Think of the traditional sales funnel as a casualty of today’s digital innovations. The internet, mobile access and smartphones, and the social networking web have transformed the current sales landscape into one where the funnel no longer applies.
According to a survey done by SiriusDecisions, the buyer’s journey is now 67 percent digital. Our current unrestricted access to information has changed the way people make purchases. Buyers go through the sales funnel not from the top down. Instead, they come in at varying stages, navigate the funnel erratically, and consume content at every stage of the buyer’s journey.
This puts your content marketing – as well as its offshoot, video marketing – in the forefront. Is your content marketing aligned with what your sales team needs, in order to do the job of developing relationships and closing deals? Is your sales team armed with marketing collateral suitable for the new sales environment?
How People Consume Content Today
A study by the 2014 Marketing Leadership Council of CEB (now known as Gartner) claims that 57 percent of the purchasing decision has been made even before a customer meets a salesperson. This has limited marketing’s capacity to educate and influence, which are some of its primary roles.
Access to information is at the heart of this reality. People are consuming content in increasing levels. According to research done by Hubspot Research in 2016, video content tops the list, followed closely by social media, news and long-form business content. Of these sites, Facebook has the most impressive increase, up by 57 percent.
Mobile usage is on an uptrend too. In fact, it has surpassed desktop usage, as of 2016. Here, social media and video content are in close contention for the top spot, at 52 percent and 49 percent, respectively. Mobile notifications have likewise increased by 34 percent, beating conventional content aggregators, such as RSS.
Video Consumption Trends
It is worthwhile to note video content’s increased prominence as the leading content format for regular and mobile internet use. According to the Hubspot research, almost half the respondents watch at least an hour’s worth of videos a week. Leading video sites, Facebook and YouTube, likewise peg their views at billions of videos each day.
Interestingly too, another study – this time by Forbes – says that 75 percent of surveyed executives view work-related videos regularly, almost half of which are done through YouTube. Of these, 65 percent are spurred into action, such as visiting linked business websites. Another 53 percent extend what they had seen in video format by conducting further research. This behavior is shared across all executive age levels.
Content Consumption and its Implications for Marketing
All this implies an evolved B2B and B2C consumer. Buyers have become sophisticated, making the most of information that’s literally at their fingertips. They get online when necessary, wherever they are. They look or ask for information. They can make decisions on the spot, even without the intervention of a sales rep.
The biggest challenge for marketing and sales teams today is penetrating this web of information, such that you are still able to extend your message to your target audience. Research suggests that videos are the top format to get your full message across. Of course, this does not mean abandoning other content formats; there are advantages, depending on your industry.
In the past, we’ve used the sales funnel to map your buyer’s journey: to see where your customers are, and to know and provide the information that they need and the marketing collateral your sales team needs. We need to rethink this funnel to consider the new realities of the digital sales landscape.
Why the Traditional Sales Funnel No Longer Works
Take the story of Sephora, as shared by its CMO Julie Bornstein. Sephora is a French chain of cosmetics stores that has been around since the late 1960s. As with others in its industry, it has relied on marketing to generate brand awareness. Word of mouth from its advocates or brand ambassadors helps too.
Bornstein and her team have seen how the sales landscape changed in the digital age. Everything had to be “quicker, faster and further.” So, they brought together all the stages of the funnel and instead, created a community.
Within the community, people can discover solutions to their problems and learn about products. Users from different stages of their buyer’s journey can ask questions, decide/ change their minds, and perhaps eventually buy. They might even end up at an actual store, where a beauty specialist can assist them. But, even before that happens, a good amount of discovering and learning has taken place. It’s not far-fetched to think that the customers who do go to the store have made up 57 percent of their minds.
This kind of approach to marketing is no longer unique. Others are beginning to take this non-linear path. The biggest critique of sales funnels, after all, is their linearity, which does not jive with the need to be “quicker, faster and further.”
Everyday Example of a Non-Linear Buyer’s Journey
Sephora’s case is not an isolated one. For both B2C and B2B businesses, customers are taking it upon themselves to learn about their options first. They visit company websites, support forums, blogs, review sites and social media venues to find out more about the product they’re interested in. They talk to friends – and even non-friends, for that matter, as long as they can be reached online – for recommendations and expert opinion.
Even on a typical e-commerce site, such as Amazon, discoveries are made each second. A customer is a click away from buying or changing their minds.
The Customer Decision Journey: An Imperfect Alternative
Rethinking the sales funnel is a way of understanding the new buyer. It gives us an idea where their touchpoints (opportunities for engagement) are, and how we, as marketers and sales professionals, can extend a helping hand.
The funnel alternative Customer Decision Journey was popularized by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. Here, the funnel is completely removed from the buyer’s journey. Instead, the process is a circle with one’s purchasing decision at the core.
And while this is inherently better than the sales funnel, it is still lacking. It still puts the purchasing decision or transaction at the center, which is not the case for customers. As software company SAP Digital’s Chief Digital Officer Jonathan Becher says: “…The pivot is the experience, not the purchase.”
The Customer Engagement Journey
The need to not make the purchase the center is best reflected in the case of advocates. Advocates are brand ambassadors – or fans or followers, to use social media parlance. Today, you don’t need to buy in order to become an advocate. As Twitter’s Global Brand Marketing VP, Joel Lunenfeld says: “You no longer have to be a customer to be an advocate. The new social currency is sharing what’s cool in the moment.”
For instance, you don’t need to own a Tesla to follow Elon Musk on social media and be excited to see what he will do next. You don’t need to cook like a chef or be near any of his restaurants to watch Gordon Ramsay’s cooking demos on YouTube. But, what you become is an advocate. You are engaged with their brands, and would likely share interesting content that comes from them.
Credit card company Visa’s Chief Brand Officer, Antonio Lucio, explains this as making the relationship the center, instead of focusing on the purchasing decision or transaction. He says that: “When you change from decision to engagement, you change the entire model.”
He argues that today, there are a lot more opportunities to engage than to transact. And, while this does not quickly translate to sales, it develops a relationship that will be worth more than one transaction.
Aligning Marketing with Sales
“… Getting the sales and marketing teams to synergize is organizational goal number one. Every success grows from their collaboration and free exchange of ideas, because you can’t serve the customer right when your best people are working blind.” – Marshall Lager, Managing Principal at Third Idea Consulting, a social CRM and SMM consulting company.
The Sales Funnel and Customer Decision Journey will always be there, referred to – even by us – every now and then. It is an easy way to compartmentalize the movement of our leads and customers. Within the limited capacities of these models, they can still work in certain situations.
However, this shouldn’t hinder us from learning the true buyer’s journey – the one that goes “quicker, faster and further.”
After all, what we really want is to align the content marketing that we do with what our target audience needs – and what our sales teams need, as well. To do this, it is best to leave these two models up in the attic to gather dust.
Any approach or model that hinges on transaction or the purchasing decision is bound to miss out on the limitless engagements made possible by digital technology. Content is key to these engagements. In fact, it is of utmost importance during that span of time our market hasn’t reached out to our sales team. It is how we penetrate a web full of information and get our message across. And, further down the buyer’s journey, it is what we need to arm our sales teams with: engaging, useful content.
So, in choosing a framework through which you can align the efforts of your marketing and sales teams, remember these:
- The path to purchasing is no longer linear. Our customers follow a web of information, and go back and forth (up, down and around), before making a purchase. In some cases, the buyer’s journey takes months at a time, and after viewing several contents. In others, it can take seconds.
- There are several dimensions to social influence. It is no longer the sole function of your marketing team to build your brand. The internet does some – if not, a lot – of the work for you. Keep track of your online reputation. There are several free and paid tools you can use for this.
- Don’t disregard your advocates. Whether or not they’re customers, these advocates have a social clout that can be to your advantage. When planning your content and video marketing strategies, keep them in mind.
- Focus on the relationships that you build with those you engage with through your content and video marketing. Don’t put transaction or the purchasing decision as your end goal; the digital sales landscape does not work that way.
- And, whatever you do, measure. You won’t likely get to the best approach to an aligned sales and marketing on the first try. (And no, perhaps not even on the second nor third.) There will be a need to calibrate and recalibrate your approach, until you learn the common paths taken by your customers.
Do so methodically, through available analytics tools. Make sure to measure important metrics, over a period of time, especially when you recalibrate your approach.
There is a lot to look forward to with marketing and sales teams that work together to take on the immense digital sales environment.