The Content Marketing Funnel Is Killing Your Content Strategy

Published on

July 4, 2023

The Content Marketing Funnel Is Killing Your Content Strategy

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Say it’s Thursday, 5:15 pm, and your coworker John says something like, “Could you look into the tools we can use to build a dashboard with our Analytics data? We need to build our quarterly report, and I’m tired of Looker”.

A few brands come to mind, but you’d like to present more than 2 options.

So you go out to Google something like “Analytics dashboard” or “best analytics dashboard software.”

You land on the blog of a company you didn’t know. You don’t read the content as you know it’s going to be full of fluff.

Click on the homepage logo.

Try to figure out how they do things. Skim through the marketing talk on the homepage.

You’re like, “I might as well check pricing now, I can’t pay for an enterprise solution anyway."

Pricing it is.

Ouch — How can these guys charge so much?

Back to square one — even more marketing jargon on the next website.

“Oh, these guys have comparison pages, and they compare to X.” “I know what X does, so let’s check that out as a shortcut to understand what they do.”

Oh, 5:30 pm. Enough for today — gotta pick up the kids.

➡️ This is what the start of a buyer’s journey can look like. 

Messy, random, erratic and chopped.

Very, very far from what marketers like to conceptualize as “the funnel”.

If you’ve had some kind of marketing education, you’ve been taught that buyer’s journeys can be modeled through funnels - a variation of the AIDA model (Wikipedia page here).

Funnels are widely used in marketing, and especially in content marketing, because they’re simple to grasp and easy to use.

We’re still in a bit of a conundrum.

On one hand, we’ve got the funnel, and everyone praising how “the funnel has changed, and you need to do X and Y to adapt”.

On the other hand, a bunch of people saying “buyers' journeys have changed” (they seldom back up their claims) and therefore “the funnel is dead."

This simple concept is both taught to marketers everywhere yet seemingly despised by marketers everywhere.

The thing is that a concept being “simple” does not mean that it accurately reflects reality.

So let’s explore what the content marketing funnel is, what it means for most brands and marketers, and above all, why it’s probably more of a burden than anything else.

Oh, and we’ll look at an alternative too.

TL;DR

We hate fluffy content too, and I don’t think this is fluffy, but here’s the gist of it if you want to cut to the chase: 

  • The content marketing funnel is a simplistic way to map the buyer’s journey
  • It’s often divided in phases (Attention, Awareness, Consideration, Conversion)
  • The model operates from the assumption that people gradually go through a brand’s marketing content with the final destination being the bottom of the funnel conversion
  • This concept does not work for multiple reasons
  • It’s even worse than that: it’s leading marketers to think that as long as people are in the funnel, their job is to “move them down” by “providing value” or “nurturing them”
  • Truth is: this is not how the real-world works
  • We then explore an alternative that’s a bit long for the TL;DR, so go read it ;)

What is the content marketing funnel?

The content marketing funnel is a simplistic way to map how content interacts with the buyer’s journey.

The main idea is that people discover the brand through high-level, Top-Of-The-Funnel (TOFU) content, then gradually move down to Middle-Of-The-Funnel (MOFU) content, then Bottom-Of-The-Funnel (BOFU) content.

The end destination is the bottleneck, where people magically turn into Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) ready to be turned into Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs).

Marketing Qualified Leads need to be “nurtured” or “warmed-up” so that some of them turn into SQLs and get passed on to sales.

Prospects leave the funnel at each stage, which is why it’s getting narrower and narrower thus why it’s called a funnel.

I know I’m being a bit sarcastic in the ELI5 introduction, but you can already see how this stuff is, at best, optimistic, at worst, completely decorrelated from reality.

But that’s what’s taught in marketing 101 classes, so let’s keep exploring.

The different content marketing funnel phases

There are several ways to look at the content marketing funnel.

Here’s the simple one: the funnel has 4 phases:

  • Attention: Prospects know about their problems, but they haven’t really formalized what these problems are.
  • Awareness: Prospects are aware of the problem and actively looking for a solution.
  • Consideration: Prospects know about a few solutions and are evaluating them.
  • Conversion: Prospects are ready to choose between the solutions they’ve shortlisted.

Each of these phases is usually linked to specific types of keywords or specific types of content.

content marketing funnel
The 4 phases of the content marketing funnel

Another way to look at it is to focus more on problems and solutions: 

  • Not problem-aware: Prospects don’t know about their problems. This is usually where people tell you that you need to “educate” them. Who doesn’t like to be “educated” by strangers on the internet, after all?
  • Problem-aware: People know about their problem.
  • Solution-aware: People know about a solution (most of the time, this includes your solution).
  • Vendor-aware: People know that specific companies sell stuff to fix the problem.

This model is roughly the same but has the advantage of being closer to people it starts with people instead of the company itself.

Finally, a third way to conceptualize a content marketing funnel is to link it to specific content types: 

Each stage of the funnel should supposedly be linked to specific content types, and people supposedly interact with the content in that specific order.

content marketing funnel
The traditional representation of the content marketing funnel

They first find you through search, then read product pages, then case studies, then comparison pages, then book a demo or sign up.

As this research from McKinsey suggests, the issue is that it doesn’t work like that in the real world. Buyer’s journeys are very messy, and we need to look no further than our own buying habits to acknowledge it.

The relationship that we have with a brand’s content isn’t a linear one. 

In 2024, downloading a white paper says more about our willingness to get spammed than it does about our intention to buy.

This model is fundamentally broken because it doesn’t accurately depict reality.

Funnels don’t work, here’s why

Now that I’ve been teasing you for a long time, let’s explore why content marketing funnels don’t work.

Yes, this is going to be a bit more abstract than most articles on content marketing funnels, but I hope you’ll see that it’s worth it.

Remember: how we think about the world determines our possible course of action.

In other words, “To a man with a marketing funnel, everything looks like a potential MQL.”

1 - A funnel is supposed to be closed - where do people leave the funnel?

I’m going to play dumb for a moment.

A funnel is supposed to be closed, right?

Once you enter the funnel, how can you leave? It’s a black-hole style, unescapable condition.

You’re being pulled down by gravity.

So here’s my dumb question: if all the people who enter the funnel do not buy from you (that’s the whole point the funnel is trying to make), how do they leave the funnel?

If the funnel has walls, no one can leave, right?

👏 👏 “Bravo, Vince, for this blatant display of useless bad faith, how clever of you!👏 👏

(Yes, I picture you as very sarcastic).

Here’s my point: the mere idea of the funnel means that people can’t leave and can only enter the funnel by the top.

They either come in at the high-level, or they’re not in the funnel. Once they’re in the funnel, you’ve got them they can’t escape.

If you match my bad faith by saying, “Duh, they can overflow and leave at the top” you make the argument that people can move backwards in the funnel, which makes very little sense.

This is a huge issue because it prevents us from conceptualizing the majority of real-world situations.

The number of people who go through the funnel the way marketers think about it is, well, very low.

This can help us understand why so many marketers focus on gathering leads. They put people in the funnel with their shitty white papers and then think their job is done, and people will calmly and slowly go through all their email series to realize how great the product is.

And if they don’t slowly and calmly do so, it’s because we didn’t “nurture” them enough.

They say “nurture”, but it usually involves spamming people with content, shoving your stuff down their throats, hoping they’ll realize how great your product is.

Too bad it doesn’t work like that.

In the real-world, not only can people leave, but they can also come in at any stage.

People sometimes discover companies when they’re researching alternatives (think about the number of times a product was too expensive and you searched for “XYZ alternative” you did enter the funnel by going through the walls, right?).

Vince: 1 - Funnel: 0.

2 - No one goes through a funnel, ever

Picture the last time you bought something.

It can be anything: a toothbrush, a reporting tool, content marketing services (👋), whatever.

Did it look something like this?

  1. Research the category (analytics dashboard for SaaS)
  2. Read the blog you found
  3. Click on the homepage
  4. Click on the solutions pages (by industry)
  5. Click on the features page
  6. Click on the integrations
  7. Download the white paper
  8. Read the case study you got via email
  9. Book a demo

Did you answer yes?

Man, I thought I was the European champion of bad faith, but I see we have contenders in the audience, ladies and gentlemen! 

When I buy something, it looks more like: 

  1. Random search on the internet
  2. “Oh, who are these guys” Click on homepage
  3. “Wtf is this? Is it for me? What do they do???”
  4. Click on pricing: “Wow, no way I’m paying that we don’t have the budget”
  5. Click on features: “How can these guys expect me to understand anything about this?”
  6. Back to the SERP, move on
  7. Get retargeted on LinkedIn 64 times
  8. Wait 6 months
  9. Random search again, they pop up again
  10. Read the blog article, bounce
  11. Now I have more budget, let’s read some of their other content
  12. They seem to know what they’re talking about
  13. Bounce
  14. My team member reminds me we need to solve the issue
  15. Back to Google
  16. Google Ads
  17. Pricing
  18. Demo Booked

With random clicks, lots of back and forth, and no interest for anything else than myself, my problem, and my (unfortunately not bottomless) wallet.

Funnels fail at what they’ve been designed to do: help us understand the buyer’s journey and adjust to it.

They’re just… really bad at their job, and this ideology is forcing marketers in the wrong direction.

Vince: 2 - Funnel: 0

(Yes, I’m keeping score here.)

3 - Content marketing funnels kill strategies

It’s a little bit bold, but it’s true.

Here’s how content strategists use the funnel to inform their strategies.

They start with a list of keywords (bad idea) or topics (better idea), and map these to stages of the funnel: 

  • TOFU 
  • MOFU
  • BOFU

If you read content on the internet about the content marketing funnel, you’ll see that most of it is written using the conditional tense: “people are likely to be looking for …”, “people are probably looking for educational content,” etc.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily false.

I’m saying something much simpler: we have no f*cking clue.

When using a funnel-type approach, we’re designing our strategy based on (barely) educated guesses.

We’re “assuming” people need this and that. We “assume” that this is TOFU, MOFU or BOFU content.

Let me take an example.

You’re looking for a financial analysis software for your SaaS. You start off your search, filter out a few candidates, book a few demos.

In a conversation with one of your financial advisors, he mentions a specific KPI.

Sitting at your desk 5 mins later, you’re not sure why he mentioned it, and you turn to Google to type something like “what is XYZ” to get more info.

You land on a glossary, check what the brand offers, and quickly figure out that they should be part of your shortlist.

You book a demo.

Plausible scenario, right? That’s a real-world situation.

Now let me ask you a question: when you landed on that brand’s website, were you at the top, middle, or bottom of the funnel?

It would be hard to argue that you were at the awareness (TOFU) stage, as you already had shortlisted a few companies.

At the same time, arguing you were at the bottom of the funnel doesn’t work either because you landed on the website with a high-level search.

Middle of the funnel? That’s what people associate with product pages and case studies, so that’s not too convincing…

See the problem?

You can try and twist the definition of the funnel and say, “Oh, but it’s the funnel for this brand, not the other ones” (that’s called cognitive dissonance), it won’t be very convincing either.

The marketing funnel just… doesn’t work.

Not only does it not work, it’s not a fertile concept it doesn’t help us in any way in real-world situations.

The usual response to this specific rebuttal from marketers is to say: “Oh, that’s the reason I don’t use the AIDA model, I use “problem-aware, solution-aware, vendor-aware” or something like that.

The example above proves how that isn’t really helpful either. 

My guy in the example was already vendor-aware, and still looking for stuff that most content strategists would consider “problem-aware” content.

So what can we do about this?

(By the way, the referee has decided to grant me 3 points because I’m the referee. So Vince: 3 - Funnel: 0. Suck it up, Funnel!).

Moving away from marketing funnels in 2024

The first thing to do is to get rid of this funnel concept as swiftly as possible.

It’s not always easy because people like the idea, and it gives us common ground to work on.

So here’s an idea of another framework.

I’m not saying it’s the best out there, and I don’t know where I first got the idea, but at least it’ll give us an alternative to discuss.

Let’s think of each individual buyer as having a “commitment gauge.”

It represents how committed they are to finding a solution to their problem.

Ponder this: some people have a problem, but are not that committed to finding a solution. They look around, but if it’s too expensive or too much effort, they just drop the idea.

For example, I’d love to set up a better project management tool for my agency, but it’s way too much effort for the potential reward.

I look around from time to time, but I never actually considered shifting. My gauge is probably half-full.

There’s another really important thing to consider here: there probably isn’t anything anyone can do to fill my gauge it’s not something people can influence.

No amount of “education” or “demand generation” (don’t get me started) will “move me through the funnel.”

My gauge will fill if the problem becomes more important than it used to be.

The importance of the problem can be triggered by random events: 

  • I have a new boss
  • I have a new job
  • My coworker reminds me we have to fix this
  • A friend of mine has successfully fixed the problem
  • We made a new hire
  • Etc. 

These random events can also be me reading new content or coming across new information, but it has to come from me. 

Being bombarded with content won’t change anything.

Back to the gauge concept.

Some people will have their gauge filled from the start and be “high-intent” what some people call “warm leads.”

They’re looking for a solution to their problem, ASAP.

Some people will have their gauge at the minimum and will just be looking from afar. Others will have a full gauge, but their interest in the topic will drop, and the pressure in the gauge will gradually empty (e.g. they don’t have budget, etc.).

Notice how that concept completely remove sequentially from the equation.

We no longer have to take into account what comes first or last (how gravity influences the funnel).

Here’s the most important part of this concept, and where so many companies fail at marketing: it would be an error to assume that we can control how the gauge is filled for people.

We have very little control over other people through web content or ads (in B2B marketing, don’t get me started on Edward Bernays).

Yes, we can bring more information and build brand awareness. But we can’t “generate demand” and make people buy something they don’t want to buy (unless we create a problem for them).

The new content marketing funnel

How the gauge changes marketing strategies

How is that new concept helpful for marketing?

As we’ve explored, it highlights a few truths and debunks a few myths: 

  • We can’t influence how much people want to solve a problem (i.e. when they’re going to buy, if ever)
  • There is no such thing as a content marketing funnel that people go through linearly
  • We cannot “move people through the funnel”
  • We have very little control over what people do on the internet

So what is this all about? Is content marketing a rigged game?

Not at all.

Here’s the thing: people buy mentally and physically available brands.

Evidence-based marketing teaches us that people don’t buy “cool stuff” or “fancy ads” or “product-led brands”.

They buy the stuff that’s easy to buy, and solves their problems.

If you design your content marketing strategy to “move people through the funnel” and “get MQLs”, you end up putting together shitty white papers and a random newsletter to get email addresses.

Then you “provide value” and “nurture” these fake email addresses people gave you (yes, people have garbage email addresses that they give to strangers online when they don’t want to be spammed) to try to push them towards the bottom of the funnel.

Here’s what you should do instead: be everywhere, all the time.

👉 Be memorable to stay mentally available (i.e. top of mind, always where people are).

👉 Remove friction to be physically available (i.e. let people play around with your product, make it easy to sign-up, etc.).

Top, Middle, Bottom of the funnel do not exist

There’s no TOFU, MOFU, BOFU content.

Those concepts aren’t really useful.

➡️ There is no content marketing funnel. 

I mean, there is, the concept exists, but there shouldn’t be.

We cannot control how people interact with our content. And trying to cater to people at a specific stage in the buyer’s journey is statistically flawed.

People will go to your comparison pages (BOFU content) to understand your product (TOFU).

They will use your case studies (BOFU content) to understand what you do (TOFU).

They will find your glossary (TOFU) through search when they get out of a vendor evaluation meeting (BOFU).

None of these concepts have real-world equivalents.

When was the last time you said to yourself: “Oh, I think I need some BOFU content now, I’m ready, I see the light?"

It’s time we reflect on our own buying habits to build a theory that actually represents the real-world.

The real-world is messy and random because people are messy and random.

We (people) do not make rational decisions we mostly act on impulse and out of emotion. 

If you’ve ever been in a procurement meeting where the procurement guy has to say, “Helen, I know their salesperson was very handsome, but we’re trying to evaluate the tool and minimize risk here,” you know I’m right.

And if you haven’t… you just have to trust that I am… sorry.

Good content marketing should not be designed to gather leads and “bring value” or “nurture” people.

It should be designed to build a memorable brand. A brand that is everywhere, all the time mentally available.

Any other way of doing marketing will involve hyper-targeted ads, hyper-targeted content and company-centric strategies that will increase the disconnect between your brand and the market.

People don’t want or need your white paper, your article on “the top XX ways to use ChatGPT in the healthcare industry” or your LinkedIn post about how your company is so product-led that is product-leading the product-led movement.

People are interested in themselves and their problems.

They’re interested in their gauge it’s the only thing that matters to them.

It’s the only thing that should matter to you.

Vince Moreau

I'm the CEO & founder of ScaleCrush. You can often find me ranting way too much about BS marketing advice, fluffy and regurgitated content, and calling out gurus. I also happen to have my very own unoriginal thoughts about the stuff we're going through.

Marketing gurus are lying to you. Am I?
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