Funnels are useful things. In the real world, they allow you to pour accurately into narrow containers and in the marketing world; we use them to describe the channelling of customers towards a sale. Except, bizarrely, that is not what marketers now use the term funnel to describe. Funnels are now more like sieves.

Instead of neatly moving all customers towards the sale, in the same way that in the real world you would use a funnel: We use the term ‘funnel’ as a way of describing achieving a sale from a percentage of prospective customers that we poured into the top of the funnel. If I had bought a funnel from a shop that lost as much as our marketing funnels lose customers, I would be surprised and incredibly annoyed.

Is it acceptable to leak customers who have shown an interest in you?

Regardless of whether ‘funnel’ is the right word to describe the process, the worrying thing is that has become acceptable to think that it is ok for us to lose our customers along the way. That is a natural part of the marketing process. That somehow it is fine to start with a very wide an extensive selection of people and to lose some along the way. All provided that the number at the bottom of the funnel is the one we want.

Of course, techniques exist to prevent this, such as targeting, segmenting and filtering, who we select. This makes us feel like we have more success by losing fewer people along the way. Therefore, that marketing is more efficient. But then business pressures rise and the product manager wants more people in his “pot”. So, he instructs the campaign manager to take the filters off in order to achieve his sales targets. The problem is that this does work and you will get more sales if you select more people. However, the crucial point that is ignored is that you will also lose more people. And perhaps, along the way, create an unpleasant experience that stops that person from even looking at what you send ever again. You are “burning” your prospects.

With marketing being so relatively cheap thanks to digital, it is a hard sell to tell the product managers that this not a good long-term strategy. This is because the evidence that you are burning your prospects is hard to produce versus the sales results that they are getting. But you are not putting the needs of the customer first and could not be less customer-centric if you tried.

One challenge with mass campaigning is that it only works for those customers who want or need your product now. It does not consider those who may want it in the future or who need to go on a journey to understand that they should want it. Campaigns are at a moment in time. If you catch your audience at the right time, then you can make the sale. For example, on average we decorate our homes once every 5 to 10 years. Sometimes this might just be one room, sometimes it might be the entire house. If I am selling paint, wallpaper, DIY equipment or home furnishings, I need to find the people that are in that state at the moment that I run the campaign. I might even want to target a specific room and therefore I may create a much more narrow focus. I therefore target as many people as I can and run the same or similar campaign every month. I hope this month there will be some new people now thinking of changing their home. As a long-term approach, it has diminishing returns. Even if I am starting a home project, you have taught me just to delete your email or throw your letters in the bin. I will research elsewhere when I want decorating ideas.

But what if your marketing efforts did not lose anyone?

What if you could keep people engaged and therefore be ready for them when they chose to buy?

Thinking of the above example, imagine as a brand that I am “publishing” content on all things related to the home in a regular editorial magazine style. I can then build an audience that I can then “keep”. I can support them once they are ready to research the latest ideas and fashions in interior design. That will show to me when the time is right for a sale. For those that the time is not right, I can keep them engaged and entertained and not lose them from my funnel. This is not such an odd idea, after all the home lifestyle magazine live and breathe this sort of content month in month out. This becomes a loyal readership regardless of whether they are actively about to change their home.

Of course, this takes the idea that brands are the new publishers to a new level. At the moment, content marketing efforts are still campaign-based. They are still a moment in time even if that moment is more extended than it used to be – and to be honest, far too advertising based as well. Instead, to plug the leaks in the funnel, brands need to publish with the purpose of creating sustained engagement and not merely engagement at a moment in time. This requires that there is more focus on the editorial discipline.

Editorial processes

Being “Editorial” means that you have a “cadence” to your publishing efforts. In short, that means a rhythm and regularity that your audience then expects. This might then feel like we are just creating a volume of content to satisfy the content beast. But with the right content strategy in place, we can design, produce and editorialise our content so that is about satisfying our audiences’ needs. This will then catch them prior to any decision-making and through the whole decision-making process – keeping them engaged.

Sustained engagement

It also means that you have your audience firmly in mind at all times. How can we help them based on where they are on their journey today? What is the right sort of content we can provide that they will value? At the right time, this will still be promotional content about our product or service. However, at other times, it might simply be helpful to the audience and form a step on their journey towards a purchase with us.

See also Why the shape of your funnel is really important.

With the right editorial processes in place, you can create sustained engagement and build an audience. This sustained engagement then plugs the leaky funnel. You will not stop all the leaks. That would be impossible. But perhaps we can all reconsider all the dimensions of our funnel. We should not take it for granted that we lose so many people along the way.