Forget the Funnel! In a People-Driven World, Relevant Ads Expedite the Customer Journey

In funnel speak, marketing should start near the narrow end, with contextually relevant information served to consumers when they’re ready.

By Laurel Rossi, CMO, Infillion

Attention, interest, desire, action—these familiar concepts were taken up by advertisers after an adman named Elias St. Elmo Lewis, back in 1898, created the “purchase funnel,” a model to help advertisers understand the stages of purchase decision-making. Advertisers had discovered a new mass market and were selling them everything from shoes to insurance. The funnel model has held for over a century and has been used to nudge people into leaving their homes, seek out a product, to try it and buy it. But successfully ushering consumers through the funnel could take months.

More recently, ad people began talking about a collapsed funnel, thanks to digital marketing—someone even said it’s more like a shot glass than a funnel. I appreciate that reference, but whatever we call it, we should toss in a model that’s mentioned too often today. The attention, interest, desire, and action quartet—and variations on them—can all happen during a single TikTok video, with data-fueled marketers keen to push potential customers toward that “last click” (action) that means a purchase.

The result? That nudge from marketers has become a push. Once consumers search for something they may be interested in buying—a spring jacket, pillows, a new car, you name it—they’re often bombarded with advertising and stalked by marketers. Cookies or mobile device identifiers became proxies for “customers ready to shop.” And that’s where ad budgets have been directed. In the end that deal between marketers and consumers became woefully one-sided in advertisers’ favor.

Consumers, as a result, are tuning out and pushing back, with help from regulators. Google and Apple have dramatically limited how consumers can be tracked via their browsers and devices. Increasingly, engaging consumers will mean getting them to opt-in to services, brands, and platforms, giving them far more agency over what they share with brands. Marketers that have relied on data to find prospects need to get ready for empowered consumers to become a “single source of truth” who expect advertising that is relevant to them. They will say what they want—in products and from marketers—and brands will need to listen.

We’re advancing quickly from a device-driven world to a people-driven one. In funnel speak, marketing needs to start somewhere closer to the narrow end, with contextually relevant information being served up to consumers when they are ready to see it. That might take just a single ad unit—more efficient for marketers and more respectful of consumers. Or, fast forward some years and, it may take the form of real sequential messaging that delights consumers with its ability to cut through the clutter and deliver a continuum of relevant brand storytelling. We’ve piloted a new product this month called InfillionX that does just that. The great news here for marketers: When consumers start with choice, brands can move efficiently to make a sale.

For a long time that linear funnel was convenient for advertisers, but it’s been knocked down a few pegs in a more people-driven reality where engagement and trust are earned and privacy is respected. Don’t fight the shift. Consumers—and brands—will be better for it.

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