Should we still be talking about the B2B marketing funnel?

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Ryan Skinner

23. 01. 2012 | 4 min read

Should we still be talking about the B2B marketing funnel?

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I’m thinking we should give up on the funnel. But what would life post-funnel look like?

The funnel seems kind of wobbly these days. Here’s why:

No buyer wants to think he’s in a funnel.
It doesn’t align with how buyers feel like they approach a purchase. Can we say a model is good if the protagonist of the story dislikes it?

You’re not in charge.
In a market characterized by information surplus and driven by search, social and rich content signals, the buyer owns the rhythm. Not the seller.

Buyers don’t proceed. They swirl.
The stages in the funnel (defining a need, drawing up a shortlist, etc.) just don’t sync with purchase journeys anymore. Buyers don’t do linear. They circle.

You don’t have time for mapping.
The funnel model assumes that there are some absolutes, that the ground isn’t shifting underneath the market. In fact, all is in flux.

Buyers’ journeys don’t just end.
The funnel assumes that there’s a pool of people called the market who don’t know you, and that your job is done once they’ve bought your product. “Plop! You’ve gone through the funnel.”

There are smarter people than me who have been saying much the same thing for years, like Steven Noble of Forrester, MarketingProfs and countless others who say the sales funnel is dead. They replace the funnel with flows, maps, nets, circles and webs – everyone wants to own the next model.

Does the death of the funnel apply to the big B2B decisions? Yes. We have piles of information from trillions of sources – this applies just as well to the professional as the personal world. Industrial tumult is just as strong as consumer tumult, if not stronger.

Crossroads Discount

The funnel was a model for storekeepers. The top of the funnel was the street. Then the funnel led into their shop, browsing, comparing, asking questions and then going to the register. The current model needs to be crafted on an Italian piazza. Consumers bounce in and out and all over the place, asking countless questions, listening in to conversations, examining and gossiping.

Funnels don’t do bouncy very well.

bazaar pic

So what’s the fallout of a post-funnel world?

If the funnel doesn’t fit well with buyer behaviour, then the tools based on this model won’t work. Prospects who don’t act like they’re in a funnel will get treated in ways that don’t suit their actual intent. Vendors seem to be racing to address this, but it’s a tough move, as many were built up on the foundations of funnel thinking.

Funnel-based content will start to feel funny. That one case study that applies to that one particular part of the theoretical buyer journey goes flat. It feels faked, forced, one-dimensional and lame to buyers who have a three-dimensional view of the market.

Efforts to push prospects through a funnel process meet resistance. Marketers who push themselves on webinar attendees to read the next piece of corporate literature fail. Prospects can see through tired funnel-driven tactics. They’re not buying escalation.

That’s a start anyway.

So what would I do, post-funnel?

I’d start by thinking facilitation. No matter where you think you have a prospect, you don’t. You. Don’t. Have. Them. They’re in charge. You’re just facilitating them. Help them. Don’t push, and don’t play games. To hell with your sales quotas. But do get serious when they get serious.

Build out your non-linear expeditionary forces. Buy a blogger breakfast. No joke. These independent expert-istas are the developing gauge of influence in a noisy market. They are the conversational coin in the new media bazaar. And don’t send them emails studded with your opinions and product news. Buy them breakfast. Lunch? Drinks? Then chat.

Think non-competitive business development. Start partnering with people who are in your space, but who you don’t compete with, to develop content, events, staff trades and such. A pretty clever marketer named Joe Chernov said: “When you are the only one tweeting about your infographic, you probably blew the execution.”

Assume you don’t know where people are coming from. When someone lands on a page of your website, do not think you know why they came there, or that you know what they’re looking for. Be humble. Offer choices. Like this:

wireframe picture of layout

Those are my ideas anyway. Do you have any of your own?

Published in:

  • b2b-marketing

  • marketing funnel

  • marketing models

  • sales funnel

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  1. Cynthia Siemens

    January 25th, 2012

    It’s a revolutionary shift in mindset to build strategies that encompass all the many-to-many relationships in the new model: many touchpoints across many channels, many recommender/opinion relationships across social-media and traditional media, etc. Influence-by-facilitation is hard, but we’re lucky to have good blog guidance like this and some great content marketing books and gurus out there, as well.

  2. Daniel Kuperman

    January 25th, 2012

    Great post. I think you nailed it with “facilitation”. That means focusing on content creation and ways to make it easier for the buyer to find whatever he/she needs instead of pushing out to them what YOU think they need.

    Problem is, if the buyer is not walking orderly through the supposed funnel, how do you evaluate your efforts? It will have to be via engagement metrics, not via standard funnel ratios (20% go through this stage, then 30% of those go to the next step, etc.).

    Is tough to live outside the funnel, but if that’s the reality then we need to adapt.

  3. Ryan Skinner

    January 26th, 2012

    +Cynthia Siemens Right on! The many-to-many approach fits very well with a non-linear mode of buying (which is how I buy things, I think!). It’s a tough sell, however, to marketing organizations that like their linear, like their “this does that” and like their “we’ll dictate the customer journey.”

    +Daniel Kuperman Thanks. That issue – metrics – is a really interesting one. I haven’t spent much time inside the premium social monitoring apps, but presumably they’re starting to create models that work better post-funnel. Do you have experience with them?

  4. Doug Kessler

    January 27th, 2012

    Love this post, Ryan.

    The funnel gets a lot of abuse. It’s tough our there for a metaphor these days.

    For me, the part of the metaphor that breaks down is the gravity implied in it.
    In a real funnel, gravity is the force that pulls the contents of the funnel down towards the destination.

    In marketing, there is no such force. In fact, there’s the opposite: a force that pushes people out of the funnel – maybe they never wanted to be in it in the first place; or a competitor pulls them out; or a distraction; or just time.

    I still like the idea of a large number of disengaged people morphing into a medium number of people who have exhibited a medium level of engagement, then a few people who have exhibited lots of engagement. Still feels funnel-shaped to me.

    But the funnel is upside down and we have to fight gravity (the tendency to move further away) with some kind of counter-force: content, value, utility, entertainment…

  5. Pete Jakob

    January 28th, 2012

    Fab post Ryan.
    I think part of the problem is that Funnel tends to make us think in a transactional way: the objective of the process is t make a sale; you start off with a bunch of folks here and eventually you whitle it down to a few over here.

    The problem is that we don’t need transactional process thinking, we need systems thinking. There are multiple parties, multiple conversations, multiple influences, multiple objectives all at play at the same time. Simplistic models have a place, but we have to recognise that life is more complex than that.

    Personally I get a great deal of inspiration (if not answers) from my back garden. Growing watercress on cotton wool in an eggbox is simple. At one level a forest grows in the same way. But the subtleties and interplay around climates, soil structure, the role of decomposition, animal grazing, airborne spores, etc are what makes nature so inspiring.

    So watercress is the store. A forest is the piazza. You can grow watercress in a funnel. A forest requires a (Eco)system.

    Fortunately as we start to think about unstructured social data as much as structured data from CRM systems we will increasingly see that a systems mindset is what is needed for success in marketing…unless we only want watercress sandwiches

  6. julia

    October 29th, 2012

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