into the search bar (“How to remove scratches from a wood table”) and scan the results.
You’re not thinking of buying anything right now—you’re just looking for a solution to your problem. So you click through a few articles and skim them. If you’re a video person, you check out the YouTube links. You click. You read the article or watch the video. You solve your problem—or you keep looking for information.
By creating the kind of content that you need, this company has found a way to draw you into their funnel. Even if you’re not considering a purchase, you’ve been attracted to the content they produce, whether they provide a local service or product.
Think about what this means for your content marketing. As long as you start with your customer in mind and create content that meets their needs and wants, you’re providing value. And you can provide that value throughout your customer’s entire experience. Your customer—who is smart, savvy, and connected—can engage with you at each step. Create content that draws people in and makes them feel like you make their life easier, that they can share that content with others.
Get Started With Inbound
So where do you get started with creating your own content? Here’s a quick primer:
- Make a list of your existing content assets: e-books, infographics, blog posts, white papers, worksheets, LinkedIn or Facebook posts—if you put time into creating a resource, include it in your list of content assets.
- Consider how your existing content maps to each of your buyer personas.
- Evaluate what’s missing: what information does your ideal customer need that you don’t currently provide? Make a list of questions your ideal customer asks that you can answer with authority and credibility.
- Review your existing content to determine whether any of it can be repurposed to fill in the gaps you’ve identified.
Now, this isn’t the only place where you’ll need content for your customers. As you move throughout the rest of the funnel stages, content still plays a critical role. In fact, content is what drives digital marketing—content touches every part of the funnel and every channel where you are. Once you’re creating and distributing this content, make sure you have the processes in place to monitor the results: views, visitors, inbound links (which shows how useful people find your content), downloads, and so on. Prove that what you’re doing is worth the time and resources.
Nurture Your Growing User Base
Once you’ve managed to attract an audience to your blog, mailing list, etc., those relationships must be nurtured.
Once your ideal customer knows that you exist, you need to prove that you’re worth his time and attention by continuing to provide value. To do that, you’ll need to consistently go back to that Why you spent so much time on back in the beginning.
Nurturing your prospects is not easy, especially when you’re in a crowded industry with plenty of competition. The typical cycle for a B2B service or SaaS product can be lengthy and convoluted. And certain products—like buying insurance or picking your next cell phone brand—can be even more involved. That’s why it’s so important to build content that offers value to your prospects and track metrics that will show what’s hitting the mark and what isn’t.
Think about what you want in your own relationships—in your personal life, as well as in business. New relationships need special attention. You don’t start out a relationship by asking for favors. So don’t start hounding your ideal customer to buy from you this early in the process. Instead, learn to identify the ways you can spend time on improving the relationship between you and your ideal customer:
This is much more than simply explaining to your leads what wonders your product can do—that’s always part of the messaging. Your focus should be on the pain points of your ideal customers. What problems do they want to solve? How do you resolve them? What are the different ways you can broadcast this useful, informative content to them?
Odds are you have a pretty good idea of what your customers’ pain points are already, but you need to be able to dig even deeper. Investigate solutions on how to match your solutions to their pain points, and understand how it associates with brand value. Be prepared to make changes based on your findings.
Don’t forget that many of the leads that come into your email list, social networks, or other means are almost certainly considering other solutions along with yours, comparing factors such as price and convenience. This is where the brand starts becoming integral to the overall experience. What are some of the ways you can help your customers along the path to deciding? Is your pricing structure clear? Do you have direct competitors that you blow out of the water, which you can show through a feature comparison matrix?
- Decision Justification.
Help your customers clearly understand why it’s in their best interest to choose your brand. Find new, creative ways to push them closer and closer towards a purchase. Show them how your pricing is justified by the value of your products. Share social proof that validates their research and consideration. Prove that the experience they’ll get is more important than the price tag.
Above all, ensure that every piece of information you put out offers value to your list. That’s how you got them here in the first place, and that’s how you’ll keep them from going to your competitors for better answers to their questions and problems.
To do that, you’ll need to build, test, and refine a set of processes unique to this stage in the funnel:
- Test and refine your SEO and SEM tactics to ensure that your content is highly visible to the right audience.
Although they may seem similar at a glance, SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) are very distinct—SEO is your inbound strategy, the way the content on your website connects to customers organically through search engines, and SEM usually refers to paid online advertising through AdWords and other PPC platforms.Whether you use SEO or SEM to bring in leads, neither can replace the quality of your content. If you don’t answer questions or solve any pain points, you’re just spinning your wheels. The number one SEO tactic is to constantly offer fresh, valuable content. And don’t forget to follow search engine best practices so that you can connect with the people interested in what you’re doing.
- Leverage large, relevant audiences when possible and make your content visible, shareable, and accessible from the social media channels where your ideal customer is.
Get your brand out there in front of more people. Sounds a bit too simple, right?Between guest posting on high-profile sites in your market, participating in LinkedIn or Facebook groups in your niche, and reaching out with quality content that really resonates, you can nurture your prospects and deliver value that puts you ahead of your competition. Take the time to research these avenues, put in the effort to reach out to someone new and introduce yourself, and build these channels to build your user base.
- Segment your database to provide the most relevant content to your ideal customer.
Why does segmentation matter? By dividing your customers into several distinct homogenous groups (groups sharing certain characteristics, such as gender, age, location, and education; the products or services they buy; the amount of money they spend per transaction, and so on), you can address each group with customized messages that are most appropriate for that segment.When you hone in on segments with highly relevant messages, each individual user will feel that the letter speaks to him directly—and they will be more likely to respond. Segmenting also helps you to identify your most and least pro table customers, which ultimately saves you money on your marketing expenses. You can reward your loyal customers with special offers, improved customer service, and customized solutions, and you won’t have to spend time and money catering to those groups that ultimately aren’t interested in buying.
- Automate Processes whenever possible.
Automation isn’t something that’s just nice to have in a business—it’s a requirement. And once you have created the correct systems that keep your prospects in a positive feedback loop, automation will keep them running smoothly.Consider how and when you can connect with your prospects and customers using surveys or automated emails. When an ideal customer hasn’t been to the site recently, check in to see how things are going and offer your latest, freshest content along with an exclusive offer. Broadcast the benefits of your solutions via social proof in videos.
Notice how your marketing strategy is inextricably linked with your business strategy, sales, customer service, and every other part of your business. And, of course, always remember that your focus must be on the buyer’s experience. Optimize your website so that it loads quickly, because users don’t like waiting for slow-loading pages. Make sure the mobile experience is seamless, because users want to use whatever device is handy. Be in tune with what your users want and need, because they have plenty of choices and your competition is just a click away.
This phase of the funnel is also incredibly important (are you noticing a trend here?), but with the right People, Platforms, and Processes in place, you’ll be set up for success.
If you’ve put in the planning and development necessary, this is when you’ll find that you can you can take advantage of the many tools and technologies available to improve the buyer experience — and drive even more growth. But if you try to jump right into this step, you’ll find that your business falls flat — or worse, crashes and burns. You must start where you are right now and build your business with growth in mind from the ground up.
Convert Users to Customers
This is the part where all of your hard work pays off. By the time users get to this stage, they have already decided they want to make a purchase. You have them exactly where you want them—and it’s up to you not to blow it.
This is where you will really see all your planning pay off. If you’ve mastered the Processes—if you’ve made sure that the buying experience is easy, without needless steps, without confusing requests, without unnecessary delays—customers will jump on board.
And even the people who don’t buy from you at this stage can offer you a tremendous source of value. If you can figure out why they’re choosing not to buy, you can tweak and test new offers and plan out exactly how to win those prospects over.
During this stage, you’ll slowly and carefully move your ideal customers towards conversion by providing additional value to the specific segments of your list, making targeted offers that appeal to those segments, and demonstrating precisely how your Why meets your ideal customer’s needs.
When they click that big “Buy Now” button, what happens? You do have a big “Buy Now” button, right? That’s the first thing to check. Did you make it easy for your customers to buy? Make it extremely simple, streamlined, and easy to spot. And once they do click, don’t give them a reason to leave by asking for unnecessary details. Name, email, address, credit card. Is it really worth it to ask for more information and risk losing orders?
Also, now is not the time to surprise them with additional shipping fees or even taxes. These costs should be estimated to avoid surprises. Simplify. Streamline. Make it easy.
Use retargeting to put yourself back in front of your ideal customer. Retargeting works via a small piece of code (often called a pixel) that sends a cookie to the users who visit that page (or site). That cookie then tells your retargeting provider to display certain ads on other sites—for example, Facebook—effectively letting you spend your advertising budget to target people who have already expressed at least some interest in your site.
At this stage of the funnel, data and information are on your side. You should have enough analytics to understand your users’ motivations and to make smart decisions that target those motivations. With the right tools, you can also apply real-time changes and test them immediately. Take advantage of that flexibility and use it to generate additional revenues.
- Ask users why they’re leaving and what’s keeping them from making a purchase. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.
- Ask customers why they did make a purchase. What’s working for them? How can you leverage that information for more sales?
- Test multiple post-purchase and Thank You pages to determine which are most effective at bringing customers back to the site.
- Automate your customer loops to ensure that your customers are informed and can easily revisit your product/service.
Remember, converting your prospects to customers is more than keeping your brand in front of the customer—that’s marketing 101. Making the entire process simple is a much newer idea—one that consumers have grown to expect. As a result, companies that focus on implementing end-to-end CX position their brand to reap higher ROI.
Part of that end-to-end experience is identifying the phases that come after the purchase and deciding how you will interact with your customers. I’ll touch on this briefly here, but we’ll really dig into this bow tie funnel in a future post:
Onboarding is crucial during this phase, especially for SaaS companies that live and die by churn rates. What are the first impressions of the product? Do you have appropriate documentation and walkthroughs to explain how to use the product? If you offer a service, are the next steps clear and concise?
At this point, you must build trust with your customer and make sure that the experience matches expectations. Your Why must align with the customer’s Why. This is where brand loyalty starts to form.
Once trust has been established with a customer, it forms a “mental block” or cognitive association of trust. This encourages him to buy more, explore new offerings (upsells) and even consider partner offerings (cross-selling).
- Advocacy and Ambassadorship.
Once your loyal customers start to buy more of your offerings, they are more likely to share the results with friends and family through word of mouth. The most invested customers—the ones whose Why completely aligns with the brand’s Why—are the company’s ideal ambassadors. Brands should construct data and analytical models to build campaigns and messaging around these consumers. (More on all this in the Engage phase.)
Once you’ve converted users to customers, you might be tempted to think that your work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you have a customer, you have a new goal: turn that customer into a social advocate for your brand.
Turn Customers into Brand Advocates
At this point, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy converting prospects to customers, so don’t let it go to waste.
When you have a great customer experience, what do you do? You probably tell people. And you’re probably influenced by what you hear from other people about amazing brands. The shoe company that replaced the sole on your aunt’s favorite heels, even though they hadn’t made that model for years. That time Amazon refunded your boss for an item he never received—even though the tracking information said someone signed for the package. The Target employee who gave you a coupon for your next purchase because the checkout line was especially long.
Your new customer is in a perfect position to spread the word to all his friends—many of whom are probably also right there in your target market. And, no offense, but they are significantly more likely to trust a recommendation from their friend than from you. So put your customers to work as brand advocates across social media:
- Identify the customers who are truly brand advocates.So how do you find the people who love your brand? Start by looking in the right places. Use social listening—monitor what people say about your brand on various social media channels—to get an inside peek into your biggest fans.
- Connect with those customers on a personal level.Once you discover those people who are true brand advocates, make a personal connection by inviting them to participate in ambassador programs that provide them discounts or early product access. Use questionnaires and surveys to find out what resonates with them, and why. Update your buyer personas with the insights gained to make adjustments throughout your entire funnel.
- Look for ways to create amazing experiences for your advocates.Think outside the box. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to create amazing experiences for people who already love your product. A handwritten note and a branded baseball cap or t-shirt can make a customer’s day.Use the information gained from your customers to test new emails, landing pages, banners, and more. Refine your approach in real-time, be flexible enough to change things that aren’t working within hours, and identify what is working. Find new, creative ways to be amazing. Look for ways you can amaze and delight your customers.
Make it easy for customers to encourage others to buy. Get those “share” buttons in front of them. Create an affiliate program. Send them a cheap or free t-shirt. Do whatever you can to continue to offer value, even if they’ve already given you their hard-earned money. Remind your customers of the reasons they made the purchase in the first place, and keep exceeding their expectations.
Use the End to End Customer Journey to Drive Growth
Each stage of the customer journey funnel involves your People, Processes, and Platforms, and as the funnel graphic shows, each stage contains several cogs. For me, these represent individual micro-machines within the larger digital marketing machine.
The beauty of simply altering your thinking slightly—viewing each of these micro-machines as its own unit that makes up part of a greater whole—is that you can concentrate on the individual micro-machines one at a time as you begin building. Yes, they all need to work smoothly together, or the entire machine will screech to a halt, but when you’re getting started, you can focus first on your blog and then on your SEO, for example.
You can call it a game of semantics, but it’s a game you’ll appreciate greatly when you’re three months into implementing a new team or a new platform and feeling overwhelmed. Returning to this framework will help you focus your energy and efforts in the right places for the most effective results. And by appreciating each micro-machine in its own right, you’ll ultimately be able to tweak and optimize each one in turn, so that your entire digital marketing machine is honed to maximize growth—and revenue.
Determining the Health of Your Own Funnel
Now that you know how critical it is to build and refine your own customer journey funnel, how can you gauge the effectiveness of what you have in place? A big part of this is taking an exhaustive inventory and analyzing your own metrics. If you’re gathering enough data—the right kind of data—you’ll have a good idea of your organizational strengths and weaknesses.
Depending on the structure of your own organization, you could be facing one of the two most likely scenarios:
- You’re part of an established company that has a tough time adopting change.
- Your startup is beginning to scale and you want to learn how to grow and future-proof your business at the same time.
I can tell you firsthand that neither situation is something you can simply dial in. At large companies, you might have the resources to fund new initiatives, but buy-in and implementation is another story. Meanwhile, smaller, leaner organizations are able to pivot and reorganize quickly, but may not have the capital or experience to execute.
In both cases, we have found that a comprehensive audit, complete with data, is indispensable. But self-auditing can be difficult and risky—the closer someone is to the organization and its processes, the more likely they are to overlook critical gaps in the overall approach. On top of that, the data used in this audit must be reliable, impactful, impartial, and demonstrate precisely how the customer is moving through the funnel, what shortcomings exist in the organization and its processes, and what new opportunities may be worth pursuing.