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Ending Funnel Vision: New Models for a Buyer's Journey

Are we thinking about the marketing funnel all wrong?


Funnel vision is a malady that’s easy to get, but hard to cure. It has swept marketing departments at companies large and small, and the symptoms are serious: Failure to understand customers, attachment to old models that no longer work, severe resistance to new treatments like social media and digital optimization.

At its core, funnel vision stems from a reliance on the old “funnel” model of marketing — a model that breaks down in a hyper-connected, digitally engaged world.

The old funnel did have its benefits — including, in particular, simplicity. In the funnel model, prospects start at the top of the funnel (the wide end), and gradually progress down the funnel until they become customers. It’s a linear journey that, for many years, has helped businesses segment audiences and messaging — and it worked. Marketers controlled the message, pushing communication out to customers and drawing them into our funnel to be qualified and converted.

But things have changed. Today’s customers are surrounded by worlds of information. They have countless means of learning about your (and your competitors’) products and services. Instead of simply waiting for marketers to push messaging to them, consumers can now pull the information they want from virtually anywhere.

Seeing more clearly

Customers are no longer in a funnel — they’re on a journey. Writing for The Economist, McKinsey & Company’s David Edelman and Francesco Banfi present a new model for marketers to consider. “Shoppers are shopping in a different way that requires companies to change how they think about and interact with their customers,” they note.

Edelman and Banfi offer a model for the customer decision journey that helps companies adjust their view from the flat funnel to a more circular pattern, wherein the customer considers brands, evaluates the choices that they offer, and makes a purchase. Edelman and Banfi’s model also considers what happens after the customer makes a purchase. Now the customer experiences the product and becomes an advocate for (or against) the product, depending on how she feels about it, which will influence future purchase decisions. This model also recognizes that the customer can influence family, friends, neighbors, and others via recommendations, particularly on social media channels.

Where the funnel fails

Ion Interactive president and CTO Scott Brinker feels that the funnel “isn’t a particularly flattering shape for modern marketing.” Writing for, he makes the wise observation that the funnel never considers the feedback loops that customers experience in social media, and notes that the funnel model writes off those who “fall off the toboggan on the way down,” when, in fact, there is still value in customers who have considered your product. Brinker’s model acknowledges the buyer’s journey, and also adopts a more circular shape.

Still got that funnel vision? Consider an audience that probably isn’t in the funnel with you: Millennials. Millennials expect a completely different experience — and they want that experience to change and move with them. Speaking at the 2014 Customer Insights Conference at Yale, IBM’s director of business analytics and decision management strategy, Erick Brethenoux, painted a picture of what the emerging customer looks like. Among millennials, 80 percent are willing to trade personal information for personalized offerings, 84 percent say social and user-generated content has an influence on what they buy, and most expect an immediate response — within five minutes — when they contact a company via social media.

Brethenoux also presents a circular alternative to the funnel, focusing on attracting new customers, growing them as brand advocates, and retaining them long-term.

Life after funnel vision

Eschewing the funnel and embracing a more modern marketing model is admittedly a step toward complexity, but the rewards can be huge. Pull back from the linear funnel model, and suddenly you’ll see opportunity. “This visualization of the journey helps focus conversations on where to spend money, where the opportunities are,” note Edelman and Banfi. The circular approach is also more holistic, and will help you optimize not only marketing, but also the organizations around marketing that influence the buyer’s journey from start to finish.

While the funnel encourages us to dismiss those who don’t make a purchase, Brinker makes the interesting point that anyone who has considered your brand could become an advocate or future customer, even if they didn’t make a purchase in your funnel. A buyer’s journey recognizes the value of everyone in the potential pool, and their ability to offer valued opinions on all the products they consider.

We are all becoming members of different tribes, notes Brethenoux, each of us participating in and gaining something from members of different tribes. Companies that recognize and cater to this idea of connectivity will see much better results than those that stick to funnel vision.

Stuart Leung is SEO Manager for, where he supports both digital and content marketing teams in spreading the word about customer relationship management (CRM). Born and raised in Michigan, he is now lucky enough to call both San Francisco and New York his home. He is a proud University of Michigan Wolverine, enjoys traveling East, and is always excited to discuss any topics around basketball and technology. He has worked in digital marketing for nearly a decade, focusing on content marketing and SEO. In addition to Re/code, he has contributed to Asian Week, Bleacher Report, Model Minority, Asian American Film, and Interbasket. If you’re inclined to hear him rant and rave, you can follow him @steuwart.

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