Let's get straight to the point, because if you have landed on this article, it means you already know what we are talking about

A school model

The now ubiquitous sales funnel began as an implementation of the linear, hierarchical "AIDA" (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) model that first took hold in the era of personal door-to-door sales in the late 19th century.

The funnel was a way to teach salespeople how to push buyers toward a sale in a single conversation. The response of potential customers to an AIDA action actually resembles the shape of a funnel (translation of "funnel"): as you progress through the conversation and move between levels, less interested customers are gradually filtered out. In the end, only the customer who is ready to convert, that is, to buy, remains.

In 1924, in a book titled "Bond Salesmanship," William Townsend first explicitly superimposed this funnel metaphor on the AIDA model as a way of pushing people toward a sale, but presumably this time in the context of telephone communication, the new cry technology of the day. So this admixture was clearly geared toward direct selling.

Funnel trainers

So originally it was a matter of didactically guiding people toward a sale at a single point in time, whereas today we assume multiple stages on longer time scales, with different audiences, and on different platforms. This modern conception of the funnel began to take hold around the 2000s with "funnel" trainers intent on explaining the roles of the various formats that ads had, consistent with the moment in the customer journey.

The theory behind the teachings of these colorful characters is that from the very first contact with a potential customer we must compel the person to go through specific, very lengthy and very precise obligatory steps over multiple channels so as to mathematically lead him or her to purchase.

To better understand the logic, we propose a super-simplified fantasy example. Suppose we start with 100 customers who have responded positively to an advertising campaign.

  1. Step 1: We lose 30 customers in the first interaction on a landing page on a website.
  2. Step 2: We lose 20 in the second interaction through an email.
  3. Step 3: We lose 5 customers in the third interaction in the actual sales attempt.

So, starting with 100 potential customers, at the end of this very short funnel we should arrive at 45 purchases. The pining of trainers and funnel experts consists of predicting funnels with as little loss as possible in each step. In practice and by some very strange unwritten rule, their advice is to create funnels with lots of steps.

Which leads to over-engineering compared to the didactic simplicity of the AIDA method.

Is it worth it? Does it work?

No, in general no.

The limits of reality

What is the problem with these crazy complicated and super structured objects?

Which is just theory. None of this has any serious methodological support.

In real marketing and sales we live in a kind of statistical fog, and sophisticated funnels are of little use. In fact:

  1. We really don't knowat what stages of the funnel the customer comes in contact with us. You might think you're describing the real customer journey with a funnel, but that's pure delusion of omnipotence-you might get it right, you might not.
  2. We cannot predict a priori the behavior of a potential customer, but only have statistical patterns and recurring trends that we know only AFTER receiving feedback from the real world.

Therefore, having an engineered or even called "top down" model in building a funnel is the promise of failure in complex domains such as society, mass, and human mind. That is, in the real markets in which we all operate.

Funnels, in their current design, inevitably lead to fewer results and much higher acquisition costs than a less engineered but more professional marketing strategy.

the funnel should remain, essentially, a generic sales tool. A conceptual model. Not a framework based on random theories about customers, data or science. Much less an operational marketing tool. Because it is an inaccurate model of the discipline.

In this image we see a very realistic path of a customer going through, at different existential and temporal moments, the different marketing channels created and managed by a company. Do you see how unpredictable his path is? Now multiply that by tens (or hundreds) of thousands of potential customers and throw in a large amount of unpredictability. It is simply delusional to think that you can create specific pathways that apply to almost everyone.

People are complicated

In fact, marketing is not linear. People, in interacting with brands begin passively, unconsciously assimilating information about brands; they are primed in some way and then embark on a journey that can vary in time, stages, and linearity. Customers are distributed all over the place. Some have not heard of your product. Others are actively evaluating it. Others are buying it regularly.

Given this diaspora of consumers, it often makes more sense to devote resources to both long-term (brand building) and short-term (sales activation) marketing activities, and not separately, but simultaneously.

Because if we subscribe to the "system 1" and "system 2" processing metaphor of Daniel Kahneman and the army of marketing researchers who follow him, then this separation of long-term and short-term goals is not strictly necessary. The human brain simply responds with different areas to different stimuli and processes different messages at the same time!

Why, then, divide the campaign into many superstructured steps when it is not only possible, but often preferable, to keep it coherent and unique?

The ultimate goal of marketing

Building the brand and pushing the consumer to buy in the same ad. This is the ultimate goal. And this is confirmed not only by experience, but also by literature.

Why is it preferable? Because two factors are needed for successful marketing. First, the consumer must remember the ad. Second, he must connect it to the brand. Both are needed to have an effect. It is a creative challenge, requiring an approach that delivers both theemotional impact and the rational productarguments that activate sales performance.

In any case, regardless of the strategy, this reflection continues to confirm the validity and importance of choosing the mix between short and long term.

In the real world, there are very few "fixed" paths and most are bidirectional (feedback loops and second thoughts). This assumes that a customer can start anywhere and eventually choose his or her own way of buying.

Example of a classic purchase path that cannot be managed with a funnel:

You need veggie burgers maybe once a week. Some people need it every day. For the times when you don't need it, you are in "passive assimilation" exposed to, for example, all the Beyond Meat ads (passive assimilation is where you spend most of your time in most categories). When you run out of veggie burgers comes the trigger. After the trigger, you might go to the store and scan the veggie burger section (such as Beyond Burger, Unconventional, etc.). At this point, you will have an unconscious preference for Beyond Meat.

As you can see, the lion's share here is, quite simply, advertising. And it is the norm. Indeed, the purpose of advertising is to increase the likelihood that a person will choose your brand over another. And by understanding its role, we can move from a simplified funnel-based view of marketing to a more scientific concept of a probabilistic decision tree of the purchase path. The goal of this approach is to use your (always limited!) marketing budget to optimize and keep as many people "in the game" as possible, up to the point of purchase and beyond.

In conclusion:

The funnel is an artificial and therefore trivializing concept of reality, not born for marketing and such a complex environment. It may seem to have some benefits but the hidden harms are much greater, with funnel engineering you miss a lot of opportunities by making yourself more fragile.

If the only tool you possess is a hammer, you will see in every problem a nail, Abraham Maslow