The sales funnel is a model used in marketing to represent an ideal, potential journey that potential customers go through before becoming actual customers. As a representation, it is also often an approximation that helps marketing and sales teams structure their processes at scale, thus building repeatable sales and marketing tactics to convert customers.
Have sales funnels ever existed in the real world?
The sales funnel is just a representation of reality; as such, it has its own drawbacks, such as:
- Assuming most customers reach you through the same path can drive bad marketing campaigns.
- Assuming the sales cycle is linear, when it’s not, it can create the illusion of understanding for the customer.
- Simplifying too much the sales funnel means losing significant opportunities as the service won’t correctly be tailored for more complex shots.
And yet the sales funnel has been a useful tool for marketing and salespeople as a way to communicate and talk about the way customers get to know a brand.
In short, sales funnels introduced a consumer-centered approach to sales that required marketing people to get aligned with potential customers, thus identifying potential actions to take to unlock the potential of a product.
Therefore, the funnel answers an important function: setting a team’s priorities. So even with its evident limitations, it can still be a great tool for teams.
A team’s prioritization tool
A classic example of sales funnel is the AARRR funnel, which is a longer version as it relates to subscription-based or SaaS companies for which the journey of the potential customer starts with the awareness of the brand, and ends with the product referral.
This means that the sales funnel helps the whole team understand the kind of actions to undertake for each step of the journey.
For instance, if the marketing team has identified the problem in the acquisition stage, where only a few contacts get to know the brand, then they will know to leverage certain channels rather than others (for instance, SEO, email marketing, PR, or else, rather than working on-page conversions).
If instead, the marketing team has identified the problem in the activation stage, then other things will need to be prioritized, such as landing page conversions or perhaps product features.
Shortening the sales cycle
One of the elements that, most of all, can damage the bottom line is a mistake in understanding the sales cycle for larger customers.
As sales deals move from small and B2C to larger and more complex deals, the sales cycle becomes increasingly volatile.
Thus, deals that you thought might close in a few weeks, take months, and this, in turn, affects the health of the overall organization.
Therefore, having a sales funnel to prioritize at each step of the cycle can be a critical element in sustaining the company.
In short, if you know that important deals will take closer than expected to close, you will need to fill the so-called sales pipeline quickly to prevent completely missing the targets.
From attention to desire
Sales funnels or mental models like the AIDA model can help salespeople use a common language to understand the potential journey customers are taking.
And it becomes a tool to question whether the lead is ready for conversion. In short, mistaking a lead at the interest stage for the desired stage can lead to misleading action that can wreck the whole relationship with the prospect.
When marketing works well, it can become an incredible tool in the hands of salespeople to close deals in much less time and to shorten the sales cycle.
Marketing automatons like in freeterprise models can help salespeople identify the right opportunities that can become enterprise accounts for the organization.
The social seller
In the era of digital platforms, sales teams can leverage tools to make the process more effective.
And they have become indispensable tools for sales teams.
The sales funnel has started to morph into something else, as digital business models took over.
As digital platforms have become among the dominant players of this era, they also learned to take advantage of intrinsic features of digital spaces, that before would not be available.
Indeed, platforms can leverage network effects, whereas the more users join the more the platform becomes valuable for the users coming next.
With this logic of consolidation of the business infrastructure, marketing teams followed suit.
This means that marketing or sales aren’t necessarily made on a one-to-one basis (complex sales and business deals still are) but that the marketing team becomes more like a policy-making lab, where it needs to experiment with all the sorts of ways to build ecosystems rather than just getting the next customers in.
Customers vs. ecosystems and communities
Many companies we value today have focused their efforts on building ecosystems of a few key players coming together.
When the ecosystem becomes liquid (players interact freely, with a minimum effort from the central platform), the platform has reached its maximum potential.
Therefore, as this happens, marketing becomes the set of activities to help this ecosystem to build up in the first place and to maintain or grow. In that, the marketer becomes more like a policy-maker or a community-builder.
When a company creates an ecosystem, it becomes possible to convert its business model, relatively quickly.
See how Airbnb is during the pandemic times, trying to convert from physical and local experiences to digital experiences.
As the effects of the pandemic on Airbnb’s business model ended, Airbnb shifted again to its growth engine, and it turned out to be a much stronger company than before!
Flywheels and momentum
When Jeff Bezos scratched on a piece of paper what would become the Amazon Flywheel (at Amazon, they called it a virtuous cycle), this was a way to align the marketing effort with the fact that Amazon was transitioning at all effects to consolidate its e-commerce platform (so enable third-party stores to sell on Amazon, which as a side-effect brought to the birth of another platform: Amazon AWS).
Other examples, like the Etsy business model, also follow the same logic.
As the flywheel model gains momentum, you don’t start from scratch, but when the accumulated momentum reaches a critical mass as a side effect, an entrepreneurial ecosystem forms, which becomes the most important asset for the platform business model.
Therefore, marketing at this level becomes a completely different game.
Other examples, like the Uber business model, also combine platform (both business and technical) and marketing efforts to build momentum.
The argument from a company like Uber is that when the ecosystem becomes liquid, this creates s market which is much larger than the previous one:
At each expansion stage, the next market created is much bigger than the previous, and as a result, the platform scales with it.
By scaling with the market, the whole context changes, and the whole company changes with it, thus requiring a new business model.
Fashion Retail Sales Funnel:
- Discovery: Customers discover clothing items through online ads, social media, or website search.
- Selection: They select products, view product details, and add desired items to their shopping cart.
- Checkout: Customers proceed to checkout, enter shipping and payment information, and review their order.
- Purchase: They complete the purchase, receiving an order confirmation and tracking details.
Electronics Store Sales Funnel:
- Research: Shoppers research electronic gadgets, comparing specifications and reading customer reviews.
- Selection: After choosing products that fit their needs, they add items to the cart.
- Checkout: Customers go to the checkout page, where they provide shipping and payment details.
- Purchase: They finalize the purchase, receiving an order confirmation and delivery updates.
Beauty Products Sales Funnel:
- Exploration: Beauty enthusiasts explore skincare and makeup products through brand websites and beauty influencers.
- Selection: They select products based on their needs, adding them to their online shopping cart.
- Checkout: Customers proceed to the checkout, entering delivery information and payment details.
- Purchase: They complete the purchase, receiving a confirmation email and shipping notifications.
Home Decor Sales Funnel:
- Inspiration: Homeowners and decorators seek inspiration on home decor websites, social media, or in-store displays.
- Selection: After choosing decor items, they add them to their virtual shopping cart.
- Checkout: Customers proceed to checkout, providing shipping and payment information.
- Purchase: They finalize the purchase, receiving confirmation and delivery updates.
Streaming Services Sales Funnel:
- Sign-up: Users sign up for streaming platforms, providing email addresses and creating accounts.
- Free Trial: They enjoy a free trial period with access to premium content.
- Subscription: Customers subscribe to premium plans, providing payment details.
- Continued Streaming: Users continue streaming content, with subscriptions auto-renewing until canceled.
Meal Kit Delivery Sales Funnel:
- Exploration: Foodies explore meal kit options online, selecting preferred meal plans.
- Customization: They customize ingredients and dietary preferences for their meal kits.
- Subscription: Customers subscribe to meal kit services, with recurring deliveries scheduled.
- Regular Deliveries: Subscribers receive regular deliveries of meal kits per their chosen schedule.
Magazine Subscription Sales Funnel:
- Interest: Readers discover magazines through advertisements or online recommendations.
- Selection: They choose subscription packages (e.g., digital, print, or both).
- Payment: Customers make payments for the selected subscription plan.
- Monthly Issues: Subscribers receive monthly issues or access digital content as part of their subscription.
Education and Training:
University Enrollment Sales Funnel:
- Exploration: Prospective students research universities, explore programs, and visit campus websites.
- Application: They complete university applications, providing academic records and personal information.
- Acceptance: Students receive acceptance offers from the university.
- Enrollment: Accepted students enroll in programs, pay tuition, and attend classes.
Online Tutoring Sales Funnel:
- Inquiry: Parents or students inquire about online tutoring services.
- Scheduling: They schedule tutoring sessions based on availability and subject requirements.
- Learning: Students attend online tutoring sessions, receiving academic support.
- Ongoing Sessions: Learners continue attending sessions as needed to achieve academic goals.
Language Learning App Sales Funnel:
- Download: Language learners download language learning apps from app stores.
- Trial: Users complete free trial lessons, experiencing the app’s language learning features.
- Subscription: Customers subscribe to premium plans with access to advanced language courses.
- Skill Improvement: Subscribers use the app to improve language skills through structured lessons.
- Sales funnels are useful tools that enable sales and marketing teams to prioritize their work.
- While sales funnels are useful for digital and platform business models, the flywheel can be more effective.
- Indeed a flywheel marketing model can help build an ecosystem that becomes the main asset of the platform.
- Sales Funnel Overview:
- Representation vs. Reality:
- The sales funnel is a simplified representation of the customer journey and has limitations, including assuming a linear sales cycle and a one-size-fits-all approach.
- Consumer-Centered Approach:
- Sales funnels introduced a consumer-centric approach, aligning marketing efforts with potential customers and identifying actions to unlock a product’s potential.
- Team Prioritization Tool:
- Sales funnels help teams prioritize actions at each stage of the customer journey based on identified issues or challenges.
- AARRR Funnel:
- The AARRR funnel is an extended version of the sales funnel, particularly relevant for subscription-based or SaaS companies, covering stages from awareness to product referral.
- Shortening the Sales Cycle:
- Understanding the sales cycle, especially for larger customers, is critical to preventing delays in closing deals.
- Sales funnels help prioritize actions and fill the sales pipeline.
- AIDA Model:
- Freeterprise Model:
- Freeterprise combines free and enterprise models, with free users converted into enterprise accounts by sales teams using marketing automation.
- Social Selling:
- Social selling involves developing trust and rapport with prospects through online platforms like LinkedIn, enhancing the sales cycle’s effectiveness.
- Digital Platforms and Ecosystems:
- Digital platforms leverage network effects and ecosystem building, leading to a shift in marketing’s role from acquiring customers to ecosystem development.
- Flywheels and Momentum:
- Flywheel models like Amazon’s Virtuous Cycle focus on customer experience, driving platform growth and creating entrepreneurial ecosystems.
- Uber’s example shows how a scaling market can necessitate a new business model.
- Key Takeaways:
- Sales funnels are valuable for prioritizing sales and marketing efforts.
- For platform-based businesses, the flywheel model can be more effective in building and sustaining ecosystems.
- Marketing plays a crucial role in ecosystem development and platform scaling.
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