The marketing funnel has been around for more than a century. Its principles are credited to E. St. Elmo Lewis; the visual to William W. Townsend, who described the funnel in his 1924 book Bond Salesmanship.

Considering how advertising’s changed since then, it’s easy to see why the funnel we thought we knew is not very applicable.

Advertising has changed a lot since then. Today, business big and small have ways to reach their customers directly (thanks social media). More importantly, the way people buy has changed. This demands that we should start thinking about marketing funnels differently.

How It Work(ed): Anatomy of the Marketing Funnel

Most marketers see a funnel like it is. A textbook analysis will break the funnel into a few distinct components.

At the top of the funnel (the widest part) is the discovery phase. The goal: find potential customers and create awareness. This is an educational, trust-building phase. People entering the funnel at this moment aren’t customers yet; they may know nothing about a brand. The brand doesn’t know much about these people, either — they’re faceless, behavior-less, anonymous.

When the funnel narrows, those anonymous people are no longer anonymous: they’re potential customers, and they need nurturing. This is the consideration phase of the funnel, where potential customers assess your brand and products. Here, nurturing has to be targeted: potential customers need to feel desire. They need to want what you’re selling!

At the very bottom of the funnel, at its very narrowest, is the conversionphase. Success is sweet. Potential customers become customers — in other words, the people you’ve been advertising to pay for your product.

Are Marketing Funnels Outdated?

While the guiding principles still make sense, the traditional marketing funnel doesn’t apply well for the majority of businesses advertising today. Why?

To begin, it takes time and money to build a marketing funnel. For the 5 million small businesses with small budgets, that can be taxing. That top portion of the funnel, especially, requires serious capital; you’re casting a wide net to get people interested in what you’re selling.

Funnels also force marketers to overextend themselves. They require lots of independent campaigns, with unique objectives. “Sign up for emails,” for instance, is a distinct action from “Add to Cart.” Because of this, they’re ill-suited for small businesses, with small audiences and tight budgets. Marketing funnels work best for big brands with devoted followers.

Even if marketing funnels do meet a business’s needs, they pose a problem of measurability. With separate campaigns at each stage of the funnel, gauging overall effectiveness is a no-go. The different phases require different budgets and none of that reflects what drives conversions — or where ad spend needs to be upped.

Still, most problematic about funnels is what they get wrong about consumers. Today’s shoppers are different than they were ten years ago, five years ago, even five months ago. With more buying happening through mobile, the idea that of one path to purchasing seems silly. People don’t have time to be funneled. Think Everlane’s motto, “radical transparency”: people want to know everything about a brand, up front.

Takeaway? Consumers buy when they’re ready — not when a funnel tries to convert them.

A Better Plan for Marketing

If the marketing funnel is out, what’s in? Social media, marketers agree, is the cost-efficient way to find new customers. New customers: more business. So what do you need to know?

People Buy Differently

On social media, people buy unpredictably. You can’t force them into a funnel. When people are ready to buy, it’s because they’ve decided they’re ready. They’re ready to buy when they are ready to buy, not when your funnel has coerced them to do so. And given the fleeting nature of the newsfeed, there’s a shorter window to sway or convert potential customers.

People Become Customers, Quicker

Rather than via a three-tiered funnel, customer acquisition today happens in two stages: pre-click and post-click.

Pre-click is what lures a person to the product page. A promotion, a message, an ad: these are creative tools, targeted and incentivized, that compel people to — well, click.

Post-click, then, is what gets a person to buy. Post-click success is dependent on the creation of urgency, the demonstration of value, and the streamlining of a purchase.

Single Campaigns Are Simpler

The most effective approach to marketing now is one campaign that moves customers smoothly from pre- to post-click. With careful targeting and compelling creatives, you can find a potential customer and, with one-click, get that person to a buy-product page. No waiting on awareness, no nurturing desire, no fingers-crossed for conversion. Faster, easier results.


So where does that leave us? A few takeaways will lead to better practices. Remember:

  1. Keep It Simple. You don’t need a complex marketing funnel for your product. Though it’s tempting to try multiple tactics, this will be costly, inefficient, and hard to measure.
  2. People Who Want To Buy Will Buy. Potential customers on social media are easier to find; they also don’t need as much convincing to purchase. Your goal is to find the right people (the people most excited to click for your product) and have their clicks take them to purchase as quickly as possible.
  3. Monotask for Measurability. Prioritize on a single campaign that combines the pre- to post-click. This single campaign strategy will give you the foundation to build to more complex strategies to win customers.

Coming soon to ToneDen 👀

Campaigns that seamlessly take a customer from point A to point B will likely be the future of marketing for small and large brands alike. A strategy that combines multiple marketing campaigns into one means less friction, providing people with the shortest path to make a buying decision.

We’re going to be launching a brand new way that will make running campaigns for customer journeys effortless. You in?

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