Is The Funnel Dead? (S1, Ep6)

It’s the age-old question regularly revisited by B2B aficionados, client and agency alike: is the Sales and Marketing Funnel still a useful, performing framework, has it evolved, or should we be using a completely different approach? Join us as Jenny Comisford, Digital Strategist, and Mary Kleinsorgen, Technical Strategist, both at MarketOne, team up with Enrico to address the question from all angles: is The Funnel still fit for purpose, if not, why not, what approach would we recommend instead, and what are the requirements from a strategic and technology point of view?


Enrico Brosio (00:13):

Hello and Welcome to a new Episode of Funnelocity, the B2B podcast that brings you real talk around different strategies that can help you build a high-performance sales and marketing funnel. I’m Enrico, president of MarketOne and your host. For today’s episode, we’re taking a look at one of the most commonly asked, and even perhaps over-asked questions in B2B marketing, and one that ties in closely with the name of our podcast: Is the Funnel Dead, or are we just trying to do too much with it? To look into this hotly-disputed topic, I’m joined by 2 of my colleagues from MarketOne, Jenny Comisford and Mary Kleinsorgen.

Jenny is a digital strategist at MarketOne, and has just rejoined us after a 3 year spell on the client side. She has over 10 years’ experience in Marketing Operations and Demand Generation. When she’s not working, she’s hanging out with her husband and her 2 terriers, Jack and Scarlet. Welcome Jenny.

Jenny Comisford (1:08):

Thanks Enrico, glad to be here.

Enrico (1:11):

Mary’s been with MarketOne for over 6 years and has over 15 years of deep expertise in Martech and Demand Generation. Outside the office, Mary enjoys tending to her succulent garden of over 200 plants, and enjoys the great outdoors with her husband and her dog, Monty, in beautiful Colorado. Welcome Mary.

Mary Kleinsorgen (1:30):

Thanks Enrico

Enrico (1:32):

Right, so let’s start in the obvious place here by me asking both of you: is the funnel dead or are we just trying to do too much with it? Perhaps Mary, do you want to start us off?

Mary (1:45):

I mean the funnel is certainly not dead. It’s evolved and much more dynamic now. So, obviously the way customers buy has certainly changed so your traditional funnel is not as linear, everyone doesn’t start at the top of the funnel, and move through from one stage to the next. It’s more like a revolving door now, where everyone can come in at different stages, exit at different stages. So I think our approach to this needs to be much more fluid and dynamic to allow for that.
But then also the funnel is more of an internal tool for sales to use to track that handoff between marketing and sales. I think the intent was originally to be an external tool to define how the customer moves from one journey to the next but really at the end of the day it’s more of an internal tool for tracking that handoff, for tracking lead conversions, to track velocity from one stage to the next. But as far as a marketing tool is concerned, that’s where you have to start factoring in other avenues, other frameworks, other segments to understand where someone is, how do you shape your messaging, are my contacts actively moving through the funnel, are they becoming dormant or are they becoming stale? So it’s not a tool that’s meant to be used on its own.

Jenny (3:41):

Listening to Mary talk, the thing that comes into my head is that it reinforces bad behavior amongst marketing. It was the basis for marketing and sales alignment for the longest time. You’ve got to create mutually agreed upon definitions of what an MQL is and what an SQL is, and all of these things, and now you’ve got director boards and C-suite people and all they want to see is that funnel, and they want to know how many MQLs you’ve created, how many opportunities you’ve created, what do your conversion rates look like. And so the marketer becomes singularly focused on driving those numbers as opposed to really truly trying to meet the customer or the prospect where they are in their journey and just being really closely tied to how the customer experiences the brand and what their experience is with the company as they move through their purchase decision. I think it’s, to Mary’s point, it’s not dead, it’s not something we can likely get away from. I think it is certainly dynamic, and every company has to determine what their funnel needs to look like, but there needs to be some recognition that it is not the ‘live and die’ construct that Marketing should live by, but rather one piece, one tool in the tool belt. And then in terms of engaging customers effectively, there may be better frameworks or segmentation capability to address that.

Enrico (5:33):

So it’s interesting that you’re both looking at the funnel through a few different lenses. You’re looking at it through sales’ lens, which I think is the traditional view of the funnel – it used to be called the sales funnel, for good reason. And I get the sense that that seems to work well. However, as you move up-funnel, to what marketing is doing, then there are weaknesses in using the funnel as a model and perhaps we can explore other things. But there’s one thing I would say that echoes your point Mary from earlier: it definitely is a great way for sales and marketing teams to align on those KPIs, those SLAs, you know, lead definition, lead stage definition, and this is obviously an area that MarketOne plays a critical role in for our clients in ensuring that the leads we uncover, identifying them through outbound calling or qualifying them through outbound marketing tactics, that those are actually handing off in a fluid way to sales and handing back to marketing for further nurturing. So I feel from that stage further down the funnel serves a very critical purpose from an internal reporting perspective and alignment.

But let’s explore what you were also both saying which is that, on the marketing side, when marketing is looking to engage accounts and contacts within accounts, the funnel is not quite fit for purpose there. Mary, do you want to start us off?

Mary (7:39):

One of the gaps with the traditional funnel is that it just doesn’t take it far enough for marketing. So if you take further down the funnel, a purchased segment as an example, there’s only so much that marketing can do with that. It’s not taking into consideration that someone who’s a brand new customer, you’re going to market differently to them than to someone who’s a loyal customer who has previously purchased and even communicate to them differently from someone who may have purchased in the past but maybe has not recently, so that’s why the traditional funnel is not going to assist marketing in that area. It’s really where you have to break that down a little bit further into these sub-segments, to understand alright well are they reaching the point where they’re ready to speak with Tele or speak with sales for follow-up or maybe at some point have they been sent over for follow-up and now they’ve become stale, they’ve become dormant. So that’s where you can break down the funnel stages a little further to understand who’s actively moving through, who’s starting to become stale, who is dormant, and then aligning your messaging to those sub-segments.

Enrico (8:57):

Maybe I can ask Jenny the same question. If journeys are non-linear, and the funnel is perhaps not the answer to help marketers engage with what turns out to be a much more fluid process, what can we do to solve these issues that you’ve highlighted?

Jenny (9:21):

I think that the biggest thing – and we’ve already been talking about it – is 1) recognizing the fact that purchase decisions are not made in any step one, step two step three clean sterile environment. There’s a lot of outside influences, you know, budgeting cycles didn’t hit, we didn’t hit our goal last quarter, some unexpected expense that showed up, procurement’s got some new thing up their butt and are going to add another month of vetting before we can make a decision. The reality is that the buying journey is really in the purchaser’s hands now. We’ve all talking about it for a long time, and in the new digital world with COVID it’s even more so that folks have so much information at their fingertips and they’re going to come to us on their own terms and choose when to engage with us, when to get information from us versus others and other resources. So you always have to be there, have to be ready, and the funnel tries to treat it like an assembly line which doesn’t really work, and you this Enrico and Mary at MarketOne what we actually try to do is try to create through technology and process the ability to really listen, to put out feelers if you will, to understand truly what’s going on with a contact or account. So if they engage for a period of time we know they have some intent, some interest, how do we capitalize on this? But if they go dormant for some period of time well now we’ve got to try to re-engage them, and how is the CFO interacting in relation to one of their direct reports doing more of the research – they’re showing up more actively on the radar. At the end of the day it’s just a segmentation model just like the funnel is, but it turns it on its head in terms of really trying to be focused on how the customer is behaving and how we should react to that, as opposed to trying to force them through our prescribed list of stages. So certainly something that can be done to some degree with folks’ typical tech stacks, in marketing automation, CRM, but you really get to next gen capability if you’re able to pull in a BI stack or CDP, those are the new fancy tech that everybody’s talking about. But again, it’s not a replacement for the funnel, but it is probably a more effective, useful tool for the marketer, who’s trying to make sure that buyers are educated and progress in their intent and their interest towards a sale.

Enrico (12:50):

So what I’m hearing is that we need a better framework to drive superior customer engagement. And through that engagement, we can obviously deliver a better customer experience for the buyers through their buyers’ journey. Let’s see if we can paint a bit of a picture for our listeners – obviously it’s a podcast so we’ll see what we can do to make that visual come through. We’ve been talking a lot about the customer journey and the flaws of using it, that the funnel is not fit for purpose in order to drive, create customer engagement programs.  But broadly speaking when we look at creating a customer journey, we’re really talking about engaging, in B2B it’s about account engagement and obviously personas within those accounts, buying units within those accounts. But let’s stick to the account level initially, where we’re trying to track accounts that are in our target market, our total addressable market, that perhaps are not engaging with us, they’re still unknown if you will to our brand. We want to get them through the cycle, on this customer journey from unknown to known, known to engaged, engaged perhaps to an active purchasing cycle, and I think that’s where that purchase cycle can dovetail with the funnel and the reporting and the SLAs between Sales and Marketing. And then once they become a customer then hopefully they can turn into repeat customers and advocates. Now that’s all great, but at any point on that journey from unknown to known, known to engaged, engaged to the purchasing cycle, repeat orders and advocates, they can obviously drop out, right, they become inactive, disengaged. And I really that’s why the funnel is shaped the way it’s shaped as well, and it’s in being able to track that disengagement and when a prospect becomes dormant and trying to recycle them and put programs in place and re-engage with those individuals. So what I’m hearing is that the frameworks that we can bring to bear allow us a much more dynamic opportunity, to use your term, Mary, from earlier, to really understand where is my customer base and prospect base within my customer journey, but also within that journey, how active or inactive are they. Jenny do you want to react to that?

Jenny (15:54):

I think that, done well, where you’re able to see who’s active, who’s qualified, who’s a customer, who’s at risk, where folks are falling out, it becomes very easy – I don’t want to say very easy – it becomes much more clear on how you should activate against that given segment, or that given audience. It becomes very prescriptive at that point in designing your programs – I mean you can really activate all your channels, assuming that the person is known in your database. Obviously there’s going to be some sub-section of your TAM that is not but you are still going to be able to activate your paid social, your targeting, your email, your tele team – it’s kind of ‘pick your own adventure’ every day – we come in and we look at the segmentation and say ‘who do we want to tackle today?’ You can set KPIs against it. The intent of this program is to move x percent from the dormant after being previously engaged stage back to engaged for example. So I think that it is a worthwhile and does a bit better at achieving the goals of a marketer, which is engagement and education.

Enrico (17:39):

So how would we actually go about putting something like this in place? Perhaps, Mary you could speak to that?

Mary (17:50):

Well I think first it’s about setting expectations or I guess acknowledging that when you’re distributing your database across the buyer journey, across the funnel, across all of these sub-segments, that you can’t expect to have every category be well-populated. But the beauty of this framework is that it’s just a starting point. It’s laying this data foundation out to allow an optimal customer experience in the future, so it’s going to evolve over time, and if you don’t have a lot of data, if you don’t have the right data that fits within each category, that’s totally ok. This is a starting point to understand what does my database distribution look like, how do I define each sub-segment, how do I define what the buyer journey looks like, and then you just evolve over time.

Enrico (18:50):


Jenny (18:52):

I would say that setting expectations is absolutely key. I think that the first step beyond that is just digging into your data, making sure you understand your system integrations really well, making sure that you have a good grasp and feeling of your profile completeness on your contact records, your activity tracking, really trying to make sense of it and map it all out. Back to the whole setting expectations thing, the likelihood is that you’re going to uncover some setbacks – maybe something isn’t tracking that you thought was, maybe you’re not collecting a key field that you need to be able to really define these segments well, so it needs to be, as we’ve discussed, an evolution. You start out with what you can, it might be as simple as recognizing what section of my database is active and what’s inactive and treating those contacts differently based on which of those two buckets they sit in. It doesn’t seem like it would be a challenge, but if you can actually identify who your customers are – not at the account level, but at the contact level and being able to treat them differently than you treat your prospects. There are layers of granularity that you can add into the segmentation model over time as the tracking becomes available, so I think definitely digging into your data, having a desired end-state, even if it changes over time, but at least having it mapped out how you want that model to look so you can start implementing and fixing the things you need to do to get to it. We can go ahead and make the plug, but make sure you have the people internally, a partner, who really understands how these tech stacks work, how these tools interact with one another, have experience and understanding of activating against the B2B Buyers journey to guide you along the path. Good news is that it can evolve over time and that it’s forever going to be useful and built the right way, when you buy new technologies, you can plug them in and layer that insight into the model.

Enrico (21:30):

Well one thing is clear and that’s that it all starts with the data. And Jenny you mentioned earlier CDP in order to unify the data that you might have on an account across your different data sets. But can we maybe just quickly enquire whether this requires a lot of data work outside traditional tools – I’m thinking about CRM and Marketing Automation Platforms. Do you need to build a big data lake or CDP in order to make this work?

Mary (22:13):

Well certainly having a data lake, a data warehouse is ideal to have all your sources connected and centrally located so you can start to develop these segments and even integrate them back into MAP, back into CRM. But that’s not ideal or it might not always be realistic for all organizations. Quite a few organizations don’t have a data lake, a data warehouse to be able to create this rules engine, to craft all those segments, so the beauty of this framework is that it’s platform agnostic. You can build it within your MAP or CRM tool, you can built it outside, even if you have something as simple as a SQL database or even Excel you can build this out on. So it doesn’t require a fancy tool to be able to build this, you just need to be able to map out how you’re defining each segment, how you’re defining the journey, and then from there you can update your MAP, you can leverage rules in your CRM system to help calculate that. It’s similar to when you’re configuring a lead scoring model, whether that’s Eloqua, Hubspot, Marketo. You’re configuring these rules and these segments and filters, and based on someone meeting that criteria you’re going to update a stage, or based on meeting the criteria you’re going to update a sub-segment. So that’s really no different and again you don’t need fancy tools to start out doing this.

In an ideal state, having that separate data entity doing all this calculation for you is ideal only because typically in a CDP, in a data lake you have a variety of different sources, not just MAP and CRM, but it’s beyond that, it’s your CMS, it’s perhaps any web tracking that you’re doing. So you have additional sources that are factored in within this database, where you can get much more sophisticated with your segment definitions, and then, through automation, you can actually cast those segments within that data entity and then push that information back into your MAP, into your CRM, into your web tool, to create this singular view.

Enrico (24:50):

Well I guess our listeners are going to be happy to know that they can leverage their existing tools, that they don’t have to make massive investments in new data lakes or data platforms. I guess that with this framework that enables some pretty clever stuff, maybe Jenny I can ask you, what are the benefits of it, what are the things that you can all of a sudden enable by using this approach?

Jenny (25:21):

I think some of it does depend on whether you’re building in a CDP type environment versus within your MAP or CRM. Obviously one of the big benefits is that you’re able to provide a level of personalization to your customers because you know where they really sit in their journey, how they’ve been engaging and what they’ve been engaging with. If you are limited to your MAP and CRM then you’re doing that through your email, through sales outreach, potentially a lot of ABM platforms now integrate with Salesforce and so you can create segmentation and execute display advertising or web personalization through those platforms. If you get really fancy and develop the segmentation in a CDP that can integrate with you activation layer so your trade desks, your media companies, even paid social campaign builder platforms and those types of things, then it becomes even more sophisticated and you can execute real personalization in a multi-channel and scalable way.

The other thing I would say – and I know we talked about how the funnel is good for sales and marketing alignment – but I think this framework can be really powerful as a tool to partner with sales on as well. I think first of all companies more and more are recognizing that there isn’t this clean handoff from marketing to sales. It’s not like marketing owns the prospect until a certain point and then they pass it off and don’t have anything to do with the person or the account any more, and now it’s on sales laps to deal with. There’s a recognition that it’s a bit more of a ping pong match, in terms of how sales and marketing really attack prospects and accounts, so this model can be really powerful even in partnering with them on how marketing and sales together want to tackle certain segments and sub-segments of the model. If for no other reason, it’s pretty intuitive and easy to understand – the person’s either engaged or they’re not. They’re a customer or they’re not. They’re a loyal customer or they’re not. The labels themselves are easy to understand so it can be powerful just to convey what marketing is up to and how they’re moving the needle against the framework. And I think it provides a lot of insight into the buyer journey because what you don’t get with the funnel, what you don’t really understand – not without a massive amount of over-engineering – how many times is somebody re-entering and exiting, and where are they re-entering, and where are they exiting? You’ve mentioned Enrico that people fall out of the funnel, but when they enter back they don’t always enter at the top. Sometimes they come in as an MQL right away, sometimes they come in trough Tele and I think the framework does a much better job of allowing you to understand where people are dropping out, where they’re coming back in, and it can identify gaps.

For instance, in a previous role recently we built out a bit of a similar customer journey model, granted it was at the account level, but we realized that we were re-qualifying the same accounts 3 or 4 times in a year, so that very quickly bubbled up to us and sales leadership as something that didn’t seem right. It provided additional insight for us to address issues and gaps and really improve efficiencies, and also quality of the customer experience.

Enrico (30:06):

Sounds like an amazing framework, delivering so much value across the organization. Thanks for that, Jenny. And now to summarize, Mary I’ll ask you: tell me why this is the way forward?

Mary (30:19):

This is the path forward because it is truly enabling that customer first, customer-centric approach. As Jenny said, it’s a framework that allows you to personalize that experience and allows you to deliver a much more dynamic customer experience. But it’s also this foundation for serving other models, so if you think about predictive modelling, prescriptive analytics, Next Best Action, having your database distributed within this framework is going to help inform, based on how someone is reacting or not engaging, then factoring in predictive and prescriptive, helping to inform how we automate that follow-up action, how we automate that follow-up message.

Enrico (31:20):

Brilliant, thank you Mary. Well I guess you’ve heard it here, the funnel isn’t dead, it’s just evolved into a sleeker, more effective framework. So thank you Jenny, thank you Mary, for an inspiring discussion.

Mary & Jenny (31:31):

Great, thanks Enrico. Definitely enjoyed it.

Enrico (31:35):

And thank you as always to our listeners. To find out more about MarketOne and the customer journey framework and to listen to more episodes of this podcast, please visit