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January 10, 2019

The Funnel, Disrobed.

My recent post on the abstract nature of the demand marketing campaign funnel excited some comment, and I’m grateful for that interest. May we carry that discussion forward?

I stated that the funnel isn’t real—it’s an abstraction. And increasingly I’ve begun to believe that it's time for common perceptions of the funnel to be altered. Marketers must become more content-centric in their pursuit of campaign metrics, analyses, and optimizations. Here’s why.

As we drive campaign traffic into the funnel and down through its conversion stages, that traffic evaporates at rates that, in nearly any other context, would appear alarming. For a niche, enterprise B2B offering, for example, historical data may suggest that it’s “normal” to engage just 6% of initial campaign respondents in a proper sales dialog (e.g., a sales opportunity with revenue attached). What if you were searching for a relationship and were rejected by 94% of the people whom you approached? Would that indicate that something was seriously amiss? What would that do to your self esteem?

Yes, I'm oversimplifying a matter with great complexity, but let's continue to peel this back and expose more of what the funnel is doing and what it's not.

What does the funnel model measure? These days, many of those interactions are clicks on websites, social media, and emails. But campaign audiences don't click because we’ve offered them a link. They click because of perceived value and relevance. They'll be happy to click, for example, if we have a great offer that drives immediate interest: a fun infographic, a compelling white paper, or a gift card. And those interactions make us better informed of our buyers and help us create more robust databases. (I’ve shared more about this in my “offer funnel” post.) But clicking isn’t the same as engaging. And B2B marketers who are building revenue pipeline need prospective buyers to engage.

Let's view this from another angle. Together with some brilliant marketing operations folks, I’ve traced the lifespans of many sales opportunities back in time. For a given offering, we found that our active opportunities show a history of engagement with marketing content stretching back years in the past. From the first record of an account entering our database a scattering of interactions would follow over the next one, two, or three years: a trade show visit, a webinar registration, a download. Then, abruptly, that activity would spike into a classic "hockey stick" pattern, rapidly intensifying as more people within the account began to engage with our content more often. Clearly, the accounts are moving beyond awareness, education, and research, and into active buying phases. But dig deeper: the hockey sticks we were seeing were triggered, not by a campaign launch or our introduction of a great webinar topic or fantastic trade show gimcrack, but by internal events happening within those accounts that bore no relationship to our campaigns.
One company acquires another, and now has a need for our offering.
A new CEO articulates new priorities that steer her company in our direction.
A mission-critical application nears end-of-life, and unhappiness with the incumbent vendor spurs a new selection process.

There are countless scenarios like these: and they're not being driven by my campaigns. So why would I attempt to relate them to funnel conversion stages?

What is going on is this: these accounts have learned about our offering through our persistent campaigns and offers of content. Then, as their internal trigger events happen, they know we're the ones to reach out to.

I think of it this way:
The function of my campaign is to offer knowledge of the value of my offering, and to signal the availability of my company to respond to the buyer’s need.

But funnel models don’t measure knowledge and availability. Instead, they arrange our buyers’ interactions with marketing content into what is often an arbitrary relationship with campaign lifecycles.

Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? Perhaps the funnel model believes that its data points and progressions are tracing buyer behaviors. But those behaviors are more likely triggered by realities with only a glancing acquaintance with funnel progression.

If demand marketing is about offering prospective buyers relevant and worthwhile knowledge and availability, what should we be measuring? Here are some thoughts:
Who are the people within our buying organizations (for example, database growth and data quality, by segment)? We should examine routes of access to our markets. What percentage is captive in our database and permissioned? How can we gain access to the percentage that isn't?
What content are those prospective buyers consuming and when do they consume it? By tracking the consumption of content and aggregating it at the account level, we should be able to spot the hockey sticks as they begin to take shape.
We should always be testing for the excellence, relevance, and coverage of our campaign content assets.

In my next post, I’ll share some more positive thoughts about what we can be doing to break away from the funnel that, I believe, draws too much attention to arbitrary behaviors and too little to content. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

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