7 min read

The Marketing Funnel is a Fiction

You’re working late. You’ve just shut down your computer when your cell phone rings. Your stomach sinks: it’s your investor–his third call in two weeks. You know what he wants.

You’re working late. You’ve just shut down your computer when your cell phone rings. Your stomach sinks: it’s your investor–his third call in two weeks. You know what he wants. You take a deep breath, and force an upbeat tone: “Hi! Good to hear from you! What’s up?” “Just checking in!” he says, “How are those deals coming along?” 

Your business is growing, but not like it should. Not like it could. You always feel like you’re fumbling in the dark for the key that’ll unlock your goals: marketing! The very word makes you uncomfortable. You see your money spent on things without guaranteed results, but you don’t have any better ideas.

You’ve hired a PR firm, written the blog posts, and kept your LinkedIn updated. You’ve identified prospects, and your sales reps work diligently to make contact. But they complain that marketing needs to give them “more leads,” and marketing complains that sales needs to do better converting the leads they have. Your teams start becoming siloed, territorial, even adversarial. Their operations are increasingly out of sync with your broader vision for the company, and their approaches to the problem become unprincipled–a patchwork of guesses and half-baked hypotheses: “X worked for our competitor,” “Y will make us edgier,” “Z is hot right now.”  

You look around for help. Everyone seems to have an idea of what good marketing is supposed to look like, but you can’t tell whom you should follow. Meanwhile, you continue fielding gentle suggestions from investors about becoming “more visible,” and feel like you’re missing the big picture.

This is a common condition for growth businesses that aren’t reaching their full potential. If this describes your company, it’s possible that you think of marketing as a funnel with a single entry point–your marketing department–and believe successful marketing depends on getting more leads into the top of the funnel. Perhaps you believe that you know best how your customers should use your product, or that if your competitor does something, you should do it too. Or maybe you believe that marketing is about describing your product in the most compelling way–that if people just know what it does, they’ll want to buy it.

If you believe any of these things, it might explain why you’re struggling with growth. These ideas are byproducts of an outdated understanding of what marketing is. That understanding has been taught and re-taught in business schools for decades. But it’s no longer true. The world has changed! The idea that marketing is like a funnel with a single entry point is false. Marketing is no longer a front-facing department, and the process of converting leads to customers no longer follows a linear path. 

Marketing: Not a Department, an Atmosphere

The new reality is this: marketing is an atmosphere; it is holistic and porous, and the process of converting leads to customers is non-linear and distributed throughout your organization. 

There isn’t one entry point for your prospects; there are many, and the key to success is not getting new leads, but converting the ones you have by cultivating intimate relationships with your customers and becoming a habitual fixture in their lives. 

It’s not about increasing visibility at large, but identifying the ways your product satisfies the needs and wants of the people most likely to buy it, and broadcasting to those people from every corner of your company. It’s about being top-of-mind when prospects have a particular problem to solve, and becoming the one tool they always reach for when they need to solve it.

Successful marketing is no longer an impersonal operation; it’s instead an ongoing event that revolves around your customers’ needs, wants, preferences and delights. It’s become about creating an atmosphere that invites them to participate with you in moving your business forward.

Outdated ideas about marketing (Fiction)New realities of marketing (Fact)
Marketing is like a funnel with a single entry point: leads!There is no marketing funnel, but multiple entryways into your business. 
The key to growth is getting more leads into the top of the marketing funnel.The key to growth is creating the right business atmosphere for your customers wherever they enter your organization.
It’s important that your business and products are visible as broadly as possible.It’s important that your business and products are visible to your target audience, not the world at large.
You know your product better than anyone–including the customers you seek to serve.Your customers know better than you do how your product serves their needs and wants.
Successful marketing is transactional and anonymous.Successful marketing is a community-building activity that establishes long-term habits of mutual exchange.
Successful marketing is about giving people really clear descriptions of your product. Successful marketing is about knowing your customers’ needs and wants.

Once you create the right atmosphere to market your product, you will solve your problems with growth. No more gentle suggestions from investors. No more stress over the marketing budget. No more internal misunderstandings. 

Five steps to create the right atmosphere

How do you create the right marketing atmosphere? There are concrete steps, just as there are for creating the right party atmosphere: you invite the right guests, arrange things so that they mingle in fun ways, invite them to participate in activities, and in general cement bonds of friendship. The same is true with your business.

1. Invite the right people

If you were throwing a party, you’d want to invite only people you think would have a good time. The same is true for your business: invite only the people who are a good fit for what you have to offer. Many businesses are frightened by the idea of excluding people from the guestlist–as if they’re saying, “No,” to potential customers. The truth is: the people you don’t invite were never potential customers to begin with.

Messaging needs to be targeted to be effective. Research your ideal customer profile. When you understand people’s motivations, goals and needs, you can speak to them in a way that draws them in. The clearer and more honestly you communicate with your intended audience, the more they’ll want to do business with you–the more they’ll want to be at your party.

2. Prepare your entire organization to interact with your prospects

If you were hosting a dinner party, you’d want to seat your guests next to people they’d be interested in talking to. Something analogous is true with your business: you want to meet your potential customers wherever they are in the process of exploring your company or making a buying decision. And since you can’t control where every prospect is in the process, you need to prepare your entire company to serve them at whatever stage they’re at. That means creating numerous touchpoints for them, so they can interact and gel with your company on many levels: website content, demos, customer reviews on third-party sites, industry friends, and so on. Help your prospects learn about you from a broad range of viewpoints.

3. Ensure consistency throughout your organization

Organization-wide consistency is essential to creating the right atmosphere. An atmosphere is rarely noticed till it’s disrupted. If the lights at a party suddenly become too bright, people feel exposed. If the music suddenly becomes too soft, they feel self-conscious when they speak. 

The same is true for your business. Whether your company embodies its values throughout the organization makes a conscious and subconscious impression on prospective customers. When a company consistently lives and breathes its values, we often don’t notice. It just feels right. 

Inconsistencies, by contrast, stand out like the smell of cheap cologne. If your LinkedIn ads are light and playful, but the experience of requesting a demo feels heavy and somber; or if your job descriptions are exciting and fresh, but the recruitment process is slow and unprofessional, people remain unsure who you really are, and their lingering doubts undermine the relations of mutual trust you want to build.

There is a step-by-step process for setting your vision, mission, and core values, and for integrating them into your way of being. If you haven’t taken these steps, it will show.

4. Establish patterns of mutual response

When you agree to attend a party, you also agree that you’re there to participate–that you’ll talk, share, and interact with others. A party is a co-created experience. Similarly, getting customers engaged in the process of co-creating your business, will get them more invested in its success. 

Engaging customers in co-creation is a matter of establishing a habit of mutual response, a rhythm of exchange, that is delightful for them to participate in–like partners who lead and follow on a dance floor. 

Listen to your customers by creating feedback loops, and respond to their needs, wants, and circumstances. Shadow them as they work in your product. Have them speak their experience out loud while you take notes. This interaction will bring you insights into what would otherwise have been hard to guess. Not only will you learn about your customers’ experiences in their own words, and build a product that better serves them, you will make your relationship with them more intimate: you’ll become a thread woven into the fabric of their lives.

5. Create a sense of community

Online technologies have changed how business is done. They’ve made the entire world a marketplace. That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that you have more prospective customers than ever before. The bad news is that those customers are pickier. They have more options too, and hence they expect more from the companies they do business with. 

One thing remains unchanged, and it’s what can set you apart from the competition: human nature. Humans are social beings. They want to belong to a community. Be their community–be the people with whom they regularly and reliably engage for your benefit and theirs. 

Community is the holy grail of marketing in the new business era, and the ultimate sign that you’ve understood what marketing has become. Be clear in extending invitations to people who have the potential to gel with you, be transparent at all your touchpoints, engage them in ways that feel like their relationship with you is more than a business transaction, and you’ll create a sense of community, and a lasting habit of mutual exchange that benefits you both. Be there for your customers, and they will be there for you.

What’s next?

Securing success in marketing doesn’t need to be an expensive undertaking. It’s less an investment in money and more an investment in mindset. It’s about changing how you think of marketing and cultivating new organizational habits.

Thinking of marketing as a funnel with a single entry point is an outmoded way of thinking–as outmoded as horse-drawn carriages and dial-up modems. Marketing is not a rigid organizational structure–it’s not a department–but a soft porous atmosphere with many entry points. 

Once you embrace what marketing has become, you can take the steps to get the growth you want.