NOW WITH MORE! This post has been updated for 2019. Enjoy!
Before reading on, check out this short video we made called How to Make a Sales Funnel that Converts Loyal Customers which shows you how to create an e-mail sales funnel in an automated sequence:
If you want your business’ sales process to run as efficiently as possible, you absolutely must get your marketing funnel – the process of converting a visitor or browser into a paying customer – right.
Some business owners are moving away from the term “marketing funnel” because they think it’s too mechanical or simplistic to describe the lead nurturing sequence by which customers move from awareness to purchase. I think it’s still a useful way to describe a complex process and it’s a good visual to imagine the entire process from start to finish.
Read on for a comprehensive break down of what a marketing funnel is and how to create a successful one – plus we include several templates to help you out.
- What Is a Marketing Funnel?
- Stages in the Sales Funnel
- Content for Each Stage of Your Marketing Funnel
- AIDA: Another Way to Remember Content Creation Stages
- Qualifying Leads in Your Sales Funnel
- Marketing Funnel Metrics
What Is a Marketing Funnel?
A marketing funnel is a way of breaking down the customer journey all the way from the “awareness” stage (when they first learn about your business) to the “purchase” stage (when they’re ready to buy your product or service). Often funnels can also include post-purchase follow-ups which increase retention as well as cross- and up-sells.
The first step is, of course, getting traffic to your site. You can do this by creating SEO-friendly content, publishing white papers and getting backlinks. As leads progress through your funnel, your outreach methods will get more and more personalized (sometimes involving a product demo or a phone call) until the sale takes place.
Here are two example funnels – one that is effective and one that is not effective.
Example 1: A Not-so-Effective Marketing Funnel
Norman Newbie owns a software company with ten salespeople and one product. He’s not a very savvy marketer, so his sales process currently involves handing his salespeople lists of leads that he purchased online and having them “dial for dollars.”
His salespeople frequently get frustrated since the leads aren’t always good quality. Because they’re usually calling on people who A) aren’t interested in his services and B) are not a good fit for them, the salespeople close less than 1% of the prospects they initially reach out to.
Example 2: An Effective Marketing Funnel
Molly Marketer has a similar-sized company, but instead of taking Norman’s traditional outbound marketing approach, she’s created a marketing funnel that helps her three salespeople close more sales with less effort.
Molly started by building a series of attention-grabbing content marketing pieces that are tied to landing pages on her website. Potential customers can engage with her content (blog posts, infographics, videos) and learn about her company and its services without a cold call from a salesperson.
When these would-be buyers become interested enough in her products, they request an online demonstration by filling out the form on her landing pages. These requests are routed directly to her salespeople, who, because they’re dealing with warm leads, close roughly 50% of the customers to whom they demo. Molly’s company closes more sales than Norman’s, with fewer salespeople and no time spent on cold calling.
Obviously, these are simplified examples, and most businesses will fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Even if you’ve never heard the phrase “marketing funnel” before, make no mistake about it: you have one.
- [Video] How to Map Out Your Perfect Marketing Funnel
- Why Retargeting Is Absolutely Essential For Any Marketing Funnel
Stages in the Sales Funnel
No matter what kind of purchase we’re making or how much we intend to spend, all of us follow a relatively similar path when it comes to deciding what to buy. This buying process, or stages, was first introduced by John Dewey in 1910, but even now — more than 100 years later — it’s still the foundation of understanding buyer behavior and marketing funnel creation.
Here are the five stages of the marketing funnel.
Stage #1 – Problem/Need Recognition (TOFU)
Understandably, if a person doesn’t recognize that she has a need that must be filled, she’s not going to make a purchase. That said, these needs can range from easily solved problems to issues without clear solutions.
Suppose your furnace goes out in the middle of winter. Your problem is obvious: you need a new furnace. And the solution is easy — you need to call HVAC providers in your area for quotes. But say you need a new car. Should you look for an SUV, a compact car or a mid-size sedan? Even vaguer still, if you’re frustrated with how much your accountant is charging you to do your business’ taxes, you might not even be familiar with all the different solutions, like cloud-based accounting services.
For different types of businesses, buyer needs at the problem/need recognition stage – top of the funnel (TOFU) – are different. If you’re running a consulting business, for example, then your clients already realize that they’re having certain problems around your service area – like a high cost per lead (if you’re in marketing) or disorganized spending (if you’re in accounting).
Stage #2 – Information Search (MOFU)
Recognizing a problem or need that you have is the step that triggers a search for more information.
The strategies used to gather information tend to vary based on the size and scope of the purchase. Recognizing that you’re hungry, for example, might result in a quick Yelp search for restaurants in your area. Deciding which provider to use to install a new inground pool at your home, on the other hand, will involve calling around, reading company reviews, visiting showrooms, and talking with salespeople.
According to Pardot, 70% of buyers turn to Google at least 2-3 times during their search to find out more about their problems, potential solutions, relevant businesses, etc. Many people also turn to social media and forums for recommendations. At this point, they aren’t looking for promotional content; they’re looking to learn more about potential solutions for their need.
Here’s where you can position yourself as the helpful industry expert with content that helps them, no strings attached. Let’s say you’re a marketing platform or agency. You could create content around link building, SEO, Facebook advertising, or any other strategy that your customers would be searching for.
If you’re an accounting software company, you might create content around helping solopreneurs figure out their finances for the first time.
Do some keyword research to figure out what types of content you should be creating for the middle of the funnel (MOFU) — you can find out which search terms in your niche get high volumes of traffic and create content that matches those queries.
Stage #3 – Evaluation of Alternatives (MOFU)
Following their information search — or sometimes running concurrently with this process — potential customers start comparing the alternatives that your article has discussed. Again, the time spent in this stage will vary based on the type of purchase being contemplated. Choosing a restaurant might be as simple as deciding, “Well, I feel like Chinese food, not Mexican, tonight.”
However, say the customer is evaluating marketing automation programs to help improve the sales funnel they created. Because these programs can require investments of $1,500 a month, they’re likely to undergo a much more careful and thorough evaluation process. They might request free trials of the different systems they’re considering, have online demonstrations with each company’s representatives or view training videos to get a feel for how each system will perform.
If you’re running an accounting business, at this stage your customers would be evaluating different potential service providers. They might need resources like pricing guides (so they know what ballpark rates are), how to evaluate the landscape of accounting services (i.e. whether to hire a solo accountant, an agency, etc.), or how to choose an accountant.
If you’re running a marketing services business, you might create content about how to choose a marketing agency, pricing guides, whether a company should go contract or hire in-house, etc. The above examples are non-promotional, educational content resources we’ve created for our readers who are considering hiring marketing agencies – i.e. in the middle of the funnel (MOFU).
Stage #4 – Purchase Decision (BOFU)
The purchase decision is the natural conclusion of the preceding three stages. The potential customer has determined that they have a problem, investigated their options, decided which one is best for then… and now they’re getting ready to pull out their wallets.
At this stage, bottom of funnel (BOFU) content can help your potential customers feel confident in their decision to purchase your good/service.
Case study content, showcasing the success of a previous or current customer, is very effective, especially when the case studies are relevant to, and reflect, the lead. Create case studies with customers that reflect different customer profiles, verticals, business sizes, etc.
For instance, if you’re selling marketing automation software to a startup, showcase a startup that 10X-ed their leads. If you’re selling the enterprise version of that marketing software, share a case study from another enterprise company. The enterprise case study is too aspirational for the startup, and the startup case study doesn’t work in front of a huge global marketing team.
Now for the bad news. There are two major factors that can hinder purchases at this stage: negative feedback from fellow customers and the prospect’s motivation to accept this feedback.
Say you’re into cycling and you’ve decided to purchase Trek’s latest Emonda line road bike. You read a few less-than-positive reviews online, but brush them off on the understanding that all Internet comments should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, people only review products and services that they absolutely love or absolutely hate – but most customers fall somewhere in between.
But then a fellow cyclist whom you respect tells you that he didn’t love the bike. Where you were less inclined to let anonymous reviewers’ feedback affect your buying decision, you are much more motivated by the advice of somebody you know personally.
As a side note, while getting negative feedback rarely feels good, I want to encourage you to view feedback the way I do: as a priceless opportunity to improve and grow your business. Complaints and criticisms give you important signals that you need to make changes or else risk losing business from frustrated customers. Read this article to learn more: What Should You Do When People Complain About Your Product or Service?
Stage #5 – Post-Purchase Behavior (BOFU)
The sales process isn’t done just because a purchase has been made. What happens after the sale is just as important.
If your new customers are greeted by a thoughtful onboarding process, personal attention and all the resources they need to use your product successfully, they’re more likely to confirm to themselves that they made the right choice. And when they’re confident, they’re more likely to pass on their satisfaction to others in the form of recommendations and product endorsements.
If your new customers experience disappointment after their purchase, they’re more likely to request refunds, write negative reviews and recommend that others in their social circles purchase from your competitors.
There’s not much content you can create to help facilitate a good post-purchase experience — apart from just creating a great product. If you have a great product that solves a problem, post-purchase behavior will take care of itself.
There are certain actions you can take to help facilitate better post-purchase behavior. For example, you could create FAQ content, make it easier to get customer support or solicit feedback on the buying process.
AIDA: Another Way to Remember Content Creation Stages
There’s another way to remember the stages of the sales funnel and match them to content creation — with the acronym AIDA:
Whether you prefer the traditional sales funnel stages or the acronym AIDA, the results are the same: customers enter the sales funnel and through a process of discernment, choose to either move to another solution or purchase from you. The action at the end of the funnel, or the purchase, concludes the stages of the sales funnel.
Although most people enter the funnel at the top, not everyone does. Some will enter at subsequent stages, but the process remains the same no matter which stage someone enters the sales funnel.
- How to Set Up Marketing Funnels (TOFU, MOFU, & BOFU)
- Step by Step Guide: How to Build a High Quality Marketing Funnel
Content for Every Stage of Your Marketing Funnel
Now that you know how people make decisions, it’s time to create a marketing funnel by creating content that will appeal to people at every stage. Take a look at the following sales funnel template to see how this translates:
As you can see, each color-coded section of the funnel pictured above corresponds to a stage in the buying process. The widest tier at the top of the funnel represents “awareness,” the point at which potential customers are beginning their information search. The second tier is “interest,” roughly corresponding to the evaluation of alternatives described in the purchase process above. And, finally, the third and fourth tiers, “desire” and “action,” are self-explanatory.
When building a marketing funnel, ask yourself:
- How will customers at this stage find me?
- What kind of information do I need to provide to help them move from one stage to the next?
- How will I know if they have converted or moved from one stage to another?
The image above gives some hints as to how you might answer these questions, and you’ll find that some are easier to answer than others.
To continue with our earlier example, let’s see what Molly Marketer did.
Stage 1 – Problem/Need Recognition
Because Molly sells a high-dollar software product that meets a need that most businesses are familiar with, she decides that it’s easier to focus on attracting and converting customers who already know that they need her product, rather than trying to create a need for it in the first place.
She doesn’t focus on explaining why her product is necessary or trying to carve out a new field; instead, she uses content to:
- drive more traffic to the company site
- establish the company as a thought leader and industry expert
Stage 2 – Information Search
Here are some of the questions Molly is asking herself prior to creating content.
Where are my prospective customers in the information search stage?
Given the broad appeal of her product and its expensive nature, she decides that the following strategies will be most appropriate:
- Google Ads that lead visitors to a landing page with an opt-in form requesting a free online demonstration
- Facebook Ads inviting people to attend a webinar hosted by Molly’s company
- Content Marketing/SEO:
- Guest blog posts on industry websites that provide viewers with unbiased information on what to look for when buying her type of software
- Optimizing her website for keywords that indicate that an information search is in progress in order to capture organic search traffic
- Social media posts that educate viewers on a wide variety of industry issues
- Host a webinar
What kind of information do customers at this stage need?
- Content that confirms that the need they’ve perceived is valid and should be remedied. For example, blog posts that appeal to the visitor’s frustrations with emotional descriptions of the problem and how the product solves it—“Why X Is a Problem and What You Should Do about It”.
- Content that introduces the company and intrigues potential customers enough to move to the next stage of the buying process. For example, a Facebook post called “Behind the Scenes at Molly Marketer’s Company. This works especially well if you have a company with a corporate citizenship mission, such as selling sustainable, environmentally friendly goods.
How will I know if customers have moved from the information search to the evaluation stage?
This is different from business to business, but in this example, Molly will know when customers have moved on to the “Evaluation of Alternatives” stage when they request a free demo, indicating that they are interested enough in the product to compare it against others.
Stage 3 – Evaluation of Alternatives
How will people at the purchase evaluation stage find me?
Most prospects will enter this stage after identifying Molly’s product as a possible alternative and completing the information search process described in Stage 2.
However, some customers might be introduced to her brand after completing Stage 2 with her competitors, as in the case of an industry blog running a comparison chart of the different competitors in her space.
What kind of information do customers need at this stage?
- Content that describes the attributes of the product to encourage viewers to include in their future evaluation of alternatives (for example, blog posts with titles like “Getting to Know Product X”)
- What differentiates Molly’s product from her competitors’ products? Instead of relying on external sites, Molly could create a product comparison chart showing how her product is different from others.
- Have other buyers been successful with Molly’s product? Case studies of past customer successes can be extremely helpful in terms of moving customers from the evaluation stage to the purchase decision.
- Why should they purchase from Molly? To meet this need, Molly could publish a white paper based on primary research she’s conducted that establishes herself as an industry authority (or, better yet, she might place this behind an opt-in form that causes visitors to take the psychologically compelling step of engaging further with her brand).
How will I know if customers have moved on to the next stage?
Visitors who move on to the next stage are those that make a purchase, so any indication that the buying process has begun means success — from verbal confirmation of a deal’s acceptance to the receipt of a formal contract.
However, if Molly uses an online shopping cart system, she might also find it useful to track abandonment rates, as reaching out to these customers could help reveal the reasons that visitors aren’t progressing to the next stage or provide salespeople with leads that can be easily closed with a single outreach phone call.
- [Podcast] How to Generate Consulting Leads From Your Website
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Stage 4 – Purchase Decision
How will people who are ready to purchase find me?
Customers at this stage will have already found Molly’s company by progressing through stages 1-3. They got an online demo and a sales rep sent over a package describing pricing, FAQs and what implementation and onboarding will look like.
What kind of content do customers at the purchase stage need?
Since Molly is selling a high-dollar product, she needs to do two things: help prospects be comfortable with the purchasing process and make the purchase process as easy as possible.
- To help make customers comfortable, she creates a deck about what happens after the purchase is completed (for example, “10 Ways Molly’s Company Simplifies Software Onboarding”).
- To minimize confusion, she adds information to checkout pages in order to make it as obvious as possible what prospects should do next in order to purchase her solution.
- Case studies are important in this phase as well.
How will I know if customers have moved on to the next stage?
Customers move on to Stage 5 when the sale is complete. Molly should brainstorm the kinds of information these customers will need, as well as how she’ll provide it as part of a cohesive onboarding process. Though she doesn’t need to worry about customers finding her at this stage or moving on to the next one, it’s still important to meet their needs so that they walk away feeling good about their purchase decisions!
After completing this brainstorming process, Molly creates an overall list of all the different content pieces she’ll need to create and deploy, including:
1) Cold Traffic or TOFU Content:
- Guest blog posts
- On-site page and blog content written for SEO:
- Blog post: Why ____ Is a Problem and What You Should Do About It
- Blog post: 7 Ways to Make _____ More Effective
- Social media post: Promoting articles and guest posts
- Social media post: Behind the Scenes at Our Company
- White papers, checklists, templates or other downloadable assets
- Google Ads
- Social Ads (the platform will depend on your industry and customer demographic)
2) Warm Traffic or MOFU Content:
- Landing pages with lead generation forms for customers requesting online demonstrations
- Competitor comparison chart
- Case studies from successful customers
- Pop-ups on site relevant to pages the lead is on (e.g. if they’re on a services page, you could add a ‘Need help with [that service]?’ link)
3) Hot Traffic or BOFU Content
- New checkout page content
- Post-purchase email funnel
Since this is a significant amount of content, Molly can choose to roll it out over time, enlist other employees in the creation process or outsource some of it to freelance workers.
- How to Guide Your Customers Through the Marketing Funnel with Interactive Content
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- [Podcast] What Part of Your Funnel Should You Focus On?
Qualifying Leads in Your Sales Funnel: MQLs and SQLs
At this point, Molly has a great marketing campaign outlined. But in order for it to be truly effective, she needs to take things one step further by determining how leads will be qualified throughout the process.
This allows her to better utilize her salespeople by bringing them into the sales process only when qualified prospective customers are identified.
Unfortunately, not everyone who makes it through the first few stages of her funnel will be a good fit. As an example, a prospect might complete stages 1-3, but not have the financial resources available to complete the purchase.
Or a lead might be enthusiastic about the product, but is not the decision-maker in his or her organization. While the content pieces Molly has created will be helpful in educating all prospective customers and moving them through the different stages of the funnel, Molly needs to familiarize himself with and implement two concepts:
- Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs)
- Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs)
What Is a Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL)?
The level of complexity involved in this assessment will vary based on the resources available to the team as well as the length of the sales cycle.
Molly might conclude that anybody who fills out her online demonstration request form is an MQL. Another company might set the bar to MQL qualification at something involving a combination of viewing specific pages, interacting with certain forms, and opening a certain number of email messages. For that kind of analysis, we recommend marketing automation software.
- [Podcast] How to Turn Marketing Qualified Leads into Sales Qualified Leads
- How Small Businesses Can Take Advantage of Facebook Audience Insights to Get More Leads
- 7 Easy Ways to Generate and Convert More Qualified Leads
- Segmentation 101: A Strategist’s Complete Guide to Marketing Segmentation
Once an MQL has been identified, it can be passed on to the sales team for future follow-up.
What Is a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)?
When a salesperson qualifies a lead and deems it likely to eventually lead to an opportunity, this becomes a sales qualified lead (SQL). Like MQLs, it’s up to your business to determine what that is.
Salespeople qualify the lead by looking at interest and fit. Interest refers to how invested the prospect is in moving forward with your company’s type of solution. Fit refers to how closely the lead matches your company’s definition of an ideal buyer (e.g., role in company, industry, budget)
This analysis results in four possible primary combinations:
- Low interest/low fit – The leads don’t meet your company’s target criteria and are unlikely to make a move soon. A common example of these types of leads is the low-level employee who’s browsing solutions out of curiosity, not an immediate need.
- High interest/low fit – These MQLs are often people who are searching for a solution, but are unlikely to ultimately go with yours. If, for example, you sell a cloud-based software program and the prospect will clearly be more comfortable with a desktop solution, you could be dealing with this type of MQL.
- Low interest/high fit – Typically, these leads closely resemble your target customer, but aren’t actively seeking solutions. Even though they may not be a good fit right away, it may still be worth pursuing them to create brand awareness that will pay off down the road when their need becomes apparent.
- High interest/high fit – These MQLs are the “sweet spot” of people who are actively seeking your type of solution and are likely to convert to buyers. These leads should be the highest priority of your sales team.
Sales teams with both junior and senior sales representatives may choose to have junior representatives conduct initial calls to qualify prospects before assigning only those that fall into the “high interest/high fit” category to senior reps for online demonstrations.
The specifics of each stage of qualification aren’t particularly important. What is important is that marketing and sales set these parameters. This helps you identify the marketing campaigns and content leading to the most new qualified prospects, and ensures that you’re using your salespeople’s time effectively.
Marketing can iterate based on the MQL to SQL conversion rate, as well as feedback from sales. Sales can look at their processes if they’re not converting SQLs to purchases.
- MQL vs. SQL – Serve Up The Right Type Of Content To Your Leads
- How to Use Content Marketing to Increase Qualified Leads
- How to Create a Marketing Funnel for Best Results
Which Marketing Funnel Metrics Should I Track?
So now you’ve created your funnel and defined exactly how your personnel will interact with it.
The final step in the process is to figure out which metrics you’ll track to determine how well your funnel is functioning. It’s crucial to work with the SQL and MQL data here to track patterns between who closes and how they interact with your site, content, channels, ads, etc. Once you have more information, you can continuously optimize your funnel
One quick word of caution, though. With every piece of content you create for every stage of your funnel, you’re generating data. Though all of it is useful to your sales process in some way, it’s easy to get bogged down in data and metrics tracking instead of focusing on the few key performance indicators (KPIs) that will actually give you the information needed to make meaningful improvements.
For that reason, while you might want to experiment with tracking all the different metrics below (or any others that you think could be valuable), it’s best to choose 2-5 to focus your attention on.
You can always add more later, but be sure you’re actually making changes based on the data you generate from these few metrics before expanding your data operations:
- Sales funnel conversion rate – If you’re going to choose only a few metrics to focus on, make sure this is one of them. This metric tracks the number of prospects that enter your funnel at any point and how many convert into customers. As you make changes to your marketing strategy in the future, seeing this number improve will let you know you’re on the right track.
- Entry sources – Monitoring the sources from which people are entering your funnel can be useful data to track, as it gives you ideas for expanding the reach of your marketing campaigns. If, for example, you see that a large number of your prospects are coming from a single guest blog post you did, you can upgrade and expand on it, add a free consultation opportunity on that blog post, and/or find similar guest author positions.
- Time in stage – In an ideal world, your marketing content would be so compelling that people move from the top stage to the bottom stage in a single day. But since that’s rarely the case, it’s worthwhile to know if your prospects are getting hung up in one of your stages. If so, you’ll want to add more content to your site that answers the questions that are unique to this stage of the funnel.
- Exits from stage – Similarly, seeing an excessively high number of people falling out of a particular stage is an indication that you aren’t doing enough to answer their questions or you’re asking them for too much of a commitment too early. Add more content to give them the information they need to move forward or make it easier for people to convert (e.g. don’t ask for a phone number when they’re downloading a certain e-book).
- Content piece engagement rate – If you have calls to action on multiple blog posts or other onsite content pieces, you’ll want to know which are sending the most converted customers through your funnel so that you can replicate your success by upgrading/updating that piece of content, sending paid traffic to that blog post, promoting it via email, and/or creating more content pieces like that. Tracking engagement rates on each CTA will give you this information (you can easily set up Google Analytics goals in order to see which posts drive more conversions).
- Opportunity arrival rate – Opportunity arrival rate refers to the number of opportunities that are currently in your funnel. Track this rate and see how changes to your marketing strategy impact it. Ideally, you’ll see positive increase in the number of opportunities you’re able to generate.
- Close rate – Your close rate (or “win rate”) refers to the number of these opportunities that turn into eventual sales. If your close rate is lower than you expect, look at some of the other metrics you’re tracking for ideas on improving the success rate of your marketing funnel. You may be sending sales unqualified leads because your content is for a far more technically savvy audience while your ideal customer is a novice.
There are a number of different tools on the market today to help you track these and other metrics, though for most businesses Google Analytics represents the most comprehensive, easy-to-implement solution. Since it’s free, use the service’s funnel-tracking tools until you determine that you need something more advanced and then move on to another sales analytics program or a complete marketing automation program.
Make no mistake, creating a sales and marketing funnel using the process described above is no easy feat. This isn’t a project you’re going to complete in one afternoon — it’s a pursuit that you’ll want to actively address as long as your company is in business. It’s not a simple undertaking, but it’s one of the few opportunities you have to drive significant improvements in your efficiency and effectiveness when closing deals.
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- How to Use Content Marketing to Increase Qualified Leads
- [Podcast] How to Create a Marketing Funnel for Best Results
- [Podcast] How to Map Out Your Marketing Funnel
- [Podcast] How to Use Quizzes to Increase Leads
- [Podcast] How to Convert Leads into Paying Clients
- [Podcast] How to get Sales and Marketing to Work Together
- [Podcast] Don’t Overthink Shit
- [Video] Marketing Funnel Strategies to Boost Sales Like Crazy
- [Podcast] Simple Strategies to Improve Your Lead Generation
Related Growth Everywhere interviews:
- Automation Master Brad Martineau on How to Set Up Successful Sales Funnels
- Marketo’s Jon Miller Tells How Their Content Funnel Cuts Lead-to-Sale Time by 48%