I Don't Like Funnels

I have to be honest -- I’ve always disliked the concept of the consumer funnel. Speaking to consumers is more about a journey than it is about driving people into a funnel and weeding them out. 

If you need an analogy, try thinking of panning for gold.  There are many ways to speak to consumers, and you have to sift through the mud to figure out which messages resonate the most and can drive the proper response.  Sometimes when you shake mud out of the pan with a heavier gauge screen you trap the larger deposits of gold, which is analogous to the “lowest-hanging fruit” in your target set.   Sometimes a finer gauge will be required to extract the smallest pieces of gold, and these are your higher-consideration, higher-touch consumers.  Just like gold nuggets, or even snowflakes, every consumer is unique; each requires a different method for conversion.

The funnel analogy assumes all of your consumers can be dropped into a single conversion path and either converted or discarded.  The analogy doesn’t take into account the variable mindset of a consumer.  There are times when a consumer is attuned to a wavelength and the right message will resonate, while other times it will just deflect.  If that happens, but all the criteria for that consumer aligned with that of your target, it’s possible timing was a factor.  The same person, targeted with a slightly different message or at a different time in a different location, may still convert.



The concept of the consumer journey is also not a new one, but I find it infinitely more relevant to what we do as marketers.  Every opportunity to interact with consumers is a chance to engage them in their journey.  A journey implies a state of flux rather than a linear construct.  A journey implies left turns and right turns -- and if you’re targeting males, it implies they had to go back and retrace their tracks because they got lost and refused to stop and ask for directions (trust me  -- I do this all the time).  A journey is an accurate depiction of the ways a marketer can target consumers with messaging that may or may not resonate at different stages of their journey.

The consumer journey, and even the panning for gold analogy, is bolstered by the idea of using data to refine messaging and speak to anonymized consumers based on what they like or how they behave.  It means data can be used like a different gauge screen or a differently sized pan to filter out consumers at different stages of their journey or in different mindsets at any specific time. 

I’m addressing this topic because we’re at the stage of the year where you’re drawing up plans to feed your sales efforts for 2013.  During this strategic planning phase it’s extremely important to craft a tactical plan flexible enough to match the needs of your target. Data is a significant tool for any marketer, if you assume that flexibility is a component of your strategy. 

Strategic thinking from 10 years ago and strategic thinking over the next 10 years are very different schools of thought because of the influence of digital media.  Digital media, and the data that has been amassed, as well as the speed by which terabyte after terabyte continue to be amassed, has transformed the view of consumer marketing into one infinitely more complex than the analogy of the consumer funnel.  The funnel is an entry-level concept for entry-level marketers, while the consumer journey and the panning for gold analogy better reflect the world in which we operate. Our world now is the result of infinite paths, infinite decisions and complex paths to consumer conversion success.

Good luck in your 2013 planning (and panning), and may you strike consumer gold!

4 comments about "I Don't Like Funnels".
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  1. Max Kalehoff from MAK, December 20, 2012 at 10:01 a.m.

    Agree. Funnels are for beer. Should've been your title.)

    Customer journeys now are so complex and unpredictable, that your purchase path needs to be elastic and adaptive. It makes forecasting difficult, but is necessary for creating the optimal conversion path.

  2. Corinne Munchbach from Forrester Research, December 20, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.

    We don't much like the funnel either and have proposed an alternative called the customer life cycle (CLC) that we think better represents the need to start with your customer at the center of everything your business does, and strategically builds the brand experience around them. Customers are your only source of competitive advantage and the funnel does nothing for marketers trying to build relationships in the form of meaningful, ongoing engagement.

  3. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, December 20, 2012 at 6:15 p.m.

    Hmmmm. Apparently you've been around marketing departments that so disrespect consumers that it doesn't matter whether you use the term "funnel" or any of the other more hip flavors - they'd still disrespect the consumer. The funnel is a very productive way to look at reality - one of many models that can help us envision how to help consumers come to choose our products for themselves. So you chose to believe you were "pushing people into the funnel". Funny choice of words. Reality is that far more people get a little intrigued by a product than seriously investigate. And far more seriously investigate than go to the store to check out. And far more check out at the store than actually buy. And far more buy than become repeat consumers (for a consumable). I don't care what you call it - but that describes the natural funnel that accurately reflects one part of marketing reality.

  4. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, December 28, 2012 at 8:43 a.m.

    The original concept of the article is correct. But when marketers talk about "funnels", they mean "filters" (I think
    the word funnel was suggested from the the shape of a funnel chart, not what it represents); that's not how you separate out gold; and we'd sell hardly anything if every customer literally required a different method for conversion.

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