The Innovative Marketer's Blog

Demystifying The Inbound Marketing Sales Funnel

Posted by Kevin Jorgensen

The concept of sales or marketing funnels has been around for almost as long as people have been selling. It’s a powerful image. A big, wide opening scoops up hoards of unsuspecting prospects who by some combination of gravity and the proper lubricant make their way to the tiny opening at the bottom, ready to make a purchase. Somewhere along the line someone decided to stratify the funnel into a top, middle and bottom. But what are these inbound marketing sales funnelstratifications? Is it OK that the definitions are mysterious and subjective or can we, as marketers, get more out of our funnels if we bust the mystery of the sales funnel and adopt some practical working definitions of what top, middle and bottom really mean?

Enough Fluff. It's Not Helpful.

If you ask marketers or even veteran sales training people to explain how the funnel works or what mechanisms move prospects through the funnel it’s like going to an art show or a wine tasting. You hear fluffy, subjective explanations like ‘TOFU offers should have that existential quality that attracts buyers who do not even know they are interested in you’ or  ‘Middle of the funnel offers should be webinars or eBooks (why???)’ or ‘Bottom of the funnel offers should be for leads that are more qualified’. Any of these descriptions might be accurate but none give you, as an inbound marketer, the slightest clue about what content to create at the top, middle and bottom of the funnel in order to attract and qualify the greatest number of leads. People who use these kind of statements sound like they know what their talking about but have difficulty translating these platitudes into actionable content marketing (see What Adobe Photoshop Taught Me About Online Lead Generation). I’d like to take a moment to de-fluff your understanding of the sales funnel so that you can use this powerful image to guide your marketing to more successful outcomes.

Let’s start with the idea that there really is a top, middle and bottom of the funnel because, as it turns out, these concepts are useful. And let’s also assume that we’re talking about an online sales process where content creates the appropriate engagement and lead nurturing is the mechanism that moves prospects from top to bottom… because after all, most people research buying decisions online these days.

Demystifying The Middle Of The Funnel

I like to begin with the middle because it’s perhaps the least understood, most mysterious part of the funnel. We talk about prospects getting lost in the middle of the funnel (I guarantee that after I tell you what the middle of the funnel is really for, you won't have any prospects lost in the middle of the funnel again!) Why does there have to be a middle anyway? After all, the only important parts are the top, where we’re attracting more people and the bottom where we’re churning out more qualified leads, right? Wrong. The middle of the funnel is the most important part. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the middle of the funnel you can’t have a functional online sales process, period. The middle of the funnel is where you introduce content that is about you… or if you are marketing a company, your brand. Below the middle of the funnel content is about objections to buying from you. Above the middle of the funnel, content is about issues, not about you, not about your brand (now go back and think about your keywords and your SEO strategy!). In other words, you are not selling in the top of the funnel. You are educating and building your reputation. Very important if you're going to be a successful inbound marketer.

Let’s pause to consider this for a moment. If you are only talking about general topics related to the problems your product or service solves in the top of the funnel, then you only know that the people consuming this content are researching general issues related to your expertise. Top of the funnel prospects are by definition, not (yet) interested in you. As such it’s premature to tell them how great your product or service is, why you’re better than the competition or how your next release will solve all the world’s problems. Content in the top of the funnel is all about your prospect’s problems and you are demonstrating that you understand these problems and are helping the prospect explore the solution space for their problems with your content. You are also asking for information that is proper to ask of someone who has not yet signaled that they are specifically interested in you. Think casual acquaintance. You don't want the proverbial beer thrown in your face. It’s OK to collect names, email addresses, general company information. It’s not OK, generally, to ask about budgets, buying timeframes or other information that is specific to a sale, not even a phone number... not yet. Now, back to the middle of the funnel…

Separate, Discriminate, Distinguish

In the middle of the funnel you’re going to separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the… you get the picture. Your middle of the funnel offer does one very specific thing. It establishes that a prospect is particularly interested in your branded solution. At Innovative Marketing Resources we call this type of middle of the funnel offer a Brand Filter Offer™. Prospects who take your Brand Filter Offer™want to learn more about your specific product or service, those who do not are not ready or not interested and remain in the top of your funnel where they are simply consuming information but not interested in buying. It’s also very clear what the role of lead nurturing is in the top of your funnel. Lead nurturing is all about driving your information seekers to your Brand Filter Offer™in the middle of the funnel. I won’t go into the tactics for doing that here but what you want to do is set up multiple offers in your lead nurturing campaign that make an increasingly strong pitch for your brand. The information seekers will run the other direction but the prospects you want to be investing time with will recognize your potential value and volunteer to move into the bottom of your funnel.

So at this point, because we designated the middle of the funnel as the point at which we discriminate between casual information seekers and prospects specifically interested in your product or service, we know exactly what kind of content to create in the top half of the funnel and what kind of content to create in the bottom half of the funnel. The form of content, white paper, case study, webinar, video etc. is really more about the audience you are addressing than about a proper form for the top, middle or bottom of the funnel, so choose the form that resonates best with your audience demographic. Since the prospect in the bottom half of the funnel has raised her/his hand and said they are interested in you, the bottom half of the funnel is all about overcoming objections to making a purchase (or if you are a school, applying…. If you are a non-profit, joining or making a donation). Objections might include: you cost too much, you don’t have the right integrations, you don’t have features the competition has etc. Something I like to keep in mind at this point… the selling doesn’t start until the first objection is raised. So in the bottom half of the funnel, let the selling begin!

Objection Overcomers: One At A Time

The bottom of the funnel is where you begin collecting the vital information that is going to accelerate your sales process and give your sales person what they need to create a warm introduction instead of a cold call. Your bottom of the funnel content speaks directly to the brand values of your solution and the objections in the sales process. If you begin developing your bottom of the funnel content with a clear picture of a successful sales engagement you’ll have a much simpler time formulating questions for your forms and the topics your content must cover. Keep your objection overcomers separate. 3 objections, 3 pieces of content, CTAs, and landing pages. Simple. Don't mix a cost objection overcomer with a feature objection overcomer. It's amazing what you can learn by observing how prospects react to answers for specific objections. Always give a prospect the option to jump ahead to the sales engagement once they are in the bottom half of your funnel. There’s nothing worse than being forced to endure a process if you’re ready for the outcome. Once you've demystified your inbound marketing sales funnel, you'll end up with a funnel that looks a lot like the image below... complete with very clear guildelines for the type of content you'll need to help leads self-qualify to your point of sale.



Isn’t the funnel much less mysterious when you are armed with these definitions? It’s easier to decide which content to create at each point in your sales funnel and how to organize your marketing automation for maximum effect. When we develop a Content Marketer’s Blueprint™ for a prospect at Innovative Marketing Resources, we use these very specific definitions of the top, middle and bottom of the funnel and create content that is appropriate for information seekers at the top, Brand Filter Offers™ the middle and objection overcomers in the bottom. If you’re rigorous about your funnel in this manner you can observe how prospects who are information seekers are learning about solutions to their problems (information that helps you develop better SEO at the top of the funnel and content in the bottom of the funnel) and which objections sales needs to focus on when the prospect signals readiness for a sales call that has a much greater likelihood for revenue generation.  Do you have different definitions of top, middle and bottom for the sales funnel and if so, how do they help you generate content that attracts prospects and nurtures them to sales readiness?

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Topics: Inbound Marketing, Content Marketer's Blueprint, Lead Nurturing, B2B Sales and Marketing