‘It’s not customer-centric’: B2B brands on why an alternative to the funnel is needed

While the traditional sales funnel still has some uses internally, marketers at PwC, Goldman Sachs Asset Management and Jellyfish Global agree it is no longer fit for B2B buyer journeys.

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B2B buyer journeys are not linear. They are hugely complex, usually involve multiple people and are built over an extended period of time. The idea, then, that a prospective customer moves neatly from awareness to consideration to conversation in a pre-determined way is simply not accurate, and as such many agree the traditional marketing funnel is no longer fit for purpose.

“It goes against an awful lot of what we should believe as marketers, about customer centricity and listening to people and really understanding their very individual and different perspectives,” said Tom Roach, Marketing Week columnist and vice-president of strategy at Jellyfish Global.

Conversely, he said the funnel is “all about how you filter people to listen to what you want to say”.

“Before we start sticking things in funnels we really need to understand customers and their real journeys,” he added.

Anouschka Elliott, global head of marketing at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who was talking alongside Roach on a panel at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing last week, reiterated the fact B2B buyer journeys are not linear and have become increasingly convoluted over the past few years, meaning marketers need to adapt their approach.

The funnel is very, very useful to explain to non-marketers what we do… But we’re missing advocacy, we’re missing the loyalty, we’re missing that continued relationship we need to be building, and all of the complexity of the actual journey.

Anouschka Elliott, Goldman Sachs Asset Management

She cited research from LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, which suggests 44% of millennials, who now make up much of the workforce, prefer no sales interaction at all. Meanwhile, separate data from Gartner shows just 17% of the purchase process is now done in a face-to-face way, and on average there are 10 to 15 decision-makers involved in any one purchase.

“At the same time, we also know from [Ehrenberg-Bass] research that only 5% of a B2B audience is buying at any one time, which means mental availability is incredibly important,” she added. “We also know that the relationships we have with institutional investors are incredibly long term.”

Ehrenberg-Bass: 95% of B2B buyers are not in the market for your products

Taking all that into account, she said the business “thinks about the funnel as an infinity loop”, which uses “elements” of the standard funnel but in a way that “actually works” for the business.

“We think about attracting our audiences to us, so making sure they’re aware of what we do and what we offer. We start engaging with them, we might show content that addresses their needs, so when they’re looking for a solution to a particular problem they know they can come to us,” she explained.

“We then continue to inform them and constantly prompt them, so this is essentially a performance marketing element, and then we work to convert. And then we work to do it again.”

She said this way of working requires a “really customer-centric mindset” so the business understands who might be in the market at any one time.

The customer must be at the centre

PwC has also developed a bespoke model to replace the funnel, as Paul Beattie, marketing director for the global marketing organisation at the professional services firm, said: “I don’t think the sales funnel articulates that the client is front and centre”.

It is derived from the model outlined by Antonia Wade, PwC’s global CMO, in her book on the B2B buyer journeys, but Beattie said “every organisation needs to think about the best fit for them” to ensure it works at the highest level for whatever they are striving to achieve.

He said his focus at PwC is building the brand for future revenue generation.

“We’re very focused on bringing people to market around issues that perhaps they don’t yet know they need [solutions for] and we want to educate them about the services we can provide that connect to those challenges and opportunities they have in their organisation,” he explained.

PwC ascribes one of five stages to prospective customers – horizon scanners, explorers, hunters, active buyers and clients, which he said on paper looks quite linear still, but it then personalises by buyer.

“We will look at what the CEO issues are, and how we move the CEO from stage to stage. And on the same topic, what are we doing for the CTO? They both need to come together and have a very different viewpoint on that issue, that opportunity, and we’re providing different layers of content, educational material, points of view, expert opinion on those to pull them through the buyer journey.”

The B2B buyer journey is not fit for purpose, here’s how to fix it

He said the “extra challenge” PwC has is that clients are “owned” in different territories. So it works with the UK, the US and much smaller markets to develop global campaigns that do brand building and are focused on the future buyers, but it then provides tools for the territories to take those campaigns to market.

“We actually aren’t focused on really driving sales but we have a responsibility to enable it, so we go to market consistently with our brand,” he added.

Meanwhile, Roach said although the standard marketing funnel has its flaws, “we’d be mad to try and kill it”. But he did urge marketers to “use it better”.

He has developed the ‘Modified Funnel’, which swaps awareness, consideration and conversion for building, nudging and connecting, so it evolves thinking but “still fits with the way the platforms sell inventory”.

We shouldn’t be told by platforms what to do, we should be making up our own minds based on our own research and our own data.

Tom Roach, Jellyfish Global

He said it also prevents a divide being created between brand and performance and enables businesses to think in a more emotional way. “Awareness, consideration and conversion sound really dry and rational. There needs to be emotion in everything we do in order for it to work,” he added.

Adapting the funnel in this way means brands are no longer beholden to the platforms, he said. “If all your marketing is based on awareness, consideration, conversion, you’re blindly following what the platforms tell you to do. You’re blindly following their advice on how much of different things to buy at different stages and what formats to buy… [which could lead to] missing out on an awful lot of growth.

“We shouldn’t be told by platforms what to do, we should be making up our own minds based on our own research and our own data.”

Again, it comes back to putting customers at the heart of all these journeys and understanding that despite being a B2B brand you are dealing with individual people.

“We have to address this shift in attention. Yes, we’re competing with each other as B2B brands, but actually we’re competing with the volume, effectiveness and personalisation B2C brings to it,” said Beattie.

“I get emails from Mr Porter and John Lewis and Audi that really resonate with me – my open rate on Mr Porter is phenomenal and my buy rate is good, less so on Audi, I don’t buy so often there – but then you switch around and you’re communicated to by some clunky B2B that is addressing you as a brand, as a corporate organisation and it just falls over immediately.”

The funnel isn’t dead

While the panellists agreed the standard sales funnel is no longer fit for purpose from a buyer point of view, they agreed it still has its uses, particularly when communicating what marketing does with internal stakeholders.

“The funnel is very, very useful to explain to non-marketers what we do. It gives them a framework they understand and can connect with,” said Elliott. “But we’re missing advocacy, we’re missing the loyalty, we’re missing that continued relationship we need to be building, and all of the complexity of the actual journey.”

Beattie agreed the standard funnel still has its uses, but fundamentally as an internally focused model. “It’s great for simply explaining that process and how the functions of a marketing team fit together, but I believe the client has to be at the centre of everything.”

Likewise, Roach, who has previously described the sales funnel as “the cockroach of marketing concepts”, said the standard funnel is “wrong but can be useful”.

“The media landscape has got incredibly complex so I think it can be helpful to simplify it, particularly when you’re dealing with internal stakeholders who may not get this very complicated world… so I do think it’s here to stay,” he said.