Funnels are a Horrible Metaphor

Photo Credit: Serge Bystro

If you’re in sales and marketing, you’re all about the funnel. Funnels are a pervasive metaphor to describe the process of bringing prospects towards your business goal—usually a sale. And in a mass-produced era where one ad campaign sold everyone one car, the metaphor served us well. But now it must die.

Funnels are misleading. The whole point of digital marketing is personalization, first in the form of segmentation and targeting. That’s not particularly new—for decades, direct marketers have segmented people into groups, the better to target them with appeals that work better than average—but we can now target individuals rather than coarse groups.

It’s not just the top of the funnel that’s segmented. Even today, buyers have different motivations. Consider a fairly commoditized, utility product like beer. One buyer might buy beer to feel comfortable attending a party; another because they’re thirsty; another because a particular brand reinforces their self-image. But there’s only one bottom to a funnel, and that makes it a lowest-common-denominator tool.

But technology is quickly giving us an economic order quantity of one. We’re about to personalize far more than the call-to-action:

  • Unit-of-one manufacturing means we can custom-assemble shoes, clothing, and other items using robotics and software for nearly the same price as a mass-produced good.
  • Software is custom even when hardware isn’t. A car might be the same across users, but its user interface, and how it connects to other devices, will offer a custom experience.
  • Everything’s becoming a service. Amazon’s one-press order button might make it easier to get some more laundry detergent, but it’s only a matter of time before you get a washing machine for free, but it’s locked with some kind of encryption to only use P&G detergents: Washer as a service.

Lumping all these outcomes into one action, with one motivation, is lazy.

Better to explicitly declare the target audiences you have; the actions you want them to take; and the reasons they’ll do so. Make a list. Then write up those campaigns. If you try and draw out the serpentine pathways by which your prospects do what you want, it’ll look more like a demented waterslide than a simple funnel—and that’s okay.

The problem with a funnel as a metaphor is that the conversations we have around optimization and analytics don’t lead where they should. Modern marketing isn’t just about segmentation, it’s about cross-media conversions, referrals, virality, and much, much more.

We don’t need funnels, we need waterslides.

Waterslides, Photo Credit: Patrick McGarvey
Photo Credit: Patrick McGarvey

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