The digital age has empowered consumers with unprecedented access to information and provided them with a digital path to purchase that makes the traditional marketing funnel anachronistic. Australian business consultant Mark Hocknell (@mark_hocknell) writes, “Yes that’s right — The Funnel that is used by some of the best marketing organizations on the planet — has long passed its use-by date.” If you’re not a marketing professional nor familiar with the marketing funnel, Liz Willits (@lizwillits), a Content Strategy Specialist with AWeber, explains, “The marketing funnel is a tool that helps you visualize the buyer journey, or the path a prospect takes as they become familiar with your company, from introduction to conversion (and hopefully beyond). Your marketing funnel should include the following 5 stages: awareness, consideration, conversion, loyalty, and advocacy.” Those stages still sound reasonable; so, you might be wondering why Hocknell writes, “The Funnel that we so often use to describe leads-to-converts (social media, marketing and sales), has stopped being useful at all, in fact I believe it actually hinders engagement with our future customers.”
Farewell to the funnel
My take on the matter is this: Consumers now have so many channels through which they can purchase goods and services, and so many ways they can jump on and off the path to purchase, the traditional funnel is full of holes, making it look more like a sieve than a funnel. Hocknell offers three reasons he believes the traditional marketing funnel is no longer a good analogy. They are:
- Times have changed. According to Hocknell, “The Funnel had its origins in the early days of the last century when knocking on doors was key to making sales. Then we evolved to making phone calls to get sales. So what happens today, in this age of the customer where we have information parity? Our future customers are doing their research online and within their social networks (up to two-thirds or their buying journey). So all we have done is translate the front end of The Funnel to now include visitors on websites, or people that download a report or ebook and sign up for an email newsletter. Not what The Funnel was designed for. The customer environment and context has changed and yet we are still using the same tool.”
- The funnel creates silos and horse-trading. “The Funnel,” Hocknell explains, “means we need to qualify the various stages and make individuals responsible for each stage. The Social Media Manager and or Marketing at the front end, and middle. Then Sales at the lower end. We develop complicated qualifications and then internally trade between these definitions to ensure our numbers balance. The use of The Funnel is fostering internal horse-trading. Rather than managing the whole system, we are focused on the parts and dealings with ourselves.”
- The funnel fosters ineffective marketing approaches. “The language of The Funnel is a shocker,” Hocknell writes. “Let’s think about those people that might be wanting to engage with our brand and offerings those people that we would like to become our customers, who love what we do and will become promoters of what we do. Now, let’s call them Leads and then give them definitions like marketing qualified, or sales qualified. Now let’s see them as unenlightened individuals that need to be converted. The sales team then approach these people like evangelists on a mission. Is this really how we want to treat our future customers. I think not. We should start the customer relationship the way we want it to be forever. How we communicate with our marketing and sales teams has a huge influence on how they ‘think about’ and ‘talk with’ the people we want to be our awesome customers.”
Although Willits doesn’t necessarily believe the stages of the traditional funnel are wrong, at the very least, she admits the funnel needs to be reshaped. She explains, “It’s time to throw that old-school marketing funnel out the window. The reason: With the cone-shaped funnel method, your marketing efforts end at the point of purchase. After a person becomes a paying customer, your job is done. You focus solely on acquisition and finding more pre-customers. But that’s not a strategy for growth. Instead, we recommend you follow a marketing funnel that looks more like a bow tie that’s wide on the left, narrow in the middle, and wide on the right.”
Replacing the traditional marketing funnel
Willits’ recommendation to reshape the traditional marketing funnel aligns with other suggestions, including Hocknell’s, calling for lifecycle marketing. Julia McCoy (@JuliaEMcCoy), CEO of Express Writers, explains, “There’s a better way to [market than using sales funnels to map your marketing to customer journeys]: It’s far more accurate and it aligns with lead nurturing and trust-building in content marketing. It’s called lifecycle marketing, and it’s trending big. This new framework is all about giving your audience what they need and want as they move through their buying journeys. They run the show; meanwhile, you’re there at every touchpoint, providing value.” It just makes sense for a brand to be present at each potential touchpoint where a consumer can jump on the path to purchase. McCoy notes, “Modern buyers’ journeys are not even close to [being] linear, not to mention they hate impersonal marketing and cold/aggressive sales tactics. … Sales funnels don’t accurately model the modern buyer’s journey. Lifecycle marketing does.” She goes on to describe how lifecycle marketing works differently than the traditional marketing funnel.
- The lifecycle marketing model has no closed walls. “The lifecycle model breaks down the walls of the sales funnel and opens up the buyer’s journey model. In other words, it maps to real-life, modern customer journeys.”
- It includes loyalty as a major stage. “Another big difference between sales funnels and lifecycle marketing: Sales funnels don’t account for brand loyalty. Lifecycles do. In fact, loyalty and customer retention are two of the main goals of lifecycle marketing.”
- The shape is circular. “As you might have guessed, the shape of the lifecycle model is important to understanding how it works. It’s circular — a potential infinite loop. Once prospects become customers, they aren’t spit out and forgotten at the end of your sales process.”
The reason I prefer McCoy’s circular shaped model to Willits’ bow tie shaped model is because it’s not an “in-one-end-out-the-other” model. I know that wasn’t Willits’ intention, but the visuals are important. If you want to learn more about lifecycle marketing, I highly recommend you read McCoy’s article in full.
Hocknell notes, “The Funnel does not sponsor customer engagement, it never did.” That’s probably the biggest and most important difference between the funnel and lifecycle marketing. The other major difference is that lifecycle marketing encourages brands to be present at each touchpoint available for consumers to join the path to purchase. McCoy concludes, “Lifecycle marketing is all about nurturing relationships and building brand loyalty, which is what content marketing strives to do, too. Match those two up in your strategy, and you’ll be able to give buyers exactly what they need and want.”
 Mark Hocknell, “The end of The Funnel,” Customer Think, 3 November 2016.
 Liz Willits, “Understanding the Marketing Funnel: 5 Strategies to Improve Your Email Marketing,” AWeber, 2016.
 Julia McCoy, “Forget the Funnel: Join the Buyer’s Journey With Lifecycle Marketing Instead,” MarketingProfs, 22 May 2019.