The Marketing Funnel Is Dead, But The Customer Journey Is Alive and Well

Social media has an important role to play in a new customer centered marketing cycle.

Google returns over 3,000 articles saying the marketing sales funnel is dead. Pronouncing a classic principle dead is helpful to attract attention and signify a big change. What is not helpful, is throwing the bath out with the bathwater believing there is no longer a path to purchase. Mark Ritson in Marketing Week appropriately said, “Reports of the death of the sales funnels are greatly exaggerated. Consumers might be bombarded with media and marketing from all angles, but markers must still understand how to influence their journeys towards a purchase.”

The original marketing funnel, also known as a sales, purchase or customer funnel is based on a hierarchy of effects model indicating consumers move through a series of stages to make purchase decisions. Known as the AIDA model marketing, advertising and sales people have been trained to move consumers through the stages of awareness, interest, desire and action. It is illustrated as a funnel because the number of potential prospects decreases with each stage and tactics change from branding and mass media advertising to sales promotion and personal sales.

The problem with the funnel is that it stops at purchase and does not map out post-purchase customer stages that influence repeat purchase and referral. McKinsey found that now two-thirds of the touchpoints during the active-evaluation phase of purchasing involve consumer-driven activities such as Internet reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family – post-purchase consumer activity not accounted for in the funnel.

Post-purchase stages are now more important to consumers and marketers.

This social media fueled feedback loop has shifted power from seller to buyer. Search and social has enabled people to create their own paths to purchase via dozens or even hundreds of touchpoints. Google has found that no two journeys are exactly alike. The consumer is at the center of their own unique customer journey. Derek Thompson in Hit Makers describes this consumer revolution saying, “The gatekeepers had their day. Now there are simply too many gates to keep.”

The marketer has lost control over much of the information about their products and services. What’s more, the brand messages they do create are less trusted than content created about the brand by consumers. Edelman reports that 74% of consumers use one more advertising avoidance strategies and 63% trust what influencers say about brands much more than what brands say about themselves.

This doesn’t mean consumers don’t want marketing and marketers have lost all influence. Salesforce State of Marketing report indicates 79% of customers are willing to share data in exchange for contextualized engagement, and 88% will do so for personalized offers. Its no longer about being a gatekeeper it about joining the community of consumers who already talking about your brand.

Customers today demand connected journeys through more personalize marketing.

Salesforce research has found 84% of consumers say being treated like a person, not a number is very important to purchase decisions. And 70% say connected processes, such as seamless handoffs, situation specific engagement, and needs anticipation, are important to their customer journey. In other words, consumers are looking for relationships. We need to put the “social” back in social media.

Many experts have seen this coming and describe the shift in various ways. Mark Schaefer in Marketing Rebellion calls for human-center social media marketing. Joseph Jaffe argued for conversational marketing and a move from corporate centric to customer centric marketing. Seth Godin says marketing now needs to be relevant not loud. Shoving declining mass advertising into the top of a disappearing sales funnel is making less and less sense.

Consumer engagement is key in a new customer centered buyer journey.

In our digital era the marketing funnel is more like a circular system. The consumer is at the center controlling much of their own buyer journey while influencing other consumer’s on path to purchase. The marketer joins the conversation via engagement as a guide not a gate keeper. This can be seen in the marketing cycle illustrated below.

The customer journey no longer follows a linear path of predictable marketing tactics that move consumers down a funnel of awareness to purchase. A Facebook ad or blog post may appear in the consumer’s feed or search results to generate awareness or could be the touchpoint they engage with right before conversion. A customer service interaction with a current customer on Twitter may recruit a new customer as a customer rating and review on Amazon or Trip Advisor my influence a conversion.

The engagement in the middle of this marketing cycle can impact any part of the journey at anytime. Positive or negative interactions and comments can pull more customers in or push more customers out entering any stage of this new circular path to purchase. The customer is at the center of this journey, but the brand can still join in and help guide the path. Google research reveals a mixture of paid, owned and earned media is consumed via unique paths to purchase with dozens or even hundreds of touchpoints.

After purchase customers use the product or service, form an opinion and share that experience through social media. This user generated content (UGC) is found by perspective customers via search and social networks feeding back into the marketing cycle influencing their awareness, interest, consideration and conversion stages.

Marketers must shift from a control mindset to one of engagement.

Seth Godin says to be seen marketers must learn to see. This begins with social media listening. The focus is on creating meaningful and relevant experiences at the appropriate time and place. The brand engages with potential customers through varied touchpoints along the journey from prepurchase awareness, interest and consideration to purchase conversion followed by postpurchase use, opinion and sharing.

These touchpoints become the tactics of social marketing strategy. A social media measurement plan can reveal which tactics and strategies are producing positive interactions pulling potential customers towards the next stage and which are creating negative experiences pushing them off the marketing cycle path to purchase.

HubSpot calls this moving from a funnel to a flywheel where the marketers role is to add force to the areas that have the most positive impact, and decrease friction in areas with the most negative impact. Doing so will increase size of your flywheel adding more customer promoters. A flywheel uses the momentum of your happy customers to drive referrals and repeat sales. It brings customer relationship management to social media marketing where your own customers become part of your sales force.

Engagement with the connected consumer can’t be one-size-fits-all.

The shift from marketing funnel to marketing cycle has left many marketers confused. Social Media Examiner’s Industry Report reveals that the top question social media marketers face today is how to best engage their audience. Uncertainty may come from trying to view the connected consumer as one audience.

Brian Solis argued that there is no one audience. A target audience is made up of audiences of audiences representing varying roles of the social consumer. In a marketing cycle you must reach the right person in the right stage and touchpoint with the right message. Solis says, ” It is our responsibility to assume the role of digital anthropologist and sociologist to understand the needs and wants of people within each network and to design programs around these discoveries.”

Uncertainty may also come from trying to meet these varying consumer needs with a one discipline team. Different team members from various departments are best suited for engaging with consumers in different buying stages. Marketers are great at brand building, PR pros are relationship experts, sales people know how to close, and customer service gets problems solved. Marketers can lead, but to succeed social needs to be a cross-discipline team of marketing, sales, public relations, advertising, corporate communications, customer service and human resources.

This uncertainty and needed new approach can be seen in the executive summary of the latest Salesforce State of Marketing report. It identifies how marketing is evolving around the new connected customer. In this new model “marketing becomes the cross-functional glue of customer experiences.” Data unification, real-time engagement and consumer trust becomes the goal. Artificial intelligence (AI) offers an opportunity to help make it happen through personalized marketing.

Trust is a deal breaker in buying decisions.

In a recent Trust Barometer report 67% of consumers said they would stop buying from companies they don’t trust. How do you build trust? Edelman’s research found that the best way to build trust is to lead with peer (UGC, influencers, etc.) and amplify with owned, social and paid. In other words, to build customer relationships marketers must remove themselves from the command of a marketing funnel and put consumers in the center of a new marketing cycle. Trust starts with listening in a customer centered social strategy.

Trust built through connected consumer relationships has its rewards. Edelman also found consumers that trust brands reward them by buying their brand first (53%), staying loyal (62%), advocating (51%) for the brand and defending (43%) the brand. Social media and the connected consumer disrupted the sales funnel where marketing people played gatekeeper, but marketers still play an important role as guide in the new customer empowered journey.

Are you still thinking of the customer journey as a funnel? Does putting the consumer in the center of a marketing cycle change your social media marketing strategy?

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