Why I stopped obsessing about our marketing funnel — and why you should, too

You or I could go to any marketing conference, anywhere in the world, and we’d hear about conversion funnels / sales funnels / marketing funnels…

How to build them, how to measure every inch of them and how to use that data to surge your way to success.

These funnels are seen as a fundamental marketing tactic; if you don’t use them, you’re missing out — big time.

And according to Google Trends, our interest in them is steadily increasing:

I bought into this notion for a while, following the craze like a hawk, learning everything I could about converting strangers into paying customers.

Then I joined Ahrefs as CMO, and suddenly, I had enough time, money and resources on my hands to test these theories for real.

Well…

Want to see the “Email Marketing Funnel” that we use at Ahrefs (a SaaS tool that is growing by +65% YoY)?

It’s just one email, really:

That’s it. Done.

“But Tim!

If you’re only sending this basic email to your leads, you’re missing out BIG TIME!

You need to segment your leads into groups and personalize the experience for each of them.

You need to identify the CCA’s (Common Conversion Activities) and push your leads there.

You need to help your leads to reach that “Aha!” moment that will turn them into paying customers.

You need to…”

I get what you’re saying. But I don’t buy it.

If you’ve read my previous articles here on Medium, you’ll know that we don’t always adopt conventional marketing wisdom here at Ahrefs.

So what’s wrong with those marketing funnels?

Read on…

You’re not Twitter, so don’t act like you are

We all know about “Aha!” moments, right?

In Silicon Valley speak, an “Aha!” moment denotes the point in a customer journey where a temporary user suddenly becomes an engaged user, after performing a specific action within your tool/service.

Knowing your “Aha!” moment is what turbo-charges your company growth, pays off your VCs, funds your new Ferrari and lets you retire (happily ever after).

  • Twitter identified their “Aha!”moment as being when a user follows 30+ people.
  • Facebook said that the “Aha!” moment they used was a user reaching 7 friends in 10 days.

And the list goes on and… wait. No it doesn’t.

Isn’t it odd that out of the thousands of startups we hear about, these highly specific “Aha!” moments are actually few and far between?

Yes, it worked for Twitter and Facebook — but does it work for everyone else just as well?

Take Ahrefs for example (a toolset for digital marketing and SEO professionals) — our onboarding experience couldn’t be more different from that of a social media platform.

I mean, why do people use Twitter?

  • To publicly share what’s on their mind;
  • To browse what others have on their mind;
  • To discuss both of the above.

Pretty straightforward, right?

But why do people use Ahrefs?

The point is, our customers have a ton of different motivations and goals.

That affects our conversion process, which is woven together by dozens of micro-interactions. And in that process, there is no single identifiable “Aha!” moment that we can push new leads towards and expect a conversion.

I believe this applies to lots of online businesses — not just SaaS.

Their reality is far more complex and nuanced than a straight funnel with a destination we can point to and say,

“that, right there, is where EVERYTHING changes”

But how about segmenting your leads to create personalised marketing funnels? Isn’t that the answer?

Well, NO.

And here’s why.

You’re a damn unique person, right? So how come the rest of the world isn’t?

I firmly believe that the best way for a marketer to learn about their audience is to talk — and listen — to them.

I do it a lot: on Facebook, on Reddit, on Slack, in our support chat. I even do one-to-ones with customers on Skype from time to time.

So, if you ask me to create some customer profiles for our SaaS, I will easily churn out a few dozen in less than 5 minutes.

Because to me each of our customers is highly unique.

Yes, it’s true that in the grand scheme of things people are very similar. And in the context of SaaS, they may well have similar problems requiring similar solutions.

But the path that leads them to these solutions tends to be very different.

For instance:

  • One person might have a bit more industry knowledge than another person;
  • One person might be short on time, while another one is highly committed to investing their time to lear stuff;
  • One person may have a friend who they can ask for help anytime, while someone else might not have this luxury.

Yes, with today’s sci-fi-like technology, we can track user behaviour, automate, predict problems…

But, aside from being a nightmare to set up, these systems can only measure and control what happens on your own website.

And many parts of the sales funnel happen somewhere completely different, far away from an area of your direct control.

The ‘Aha!’ moment that you can’t measure or control

Marketers generally like to build rather straightforward funnels, where all their leads will come to a very specific page on their website while having more or less the same goals, expectations, time, budget, etc.

I don’t agree with this generalisation. To me, behind each lead is a unique person with their own unique customer journey.

And I often have a pleasure of seeing how these “journeys” unfold.

Here’s a cool example:

When dealing with our competitor, this guy was frustrated by a number of issues. And he will be feeding these exact issues into ‘the comparison test’ when he tries our tool against the one he’s currently using.

To win the comparison test, you need to understand what it is that your prospective customers value the most when they compare their options — then make nailing this your main priority.

For that particular person, us being able to nail his specific issues would be his ‘Aha!’ moment: and there’s no email automation on earth, or magical copywriting tricks that will make him stay should we fail to deliver on them.

Here’s another interesting point:

That guy didn’t use Google for researching his options, but asked a question in a Slack community (Online Geniuses) — an environment that we (as a business) have no direct control over.

I mean, what stops people in this community from grilling us if they genuinely think that we’re the worst?

But those “thumbs ups” under our brand name show that quite a few people in that specific community are happy to recommend us. That immediately gives a nice credibility boost right at the start of this person’s buyers journey.

If @sfcjonno had been browsing our landing page, we could have A/B tested some testimonials or featured some famous customers. But in this specific case we could not control how the community will react (at least not in a direct way)

Here’s a very similar scenario:

Over a hundred people participated in this poll. And everyone — even those who voted for our competitors — could see that we won.

And when people are presented with a potentially superior alternative, it plants a seed of doubt:

“Are those other people getting a better deal for their money? Why do they recommend that other product?”

I guarantee that quite a few people who voted for our competitors later decided to give Ahrefs a spin after they saw the results of this poll.

But while having the same starting point (the results of the poll), each of these “leads” came to us with their unique hopes and expectations based on their prior experience with our competitor.

My point is — people rarely approach new companies with a blank slate these days; thanks to reviews, friends, endorsements and whatever/whoever else paves their journey to you, they come with expectations or preconceptions, even before they actually visit your website.

That’s why I believe the “Aha!” moment often depends on things that happen outside your website, your marketing or even your direct control.

There’s a grey area that many of us fail to take into consideration.

Like…

A bunch of guys are talking business over some beers and one of them drops your app into the conversation.

Or

A speaker at a niche conference gets a question related to your app and gives you a raving shoutout.

Or

A public discussion on Slack, that features your business as an irreplaceable solution.

We can’t see many of these things taking place, we can’t monitor them, we can’t measure them; we just see a bunch of leads approaching us with a clear goal/expectation/endorsement from someone they trust.

But wait.

These people will then ignore your carefully-crafted landing pages and your email sequences, because they’re looking for something very specific that you will either nail or not.

Now, automation software is very clever — but it doesn’t know how or what kind of persuasion or coaching these people have already been through before they even made it to your website.

So, the “Aha!” moment might be the reason why people come to your website in the first place — not the reason why they all of a sudden decide to stay.

What’s your marketing funnel?

The ideas in this article are based on my experience of helping Ahrefs grow.

And while I’m happy with how things work for us right now, I want to stay open-minded and learn from my peers.

So I’m super keen to hear what your marketing funnel looks like and how it works for you!

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Ahrefs Marketing

Insights from Ahrefs’ Marketing Team.