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Blowing Up the Funnel

IDC predicts that by 2020, 1 in 5 marketers will abandon the traditional funnel for a buyer-centric approach. The funnel belongs to the 20th century.  Back then, buyers were ignorant about their choices and sellers knew little about the needs and preferences of their prospective customers.  Now, leading companies are embracing high-information strategies that are re-architecting the shape of engagement and in the process, blowing up the funnel. [Read my interview with Direct Marketing News]  


Everyone hates the funnel

 The traditional sales funnel was invented for a low information world. Invented in 1899, it served all through the 20th century when buyers and sellers knew little about each other.  This low-information situation shaped commercial engagement into the funnel’s distinctive silhouette – wastefully, painfully, wide at the top; desperately, frustratingly, narrow at the bottom; and with that nasty chokepoint between marketing and sales in the middle.
  • Wastefully wide at the top. Frustratingly narrow at the bottom: Because companies knew little about buyers, they had to “fish with nets” as Jon Miller, CEO of Account-based Marketing company Engagio, calls it. Cast wide to capture a range of suspects and then progressively filter to find those that really want to buy. Most of this effort was wasted, especially at the top of the funnel, as the number of prospects who made it through was astonishingly low.
  • The mid-funnel chokepoint: In the low-information era, filling the wide top of the funnel with prospects required a more cost effective (when compared to sales) one-to-many approach. Advertising and direct marketing attracts the masses. Once some knowledge was collected about prospects, they could be handed to the more expensive sales team to complete the job.  The two teams constantly bickered over this serial handoff. Marketing invariably lost that battle.
  • Customer pain: While the funnel is wasteful for marketing and frustrating for sales, customers also suffer in the low-information funnel.  Extensive outreach from ignorant companies is an intrusive time sink. Irrelevant marketing content and unprepared sales people requires buyers to do most of the heavy lifting during the buying process. Lack of information about customers perpetuates the insular inside-out attitude that permeates many B2B companies.

Blowing up the funnel

Today, disrupters compete on experience quality as much as they compete with products. Buyers are now in charge – not vendors. With the Internet as a high-information resource, buyers now need the vendor much less than before. 


Companies must earn back the right to sell.  They must reduce the customer pain that is indigenous to the funnel. They must offer buying experiences that customers view as advantageous. Leaders are seizing the opportunity with new go-to-market strategies. Not everything about these strategies is new.  In fact, each borrows from earlier methods. But these 21st century versions all have one thing in common – they depend on data for their success.  With a high amount of information about customers, these strategies blow up the funnel by destroying its familiar silhouette and properties.


Here are a few of these increasingly popular go-to-market strategies that do not build a funnel:

  • Account-based Marketing (ABM): ABM “flips the funnel” by offering a narrow-at-the-top and wide-at-the-bottom alternative. For large B2B accounts, vendors can get to know a few high potential buyers better and create bespoke programs that serve them and build business over the long-term.  Account focus is not new – but the ability to do this at scale is. Data and marketing technology is required.
  • Analytics-based discovery and nurturing: Leading marketers are getting more sophisticated at using big data and analytics to locate high propensity buyers thus reducing the need to cast wide. Analytics and behavioral monitoring expands the pipeline by improving conversion.  Painful intrusive filtering is replaced by relevant and useful nudging.
  • Virtual sales or a buying service concierge: This emerging hybrid of digital and interpersonal selling is a far cry from the historical “me and my quota” sales rep. Imagine a typical virtual sales rep sitting at what looks like the console of an air traffic controller. But instead of directing jets through the airspace, they using social media, advanced analytics, cognitive systems, and other information tools to guide buyers through their decision journey. The scalable, high-touch model completely removes the old chokepoint and broadens the lower funnel with better conversion.
  • “Loyalty” first marketing: A loyalty-first approach rejects the funnel with its casting and filtering altogether. Vendors use data to really understand their markets. They first build up a pool of fans with services, entertainment, and social benefits.  The resulting brand loyalty gives them an opportunity to later monetize with products and services.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I believe that these high-information strategies will not only be more effective in today’s world, they also have the potential to make it a kinder, gentler, place.  Each requires that companies reach beyond a half-hearted marketing and sales “alignment” to a true information alliance.  The mid-funnel chokepoint dies.  In addition, knowing customers more deeply opens the possibility that companies will feel empathy for them. 


The funnel may have been a necessary thing – but it’s not a good thing.  Time to get some data and blow it up.

(This post was first published on LinkedIn on April 28, 2016)

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