Why funnels don’t apply to marketing

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bottling the syrup

Over the weekend, I spent a fair amount of time messing around with actual funnels while I was working on making my own laundry detergent. While watching large quantities of vinegar and baking soda solution mix together, I took note of the fact that despite using the word funnel a great deal in sales and marketing, what we have isn’t much of a funnel.

For example, when I’m pouring water through a funnel into a detergent bottle, as long as I’m not grossly negligent, I can get virtually all of the water into the bottle. Yet when we talk about the marketing funnel, when was the last time that you got 99% of your marketing leads at any scale into a closed sale?

The reality is that if we have such a thing as a funnel, it’s exceptionally leaky. We consider ourselves to do very well if we can get 5% conversion on our websites, or 10% open rates in our emails. If I had been making laundry detergent and poured 95% of the water on the floor, that wouldn’t be success. That’d be messy abysmal failure.

Very little else in business looks like contemporary sales and marketing, largely because anything with a 95% failure rate is more or less doomed. A machine that failed 95% of the time would never be purchased by any manufacturer. An accountant that got their calculations wrong 95% of the time would be fired or the company they ran would go out of business overnight.

What does have that kind of failure rate? Nature, believe it or not. There’s a reason that plants create thousands of seeds when they reproduce – most of those seeds are doomed to failure. The seed may land on infertile ground or land in places where sunlight and water are in the wrong proportions needed to thrive. Only by dispersing many seeds as broadly as possible can they survive and continue.

If you change your marketing strategy from a funnel where you’re splashing resources and money all over the floor while trying to fill a sales bottle into a strategy that looks more like planting lots of seeds in as ideal conditions, you’ll encounter much less frustration. The catch with this approach is that it makes for longer sales cycles and requires a large number of seeds to be planted in order to get enough yield to help your business survive and grow.

Side note: for effective homemade laundry detergent that’s dirt cheap and free of toxic chemicals, mix 1 part baking soda with 6 parts white wine vinegar and 8 parts water. Add a drop or two of essential oils if you want a scent, and you’ll have the perfect, inexpensive laundry detergent.

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5 responses to “Why funnels don’t apply to marketing”

  1. Chris, I love the seed analogy! It’s funny, I was thinking about the marketing funnel over the weekend and thinking the same thought–it’s really not the best object to represent the marketing and sales process. A sieve, perhaps…though I’m now really “digging” your farming imagery.

  2. I hate the “marketing funnel”. This analogy makes so much more sense.
    I will share this post in hopes that it catches on, but I won’t get my hopes up.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos & Marketwire

  3. It’s interesting – the original mental model of AIDA, or AIDC wasn’t a funnel at all. One concept was of a set of nesting buckets – and was meant as a guide to salespeople – that the buyer had to go through these different mindsets. The funnel came very late – about 1951 – and was proposed by a guy writing about pharmaceutical marketing. http://www.dragonsearchmarketing.com/who-created-aida/

    The funnel has also been dismissed as a visual model because the proportions aren’t mathematically correct at all – in fact, there isn’t ANY correlation to reality. Taken literally as a “funnel,” it really isn’t very applicable (as you’ve noted) – only that those who end up purchasing, as a subset of the total population, can be seen to go from larger to smaller sets – and thus funnel-shaped.

  4. The problem with many marketers when they think about funnels and lead nurturing is that they look at them in a linear way. That has all changed. The touch points are not linear. The email address is not the only thing to focus on.

    I think the seeds you are talking about is great content; alligned to the needs of buyers in different stages of the decision making process. The entire online infrastructure are the vertile grounds, continuous engagement from staff with prospects and good dose of marketing & promotion is the water the seeds need to grow.

    Good post!

  5. Great insight here Christopher. Similarly, Dr. Flint McGlaughlin of Marketing Sherpa speaks of the funnel as being inverted. Thinking of prospects as climbing up the funnel based on the strength of your marketing is much more useful than the leaky faucet analogy we’ve been misguidedly using for years.

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