The Marketing Funnel is Dead: Here’s What Will Replace It


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Okay, I freely admit that headlines like “the marketing funnel is dead” are a cheap trick to attract attention.

But I swear I came by this one honestly. Too tired to do any serious work on a recent plane flight, I scanned a random white paper that argued the traditional idea of a funnel didn’t capture the need to treat customers individually as they move towards a purchase. So far my head was nodding in agreement plus maybe a little drowsiness. But then came the punch line: instead of a funnel, marketers should think of managing each customer’s progress as a process, which is best represented – wait for it – as an escalator.

Now I was fully awake, and not in a good way. How is an escalator any less linear than a funnel? Have I missed some crazy new form of multi-path escalator networks? Maybe so: I don’t get out much, and who knows what these kids today are up to? But assuming that’s the not case – and I do after all read Twitter – the escalator analogy is no better than a funnel at illustrating today’s situation.

Nor, to be a bit more serious, is the concept of managing buyers as a process. It’s true that a process can have branches (although not the escalator-like linear process this paper described). But a process is still something the marketer controls. Whereas, the dominant fact of marketing today is precisely that marketers don’t have control: the buyer does. It’s the buyer who decides at every step what she’ll do next.

The picture that comes to my own mind is a tornado: a totally uncontrollable, unpredictable force that leaps across the landscape setting down wherever it wants. By this analogy, the best a marketer can do is to build storm-proof structures that will function successfully no matter what buyer does. I don’t think that’s quite the right image – after all, buyers are not destructive – but it does convey the frightening powerlessness of marketers in today’s world.

The better analogy is probably a maze. Marketers can build an environment that defines the options available to buyers, even though the buyers still make their own decisions about the path they take. The maze also shows how buyers can follow different paths and still end up at the goal, can go in circles indefinitely, and can exit without reaching the goal. It also implies correctly that the marketer’s skill determines quality and effectiveness of the buyer experience, just as the maze designer’s skill determines how much fun it is for visitors. If you really want to push the analogy, you can argue that we’re talking here about a corn maze – because ultimately customers can break out of the predefined paths if they want to.

I guess we’re all lucky that my flight didn’t last much longer, since I was beginning to think about how corn needs water (funding?) and if there’s a drought the ears of corn will have small kernels (customer value?). A more useful insight is that mazes have different regions, so the maze analogy replaces the notion of sequential lead stages with a more nuanced view of non-linear buyer states that can be the same distance to the goal yet differ in other significant ways. Buyers can also jump from state to state without necessarily moving through regions that are adjacent – like a tornado touching several spots within a maze, come to think of it. But enough with the metaphors.

Let’s just stick with the main point: the marketing funnel is really and sincerely dead. The purchase process is no longer linear and, even if it were, marketers couldn’t control how buyers move through it. The image of maze may not be perfect but it does show that buyers can follow many routes, that they’ll make their own choices, and that marketers still play an important role by defining the buyers’ environment. At least it’s a start.

Of one thing I’m certain: the buying process is not an escalator.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. But, an escalator is more apt than a funnel. Marketers crave metaphors to depict complex, messy processes. The funnel stuck for many years (as long as I’ve been in business, and then some) because it’s easy to grasp and easy to explain. Never mind that it’s a gross over-simplification. Another confusion that the funnel perpetuates is that opportunities flow passively from top to bottom, with gravity providing the force. We know that’s far from true.

    In the interest of sticking with gross over-simplifications, an inverted funnel, or fountain, more typifies reality. It takes energy, effort and cost to bring opportunities to the top. Next, perforate the fountain’s pipe with holes large and small to represent the risks, diversions, delays, and confusions that inevitably ensue. Add a collection basin at the bottom to recycle opportunities that have been propelled from the pipe. That’s a simple, “closed-loop” system–still a fantasy.

    So, add four large dogs that will disrupt everything by jumping into the fountain at will. Now you have your “tornado,” but just a little more organized, and much closer to real-world than a linear funnel.

  2. First, a funnel is not linear – it is conical. The very comparison of a funnel to an escalator, or a funnel to any linear device, is flawed.

    To appreciate the absurdity of Sale’s and Marketing’s funnel fetish, look at what a real, physical funnel is used for: To handle commodities.

    Are your prospects or customers only as valuable or only as worthy of your attention and respect as sand, grain, or kitchen ingredients?

    If yes, I am your competitor, and I appreciate your invitation to crush you in your market place.

  3. The image that comes to my mind is a rock-climbing wall — we all want to help our customers get to the top, but there are a multitude of pathways they can take. Make it easy for them, providing handholds and footholds along the way that take into account their climbing experience (and aversion or appetite for risk, perhaps), and they will ascend to the summit of advocacy in record time. Put too much distance between handholds or make it too dangerous, too inconvenient or just plain counterintuitive, and they are more likely to rappel down than keep climbing.


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