Mark Ritson: Spreadsheet jockeys are misunderstanding the marketing funnel

Too many people are confusing the marketing funnel, thinking it is all about marketers when really it’s all about the consumer.


In an era when many traditional marketing and advertising conferences are underwhelming it’s clear that Dmexco – the digital marketing exposition and conference – is rising in both its influence and attractiveness. The annual event in Cologne is rapidly acquiring a marquee place not only in the calendars of the digerati but also the broader marketing community too.

Among the 570 speakers last week in Germany were some of the biggest names in the business including senior media and marketing leads from most of the big brands. My favourite report from the conference floor came from Digiday’s Seb Joseph who collated a series of overheard conversations from the army of digital marketers attending the event.

“There’s still so much crap spouted here,” one particularly cynical marketer told Joseph. “Even I don’t understand what a lot of these ad tech vendors are saying they do, and I’ve worked in digital advertising a long time. If a client was walking around this hall, they wouldn’t understand what digital advertising is all about — I’m not even sure the vendors know themselves.”

It’s a revealing quote. As marketing continues to advance at ever increasing speeds into acronyms and ambitions that literally did not exist a year ago, it’s crucial that marketers maintain a super-effective bullshit detector. Some of the new developments in digital marketing are genuinely astonishing, others are bags of piss disguised as the champagne of disruption. I advise every good marketer to assume it’s the latter, even at the risk of looking like an out of touch idiot, until someone eventually proves to you that it’s the former. Enthusiasm and great marketing are rarely successful long-term partners.

The ‘collapse’ of the marketing funnel

One attendee who certainly did know what she was talking about was the inimitable Sheryl Sandberg. As usual, Facebook’s chief operating officer took no prisoners during her keynote at Dmexco.

READ MORE: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – Digital is causing the collapse of the marketing funnel

“The marketing funnel itself is collapsing,” she announced to a packed conference hall. “It used to take time to go from research to discovery to awareness all the way to purchase. But now you have digital and mobile, that is happening faster than ever. And that is from the largest brands to the small corner shop to non-profits”.

It’s an interesting and not unexpected critique of the oldest theoretical model in marketing. We have been using various funnels, paths to purchase and buying paths since the late 19th Century. Its “collapse” is a common prediction among digital marketers and they use the word in both senses of the verb. Either the whole concept of a funnel is coming to an end or, as Sandberg was suggesting last week, the funnel in a digital world is now condensing rapidly and likely to consist of less stages and a much faster customer journey.

Some of the new developments in digital marketing are genuinely astonishing, others are bags of piss disguised as the champagne of disruption.

I’ve worked with clients that do and don’t follow her advice. Some see the funnel as something that is intrinsic to digital communications and believe that everything from awareness to repeat business can be achieved at lightning speed using exclusively digital touchpoints. A well fashioned, thoroughly A/B tested electronic direct mail campaign can take a target customer from ignorance to advocacy in a few clicks. This is the new world of marketing.

Other clients remain steadfast in taking a more traditional approach. They have a broader funnel in which the total target market sits at the top and the current loyal customer base that score nine or 10 on the Net Promoter Score sit at the bottom. Digital communications remain a key targeting tool for these companies too, but they steadfastly ignore Sandberg’s advice and keep their funnel very much un-collapsed and sequential and they chart carefully how one stage delivers consumers to the next.

The rise of the spreadsheet jockey

The state of your funnel is a far more important decision than it may appear. If you really believe that the funnel is collapsing then you are also likely to believe that digital communications is pretty much all you need. I increasingly meet these marketers all over the world. I call them ‘spreadsheet jockeys’, which may be a little unfair, but you have, no doubt, met them too.

They usually have no marketing training. But what they lack in formal training they make up for in technical capability and speed of thought. They usually run a large meta-spreadsheet of some kind that records, thanks to the data from their chosen digital agencies and platforms, the reach, open rate, clickthrough rate, conversion ratios and purchase numbers for all the various forms of communication that have been sent out.

All they care about is attribution. Which of their many different campaigns pulled the best and offered the most impressive ROI? Why they deliver better ROI is less important than the ROI itself because next week new alternatives will be tested and the digital marketing campaign will advance.

You probably saw many of these spreadsheet jockeys during the latest measurement saga over at Facebook. When it began to emerge that Facebook was claiming to reach many more people than actually existed across a variety of large countries, an issue it has explained away by saying “potential reach is not meant to match census data”, most rational marketers were understandably appalled.

READ MORE: The inconvenient truth about Facebook’s user numbers

Not the spreadsheet jockeys. Oh no. They all posted the same response: “Who cares if Facebook claims its reach is 20 million bigger than the population? Reach does not matter anymore. As long as I know the ads are working and giving me good ROI what is the problem?”

It’s an interesting premise. But there are a few small issues with the spreadsheet jockey’s approach. Issues that might have been more clear had a bit of marketing education been part of the path that brought them to their current role.

For starters, the spreadsheets only really compare digital and direct tools. That provides an excellent way to assess whether, say, you want to run digital display ads with Facebook or sponsored content with LinkedIn. What it won’t do is allow you to look at the potential value of other, non-direct, tools apples to apples. That leads to a significant blind spot when it comes to campaign planning. You’re picking the best athlete from a small pool of candidates inside the stadium, and ignoring the broader and potentially more impactful options that exist outside.

Another issue is losing out on the synergies that occur across multiple tools. A hallmark of good integrated marketing is recognising that different tools do different things well. Using them accordingly in a coordinated campaign always delivers better results. You generate awareness with PR, you build brand with TV ads, you generate information and preference with search and then you bring home the sale with fantastic sales people at the point of retail.

There are many reasons for this illogical emphasis on the near over the longer term but the spreadsheet jockeys and their truncated funnels must be at the very top of the list.

When the spreadsheet jockeys tally their performance they often ignore the 20 years of traditional communications that was done to build the brand before it was harvested down the bottom end of the funnel with their digital finale. It’s easy to assume the cherry is the whole cake from the top of the cake. Sure, there are businesses that can build awareness, brand and preference and then harvest it with a two second digital ad and a decent website. There are a lot more businesses that need to set up that final “money shot” (as we call it in marketing) with years of branding foreplay (as we also refer to it).

Finally, there is the not insignificant issue of time horizons. The constantly awesome Peter Field has been a lone voice in the advertising wilderness for too long pointing out that campaign planning is becoming increasingly short-term in scope and overtly obsessed with ROI which, almost always, defaults to immediate impact at the expense of a longer term, more sustained pay-off. There are many reasons for this illogical emphasis on the near over the longer term but the spreadsheet jockeys and their truncated funnels must be at the very top of the list.

It’s probably no surprise that funnels, which have been with us since the very start of the marketing discipline, are now front and center in the most recent chapter in its history. My advice to you – dear marketer – remains identical to that I would have proffered in 2007 or, indeed, 1997 had you cared to listen to a hugely inexperienced marketing professor from Minnesota.

Funnels have nothing to do with marketers or communication. They are the stages, however unusual or fleeting, that the consumer traverses in order to get what they are looking for. Different brands should have different funnels. Hell, the same brand should have different funnels depending on the segments being targeted. Advertising tools like Facebook inevitably have changed the way we target and influence consumers on their journey, but the trip down that funnel is all about consumers. Not advertising. Not Facebook. Not me. Not Sandberg. And certainly not the jockey staring at 465 ever-changing columns on a spreadsheet and calling it marketing.

Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.



There are 10 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Michael Marketing 20 Sep 2017

    As always, a truly great article, Mark. Being a recent university marketing graduate, your articles help me to look past the hype, which is currently roaming the industry. However, you constantly write that if only marketers (or ‘digital marketers’) had a proper education then they would be able to call bullshit on the digital hype. This is not my experience. I have a lot of friends who have fine marketing degrees from very good universities who only talk about attribution, CTR, programmatic, YouTube and the newest artificial-whatever intelligence. To me, the problem is within the companies and who you meet and talk to when you finish uni. When you finish school, you will listen to the people working at your job because, after all, they have been doing marketing in ‘real life’. You get thrown into an environment, which is so focused on digital stuff that you forget everything that you learned and buy into the idea that it isn’t really useful. On the positive side, the people who read your columns (and Marketing Week in general) will know. They are, unfortunately, only a very small pool of marketers. The rest will learn from their respective jobs and take in whatever they tell them is right.

  2. Al King 21 Sep 2017

    One of your best in a while mate. I particularly liked “…others are bags of piss disguised as the champagne of disruption” and ” branding foreplay .” Its a malaise that we face in the free-to-play games space. I fight the good fight powered up on Super Ritson.

  3. Marcelo Salup 21 Sep 2017

    I don’t know who still talks about funnels (at least in a serious, objective way). It is obvious, whenever you talk to actual consumers, that 90% of our daily decisions are NOT part of a funnel but, rather, of a loop. You buy a certain toothpaste, or beer… and keep on buying it until something (an offer, a coupon, a TV spot?) dislodges your decision, then you might try the new product. If you like it, you might continue buying it until something happens.

    90% of our decisions are just loops inside loops.

  4. Pete Austin 21 Sep 2017

    You need behavioral data to optimize your marketing and this issue is mostly about the best strategy for using it, because you can’t use the same data multiple times (data dredging) without generating false positives.

    So the easiest thing is to use your data in a way that you know works (even if it’s probably not the best) and not get too creative.

    For example, you need much more consumer data to decide *why* marketing works, compared to *whether* it works (so the latter is preferred). And trying to account for offline just makes everything more complicated and error prone.

  5. Mike Scott 21 Sep 2017

    Mark is like the little boy shouting out that the “Emperor has no clothes”. There is this willful belief in the false narrative that digitla and social are a good substitute for broad reach media. It is not true. They contine to try to disguise their weakness with twisted data. It is very tempting to the financial types to buy into it since it is so much cheaper that broad reach media. It is also very trendy. Sandberg is trying to sell a product that does not reach new customers nor does nothing to build brand trust. We are lucky to have Professor Ritson reminding us the naked truth about digital and social media.

  6. Vincent Balusseau 24 Sep 2017

    Would disagree with you Mark. A funnel is not a representation of the stages consumers go through when shopping in a category. That is the goal of consumer journeys, that build upon the principle of the funnel, but are different. Marketing funnels and some of their applications (like brand funnel data within brand tracking studies) tend to represent proportions of consumers that are either aware of your brand, consider it, prefer it, or willing to recommend it as you say.
    Same goes for the sales funnel in B2B settings. They provide you with information regarding the number of prospects, leads, etc. you currently have in your marketing automation software.
    Same logic applies to the trendy growth hacking funnels, which are just another application of the marketing funnel.
    If you want to look at the different steps (and the associated touchpoints) consumers go through when shopping (and consuming) within a category, then you map consumer journeys, for your key segments. Now, I agree that if you aggregate those steps, they tend to look like the funnel. Yet it is different.
    These differences matter, because it helps explain why marketers and experts alike keep on talking about the death or collapse of the funnel. The funnel still exists, and always will. What is really changing, specially in high-involvement product categories, are the lenght, steps, and touchpoints associated with consumer journeys.

  7. Steve Jex 25 Sep 2017

    It is pointless trying to relate Facebook, and other Social Media platform membership numbers to actual numbers. Anyone who has actually done any digital marketing will know that it is often necessary to have multiple accounts/personas on those platforms in order to manage campaigns for multiple businesses or clients. I have over 20 Facebook accounts for marketing purposes and I know plenty of others with more than that.

  8. Illy Jaffar 25 Sep 2017

    I’ll keep this brief – great article reminding us that consumers and understanding why is key to successful campaigns.
    Keep ‘me coming.

  9. j king 25 Sep 2017

    perhaps facebook confused reach with gross OTS, just a thought ?

  10. Georgia Antill 1 Oct 2017

    Perhaps a shorter more succinct version with a note on how content is critical here too? Look me up on LinkedIn if you’d like to read it.

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