Marketers and Funnel Vision

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

A couple of years ago, I saw an essay by Elijah Meeks, former Data Visualization Society executive director, about how “We Live in a World of Funnels.” It started out like this:

“You think you’re reading an essay. You’re not. You’re moving through a funnel. This shouldn’t surprise you. You’ve been moving through funnels all day.”

No, we haven’t.

Sorry, Elijah, but the world is not built of funnels. Funnels are arbitrary lenses, invented by marketers, that are applied after the fact. They have nothing to do with how we live our lives. They’re a fabrication — a tool designed to help simplify real-world data and visualize, one that’s been so compelling that we have focused on it to the exclusion of everything that lives outside of it.  

We don’t live in a world of funnels. We live in a world that’s a maze of diverse and complex potential paths. At each intersection we reach, we have to make choices. For a marketer, that seems like a daunting thing to analyze. The funnel model simplifies our job by relying on successful conversions as the gold standard and working backwards from there. By relying on a model of a funnel, we can only examine “the road taken” and try to optimize the hell out of it. We never consider the “road not taken.”

Indeed, Robert Frost’s poem, from which I borrowed a few lines to start this post, is the ultimate misunderstanding of funnels. It is, by most who have read it, considered the ultimate funnel analysis, a look back at what came from choosing the “road less traveled.” But as reviewer David Orr pointed out in this post, it’s at least as much about what might have happened outside of the “funnel” we all try to apply to the poem:

“Because the poem isn’t ‘The Road Less Traveled.’ It’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ And the road not taken, of course, is the road one didn’t take—which means that the title passes over the ‘less traveled’ road the speaker claims to have fol­lowed in order to foreground the road he never tried. The title isn’t about what he did; it’s about what he didn’t do. Or is it? 

The funnel model is inherently constraining in its perspective. You are forced to look backward through the tiny hole at the bottom and speculate on what prevented others from getting to that point.

Why do we do this? Because, initially anyway, it seems easier than other choices. It’s like the old joke about finding the inebriated man outside a bar looking for his car keys under the streetlight. When asked where exactly he lost them, he points behind him to a dark alley.

“Why are you looking for them here then?”

“The light’s better here.”

It certainly seems the light is better in a funnel. We can track activity within the funnel. But how do you track what happens outside of it?  It may seem like a hopeless task, but it doesn’t have to be. There are universals in human behavior that can be surprisingly predictive.

Take B2B buying, for example. When we did the research for the Buyersphere Project, our “a-ha” moment was realizing what a massive role risk had in the decision process.

Prior to this research, we — like every other marketer — relied on the funnel model. Our CRM software had funnel analysis built into it. So did our website traffic tracking tool. Funnels were indeed pervasive — but not in the real world, just in the world of marketing.

But we made a decision at the earliest stage of our research project. We tossed aside the funnel premise and started at the other end, understanding what happens when a potential buyer hits what Google calls the ZMOT: the Zero Moment of Truth. This is defined as “the moment in the buying process when the consumer researches a product prior to purchase.” When we started asking people about the Moment — or the moments before the ZMOT — we found that in B2B, risk-avoidance trumps all else. And it gave us an entirely different view of the buying journey we would never have seen from inside the funnel.

We also realized we were dealing with multiple definitions of risk, depending on whose risk it was. In the implementation of a new technology solution, the risk definition of the person who would be using the solution is completely different than that of the procurement officer who will be overseeing the purchase process.

All this led to a completely different interpretation of buying motivation — one driven by emotions. If you can understand those emotional factors, you can start to understand the choices made at each intersection. It lets us see things beyond the bounds of the “funnel.”

Marketing funnels are a model — not the real world. And as statistician George Box said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” I do believe the funnel can be useful, but we just have to understand that there’s so much you can’t see from inside the funnel.

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