Why Brands Have Such a Hard Time with the Marketing Funnel

There are few things I dislike seeing more in the world of digital marketing then when someone, during a client or internal presentation, has a slide displaying the marketing funnel. If you’ve worked in this space for more than a minute, you’ve seen it. Ad nauseam, perhaps. For whatever unbeknownst-to-me reason, it often invokes a physical reaction from within me– making me want to scream, flee the room, or, maybe, just leave the industry all-together and start a banana stand somewhere. 

Despite my mental objection to it all, working with SMBs primarily, I’ve recently rediscovered just how important that damn visual is. More specifically, what the marketing funnel represents– and, how few people out there truly understand the concept.

You see, like most of you, I work with many clients that have some sort of direct response end-goal. Whether it be sales, leads, or coupon downloads, all eyes are typically focused on the cost per action. Unfortunately, in many cases, that CPA is the “end-all, be-all” of a marketing campaign’s success.

And that’s just wrong. On all levels.

Even if you have an incredibly popular product and are offering a world-class deal, Branding (or, for the sake of argument, “top of the funnel”) activities are just as, if not more important than your direct response activities. (This, you see, is why it’s featured at the top of the funnel, where it’s, you know, wider than everything else). Without proper brand recognition, a DR campaign can only do so much. That’s not to say, that without ‘awareness’ there can be no success– but, there’s a limit to what a marketing campaign can do with direct response tactics alone.

Unfortunately for all of us, just showing a client the marketing funnel and giving a brief explanation is rarely enough. This visual representation is often better accomplished by highlighting actual examples (I know, shocking right?) of tactics that fall within each classification. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we have a client that is only interested in digital marketing opportunities– no offline advertising presence whatsoever. A “marketing funnel” approach, made easy to understand, may look something like this:


Top-Funnel: Premium sponsorships, Facebook, Twitter, Internet Radio

Mid-Funnel: Non-branded PPC, Paid Social, Video

Bottom-Funnel (aka DR): Branded PPC, Programmatic Display, Remarketing

While that’s easy to spell out for clients, what’s even more important is to explain the goals of each, and how differently each of those tactics will be measured. For example, tying premium sponsorships and “organic” social media to the same CPA goal as Remarketing is a great way to look like a failure in the client’s eyes. Instead, it is critical to lay the groundwork up-front that these “top-funnel” tactics drive potential customers through other stages of the marketing funnel, and aren’t expected to garner a good ROI themselves.

Most often, I’ve found this to be something clients will nod their head “yes” to when it is explained, but come reporting time, sh*t hits the fan. Multi-channel attribution is a good way to help show the effect that “top-funnel” activities have on the overall purchase cycle; but, most importantly, setting the stage for realistic expectations, even if past campaign performance has to be employed to establish some arbitrary but reasonably-assumptive benchmarks, can really go a long way to push client understanding on this crucial ideal.