Why the Marketing Funnel Is an Anachronism

I was recently involved in a LinkedIn forum discussion around how sales and marketing functions contribute to the “funnel” in new ways because of the focus on customer-centricity. The topic drew a tremendous number of responses from a bevy of folks in sales, marketing and technology. I was personally excited to be a part of the discussion, and even got some direct and pointed responses to what I was contributing. Then, I stopped and asked a question: does the funnel exist anymore?

I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” The old plastic, downward-flowing construct comprised of awareness, interest, decision and action is simply no longer relevant in the new, customer-driven paradigm. Customer journeys are not linear and do not follow a set of pre-defined processes. To me, they most closely resemble a nexus, an ecosystem of interconnected decision points (micro-moments) that are channel-, technology-, sales- and marketing-agnostic. Customers are no longer in “receive” mode, waiting to be convinced of the need for a product. They are authors and participants in the entire process, seeking relevance, connection and inspiration in an increasingly congested and monochromatic marketplace. Further, the old lines between “work” and “personal” are razor-thin at best: customers are looking for the sum of their experiences to be seamlessly integrated into their daily lives, with the unconscious expectation that they will then choose how to segment them. As sales and marketing professionals, I believe this requires a dramatic shift in our thinking.

I have been a part of countless discussions with clients about transforming their organizations around the concept of customer-centricity. Many of these conversations quickly turn to technology. More specifically, what tool can be implemented to get it done and how fast this tool can be turned on to maximize ROI. This is not only the wrong approach, it is the one that will most certainly lead to costly and unfulfilled expectations. I tend to focus my customer-experience transformation efforts around three pillars: value creation, value delivery and value capture.

My father-in-law is a financial advisor who has over thirty years of experience in his business. I have had the opportunity to interact with some of his clients/friends both old and new and the one thing that matters most in his business — and in every business, in my opinion — is trust. He has built a very successful business by developing deep relationships based on creating, delivering and capturing value for his clients. Consistently doing these three things has built trust. And while he has accomplished this at the personal, one-to-one level, the question for me is how does an organization scale the philosophy of “trust built on relationships” to maximize their revenue? The answer, to me, is quite simple: do it on a personal, one-to-one basis.

Ten years ago, this may have been extremely difficult, but I would argue that today it is not only a possibility; there are companies that are doing it very successfully. The question isn’t whether it can be done, but how to do it. The single most important thing that you can do right now is turn your entire focus (sales, marketing and IT/technology) to customer data and your overall strategy to how to best connect your products/services to those customers. Turning your focus to customer data will illuminate who your customers really are, reveal how they engage with not only your products but the world around them, and expose what inspires them. This will, in turn, help you to develop customer personas. The persona is the one-to-one relationship building block at scale, and this is where you can begin to create value for your customer. Analysis of personas will help you understand customer journeys — the how and why of customer inspiration (purchase/conversion) — which will guide you in building experiences focused on delivering value at the right moments in a customer’s journey. Hitting that sweet spot will inspire and delight them, thereby capturing value for your organization.

The very important first step: stop lighting candles at the altar of The Funnel. Embrace a non-linear, collaboration-heavy, rapidly-changing and somewhat uncontrolled environment. It can be daunting, but the beauty of a Nexus lies in where points connect. These points of connection are where inspiration happens for customers and where opportunities exist for companies.