The words “sales funnel” might be jargon at this point. For years, maybe decades, the illustration of the broadest lead generating activities refining slowly to the sale, was broadly accepted as the accurate tactical representation. The funnel itself is a dinosaur, and its standards of a linear path to conversion are no longer realistic. But viewed as the decision journey, it still holds water.

Why the linear path to conversion is dead

If you’ve ever watched a series of videos on YouTube to learn how to use a product before you bought it, you understand. Those videos were probably crafted by a) individuals that were faced with the same buying decision you are, b) professionals that feel compelled to share their own expertise or identify a good buy to their own clients, c) the guy that built the thing he’s really proud of, and lastly d) the company that sells that product. Maybe you visited that product’s website or social feed. Maybe more than one competing company’s site or feed. Did you crowd source a recommendation on facebook, or ask a friend that recently bought something similar? All of these are evidence that you no longer see an ad and then make a purchase. You traversed the internet. You searched. You asked. You searched again. And just like that, the interconnecting feeds, shared videos, search ads (or SERPS) influenced your decision. You may have even done this while in the store itself.

The path to decision is riddled with content streams and social media and is influenced by potentially hundreds of factors. No business is in control of every mention of their product, and every stage of the funnel.

So instead, let’s think about that funnel as a consumer journey through stages of the sale. And let’s look at what can be done to influence those stages.

At the top of the funnel is Awareness. In this stage your business might hope for brand or product recall. That’s it. Just a consumer’s knowledge that your product or service exists. It sounds simple, doesn’t it?  It’s simple, but often expensive. In our world of overstimulation, elbowing in among the competition is hard.

Next comes Engagement. This means a few things, but most important, the movement from surface awareness of your existence to an action that finds content or generates answers. When you’re buying a car it means you are starting to visit dealer sites or even building your car online. If you’re buying dinner you’re looking over a few menus, visiting Yelp, or asking a friend.

The next stage is Conversion. This is where the consumer makes the decision. And often, conversion is seconds long, where engagement is months or even years. If it’s a house you’re looking for, you may be shopping school systems, tax implications, even investment strategies before the decision, and it may take you months to decide.

The final stage is Advocacy. This is where you begin to assist your recently purchased product or business, car or realtor with their awareness, by sharing your experience with others.

So why does this model matter? Let’s look at a few examples.

Higher Education

A student is approaching the appropriate age to shop for college as a first time freshman. He begins to shop reluctantly, at the urging of parents or grandparents. He’s looking for the college experience of his choice, not the programs, ROI, or job qualifications as a post-grad. As he enters the engagement phase, he picks up speed. He’s shopping affordability, program credentials, even professors. And the college knows it.

That college also knows that for a student in the engagement phase, he is 10X more likely to apply and enroll if he visits campus. He’s 7X more likely to apply after speaking with an advisor. He’s only 2X more likely to apply after visiting the website alone. So, which of these is most valuable to the college or university? Obviously they want campus visits. The in-person experience influences students. Knowing these ratios for the engaged shopper can change the outcome, particularly when the messaging and content strategy push for this desired conversion.

Auto Purchases

Any auto dealer will tell you they look carefully at what they call VDPs, or Vehicle Description Pages, on their website. More traffic on those pages means more sales of those cars. But how do we move a passive shopper into an engaged one?  When the conversion point into the dealer’s BDC (Business Development Center) is on the page, more people will inquire. Of the 100 that inquire, only 10 will make an appointment for a test drive, and only 4 show up. Of the 4, less than 1 is likely to buy the car.

A good dealer knows that pushing for more VDP views translates into increased sales. And he or she will set up the business to drive traffic there, and conversions from those points on their site.

Like any business model, the funnel has gone in and out of style, and doesn’t always accurately represent the illustration of a sale any more. But if you know and understand what’s happening between Awareness and Engagement, the Conversions will take care of themselves.

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