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rusty funnel with text Say Goodbye to the Sales Funnel!

Big idea: Let’s get rid of the “sales funnel”

Now that the concept of the “sales funnel” is more than 100 years old, let’s retire it for good.

And I’ve got a fresh metaphor to suggest in its place.

It’s my favorite of three other possibilities, each one more realistic and more useful for B2B marketers and writers.

What’s wrong with the sales funnel?

To be honest, the sales funnel:

  • Is too simple and linear
  • Doesn’t show a complex buying process
  • Doesn’t show repeat customers
  • Doesn’t show how content marketing can slowly engage a prospect for months… or lead to an instant sale

And worst, it’s all from the vendor’s point of view. It doesn’t consider customers anything more than drips of revenue.

Don’t buyers deserve more respect?

Don’t you hate it when some vendor asks for your e-mail and you know you’re about to start getting flooded by their pushy sales messages?

That sales funnel has had its day. It’s time to toss it in the recycling bin and start using a fresh metaphor.

Possible metaphor #1: The messy middle

This metaphor came from a 2020 Google white paper.

The Messy Middle

         Source: Google, 2020

That paper is an intriguing read with lots of research plus this sketch of the messy middle.

Point A at the top is connected to point B at the bottom by a tangled bunch of string that represents the decision-making process.

They did a more polished diagram too, but I prefer this one. It really does capture how we all operate.

But I’m not sure how much traction this metaphor ever gained.

Perhaps it was just too messy for business people to admit it was true.

Possible metaphor #2: The flywheel

Martech company Hubspot came up with a new metaphor: the flywheel.

A flywheel is a weight that traps inertia to keep some part of a machine spinning. The better the balance and the lower the friction, the more effective the flywheel.

the flywheel by Hotspot

             Source: Hubspot, 2018

Hubspot’s flywheel captures the ongoing process of attracting strangers, engaging prospects, and delighting buyers.

And some customers go on to promote the company with referrals, online comments, glowing reviews, and word-of-mouth.

This metaphor is cool. It’s realistic.

One problem: It’s all about relentless marketing to keep the wheel spinning. Customers only there to deliver “Growth.”

I don’t know about you, but I unsubscribed from Hubspot years ago.

Who wants to get three e-mails from the same company every day?

And I suspect their never-ending flywheel supports “grind culture” and the more-is-better philosophy of content marketing.

My favorite: The customer journey

the customer journey

I’ve been using “customer journey” for some years now, and I think it works well.

The simple graphic above shows a blacktop road curving between green grassy meadows.

And the customer journey does two things so well that I like it best.

Benefit #1: This puts the customer in the driver’s seat

The metaphor works from the buyer’s point of view.

Far better than a funnel, this suggests the uncertainty of a trip where you don’t know exactly where you’re going.

  • The journey can get interrupted.
  • The driver can park for a while or turn off one road on to another.
  • They can get lost or run out of gas.
  • They can make a U-turn and go back the same way they came.

All the way, the buyer is in the driver’s seat.

The seller is there to help them along their journey. And not like a backseat driver barking out commands!

Instead, the seller should be like the AAA‘s Premier service. Toss in roadside assistance and free towing while you’re at it.

red plastic gasoline can
If a customer runs out of gas
, the vendor should rush over with a red gas can filled to the brim. On the house.

If a customer needs directions, the vendor should give them a map that shows way more than the standard tourist attractions.

Maybe include all the picnic stops or ice cream shops along the way.

And if a customer pulls into a motel exhausted after a 12-hour drive, the vendor should just leave them alone.

Don’t start pounding on their door at 6 AM to hustle them back on the road.

You don’t need to. It’s their journey. Let them travel at their own pace.

Benefit #2: This maps perfectly to the three flavors of white papers

Every journey has three main parts, right?

start, middle, end of the customer journey

Those are the start, the middle, and the end.

And guess what? Each part of the journey calls for a different type of white paper.

At the start, a problem/solution (chocolate) white paper suggests a better way to solve a nagging business problem.

This is like a putting some gas in a prospect’s tank, helping them get ready to start their journey.

In the middle, a numbered list (strawberry) explores some related issue, question, or topic.

This is like giving a prospect a travel guide, so they can explore some highlights and notice some details along their way.

Near the end, a backgrounder (vanilla) describes the features and benefits of your offering.

This is like showing a prospect a listing for your destination, so they can compare choices and pick the best one for them.

the right ice cream flavor for each stage of the customer journey

At every stage of the journey, if you provide the right information, everybody’s happy.

This is why I no longer use the term “sales funnel.” Instead, I always say “customer journey.”

What do you think? Can the customer journey replace the rusty funnel? Can we all agree not to use that tired-out phrase in 2024?

P.S. If you’re unclear about the three flavors of white papers, see my handy infographic.


About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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