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The ‘funnel’ metaphor is so neat, so tidy—and so misleading. Break down the customer journey from awareness through interest, evaluation and conversion stages and you will discover it has flaws. I like to argue that the first step in sales funnel analysis is to analyze the funnel structure itself, because friends—it doesn’t work.

Let’s take a good hard look at our assumptions:

The typical sales funnel, depicted above, should represent what customers see, read and experience as they journey through stages of awareness, learning more about their problems and possible solutions as they do so.

The funnel image is also about volume. You have a lot of prospective customers at the top, but comparatively few make it all the way down.

Have you ever used an actual physical funnel? If you have, what is going through your head right now?

That’s not how a funnel works.

We’ve all swallowed this idea of a sales funnel, but a funnel is what you use to pour a large amount of something into a smaller container without spilling any of it all over the counter. The idea is that all the particles make it through.

A sales funnel would work like this if you could, and did, convert absolutely everyone who might potentially be a lead. Then a funnel would make sense, but your business would be in trouble because…

What you actually need is a sieve.

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How a Marketing Sieve Works.

A marketing sieve makes much more sense than a funnel. My chosen metaphor is the ‘sales sieve,’ because you don’t want every prospect to purchase.

Seriously. Stay with me here.

Some prospects are not qualified to buy your product or service; they’re not good fits. They don’t have what it takes to succeed. They don’t have the exact problem your product will solve, or they don’t have the funds or decision-maker buy-in to purchase.

They will never be happy. Even if you sell to them they will drive your customer service reps batty with questions and complaints. They will push up your cost-to-acquire and leave you bad reviews.

Nobody needs that.

As marketers, we often think it’s our job to get as many people through to sales as possible. It isn’t. Our job is to get the right people through, warmed up and ready to buy. This approach replaces lead generation with qualified lead generation.

Who are the right people?

Your ideal customers are the ones who have what it takes to successfully use and absolutely love your product.

When we approach ‘funnel analysis’ it’s with this in mind. We’re not plugging holes in a leaky vessel.

We’re making sure the right-fit customers get through, while the bad-fit customers don’t.

It’s an entirely different paradigm.

Let’s get one FAQ out of the way before we dive in: When should you analyze your sales funnel? Answer: You should never STOP.

The 5 Stages of Customer Awareness.

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Like how that last one bypasses several steps? That’s our end-goal. We want to structure our sieve to create a higher likelihood of word-of-mouth recommendations, lowering cost-to-acquire and raising retention rates. We can do that by taking a good hard look at the first two models.

And remember: question all assumptions.

Assumption #1: The customer already knows they have a problem

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We’re going to assume the customer knows that he or she has a problem and a pain point. But, when we’re creating our awareness-stage content, we are NOT going to assume that the customer has identified the problem or pain point.

The customer may need further education, and this is where you can begin to separate the right-fit customers from the bad-fit customers by using your awareness-stage content strategy.

As you educate your ideal customers on the problems they’re having, you’re also explaining your philosophy, approach, and the brand experience they can expect—all within the content. Prospects who resonate with your philosophy, approach, and brand experience will move to the next stage. Those who don’t will go elsewhere.

That’s great—we want that.

So, what happens when you’re not doing awareness-stage content well?

Either you’re turning off everybody, or you’re turning off right-fit customers. Is this happening to you?

Assumption #2: Your content is attracting the right people and doesn’t suck

I wish it wasn’t so easy for businesses and marketers to assume their content is ‘good enough.’ Consider how much lackluster content there is out there…it’s a prevalent problem. Not only is it a problem for prospects searching for answers, it’s a problem for the businesses providing incomplete, uninspired, or uninteresting answers too. Informative content works in top-of-funnel lead generation when it delivers value to ideal customers, and creates a positive experience.

How to Create Genuine Native Content

Funnel Analysis Time: Awareness-Stage Content

To see if your awareness-stage content is effectively attracting your ideal customers, check Google Analytics to find out:

  • Where are visitors to your website coming from? This may tell you where they were when they saw your ad, or what keywords they used to find you – both are hints as to what stage of awareness they’re actually in and what they need from you right now. If, for example, a lot of prospects come to your site from a Quora response, check whether they are in the evaluation stage, or the awareness stage.
  • Where are they landing—on your home page? A landing page? A blog post? Which one? You may need to adjust what content you put on those pages, maybe add a freebie opt-in form to a popular post to capture more email addresses.
  • What happens when they get there?
  • How much time are they spending on that page? Are they reading it, or bouncing out? If they’re reading it, that’s a good sign. If they’re bouncing, you need to find out if they’re NOT your ideal customer, or if they are.
  • Are they clicking around to other pages? Which ones? Are they finding what they’re searching for, or bouncing out?

To answer these questions, nothing beats a quick exit survey that triggers when they try to leave a page. Ask questions such as: ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ Or, even better, an open-ended question such as: ‘Help us improve our content! What were you hoping to find here that you didn’t?’ The answers will tell you if they’re your ideal customers and what you may want to add to your content to improve.

Need some top-of-the-funnel content inspiration? These seven content-marketing tactics have proven very effective.

Assumption 3: Your Opt-in is Converting as it Should

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For many, if not most, online businesses, the first micro-goal is to capture email addresses. This allows more opportunity for relationship-building via email campaigns and offers. To get these email addresses, you have to offer something of value—some sort of freebie that people want.

There are soooo many ways this can go wrong.

Funnel Analysis Time: Information search stage

Wrong way #1: Your freebie over-promises and under-delivers

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen. It happens all the time. You have a freebie offer with a tempting title that promises huge value, which means you get ALL the email addresses. But, if your freebie doesn’t deliver on the value promised, it undermines trust with your target audience and they won’t buy. How do you know if your freebie is terrible?

  • Prospects don’t convert into customers, or even click back onto your website, after reading the freebie.
  • Prospects ‘unsubscribe’ from your emails.

Those are ‘passive’ metrics to watch for. But a sure way to see if your freebie offer is delivering value and building a relationship—instead of undermining it—is to build in a survey that asks them if they found the information they needed, and if there’s information they expected to get, but didn’t find. Revise your freebie accordingly.

Wrong way #2: Your freebie brings everybody to the yard

If your freebie is so generally appealing that ‘anyone’ would want to download it, you’ll collect a lot of email addresses, but a large number of these won’t qualify as prospects. You’ll know this is your problem if:

  • Your open and read-through rates are sky-high, but your conversions aren’t.
  • Your survey comes back glowing, but still no conversions.You might need to reconsider your freebie offer and create a new one tailored to your ideal client’s needs. Then, the interested prospects essentially qualify themselves by signing up. Your sign-up numbers will drop, but your conversions should rise or stay the same. Either way, the lead quality will be better.

Wrong way #3: Your freebie rocks, but still yields few conversions

Let’s say you hired a crack-copywriter to create your freebie, it’s tailored to your ideal customer like a Savile Row suit, your surveys come back with top marks, and people are clicking the CTA button to go back to your website.

And then… nothing. They’re not converting.

This happened with one of my clients. After reviewing the open rates and read-through times, I discovered that the content wasn’t the problem; the sales page was the problem!

Assumption #4: Your Sales Page Follows Best Practices—So it Should Work!

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There are many wonderfully effective formulas for writing sales pages that sell. I love the AIDA framework: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. Depending on the complexity and expense of the product, you may need to add social proof in the form of testimonials, user cases or user reviews, maybe an FAQ section, and almost certainly a guarantee.

What if your sales page isn’t selling, despite following the established best practices?

Funnel Analysis Time: Evaluation / Decision stage

You know if your sales page isn’t selling, but you may not know why—or where it’s turning people off. For landing page optimization analysis, it helps to use a tool such as Hotjar that offers heatmaps, visitor-session recordings and even conversion funnel reporting to pinpoint where prospects are getting derailed.

Here’s what to look for:

Heatmaps: Where are people looking, or at least hovering their mouse? Seeing where they’re spending more time indicates that they’re more interested in that section of the page, they’re confused by that section of the page, or you’ve got something distracting them from where they should look.

Heatmaps can also indicate what prospects think are the most compelling parts of your copy and you may find you need to move this up to the top of the page where all prospects will be sure to see it.

Session recordings: These recordings track where your visitors are going, what they’re reading, what they’re skimming or ignoring, and where they’re getting confused. It’s like looking over someone’s shoulder as they go through the website. These are useful for finding places in your sales funnel that are confusing, asking for too much too soon, or not delivering useful information.

Conversion funnel report: This is such a cool feature, because you can see which pages are effectively converting, and where people are getting lost or turned off. If you notice that a page isn’t performing the way it should, try triggering a survey to pop up as visitors leave the page to ask them what they were hoping to find, or if a task was difficult (i.e. a customer effort score survey).

Assumption #5: Quiet Customers are Happy Customers

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What’s happening after customers purchase? They go through onboarding, hopefully make it to using the product, and then recommend it to everyone they know – right? Well, we hope so. But analyzing this very important stage of the funnel will let us know for sure.

Funnel Analysis: Post-purchase Behavior

The onboarding process is where many customers drop out, not completing onboarding, or if they do, not using the product past the first couple of tries. Many businesses assume that if customers aren’t asking for help, or aren’t canceling their subscription, they’re happy.

That’s not the right metric. What we need to ask—and check for—is whether they’re successful.

Why is customer success more important than customer happiness? Because customers who use your product to reach their real-world goals are much more likely to become customer advocates, recommending your product to their friends and colleagues.

There are a couple of primary ways to measure and check customer success during the post-purchase phase.


Your onboarding process makes or breaks retention rates, so it’s really important to know exactly how many customers are making it through, and where you’re losing people. It may help to trigger strategically placed in-app (or on-page) Customer Effort Score (CES) surveys when ‘red-flag’ behaviors occur, such as spending too long on one page, failure to complete a part before exiting out, etc.

CES surveys tell you why people are having trouble, but you’ll also want a fix in place to help customers in the moment. Consider ending the survey with: ‘Would you like a Live Chat representative to help you out?’ Or provide a similar offer of help ASAP.

Pay special attention to places in your onboarding process where customers can expect their first small wins – those first few successes that make them feel like they’re on the right track to the big wins they’re hoping to get by using your product.

This is the Time-to-Value (TTV) metric, or Time-to-First-Value, a SaaS metric that measures how much time customers have to spend on your product to feel like they’ve made progress with their goals. The lower the TTV, the higher retention rates get. In fact, some experts argue (and I agree) that the goal of onboarding is to get the customer to experience that first value, as quickly as possible!

Net Promoter Score

Once the customer has experienced value – and every time your customer experiences a win with your product – it’s a great time to send a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey. NPS surveys ask: ‘On a scale of one to ten, how likely are you to recommend this product to a friend?`

Asking this question tells you if they are, in fact, finding value when and where you expect them to. If they are, it’s a good time to ask promoters (anyone who scores a nine or ten) if they’d be willing to share their success on a social media platform – and be sure to furnish them with a convenient link to Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, etc.

Funnel Analysis or Sales Sieve? The Process is the Same

Whether you’re fixing the funnel you have or optimizing your funnel into a sieve that collects only the likeliest prospects, the principles are the same. You’re always going to look at customer behavior and compare it with what you expected of it.

When there’s a mismatch between your expectations and their real-world actions, it’s time to ask why? Then question your assumptions, and test your hypotheses with customer research and well-placed surveys.

Ultimately, no marketing strategy or sales formula takes the place of asking your customers and prospects what they need, what they expect, and what they actually found.

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