Jane walks into a Walmart store to buy coffee. She walks into the beverages aisle and after quickly chatting up with the aisle manager picks a bottle of Douwe Egberts coffee. She walks up to the billing counter and sees the lady in front of her buying Twinnings tea. Jane decides to buy the Twinnings instead of the coffee. She buys something she had not even thought of until now. That’s the nonlinear sales funnel I want to talk about.
You’re probably all too familiar with the linear sales funnel that salespeople have been harping about for decades:
Awareness – engagement – evaluation – Purchase – Advocacy
However, with the internet becoming omnipresent, increased customer awareness, and decision-making being affected by a gazillion external factors it’s the time to think of the non-linear sales funnel
A prospect may be wooed by marketing all year through over email and social media and not budge the entire year, and then suddenly buy out of the blue after one call or reference from a friend. That’s what we’re dealing with.
Understanding the psychology behind this
A major reason for this is that prospects today have easy access to information and are no longer dependent upon the salespeople for it. They come to the table more educated and informed. Hence, enter the prospects’ sales funnel at the moment when “they” feel appropriate.
In most cases, prospects enter in the middle of the funnel instead of at the top. They often jump stages, stay in a stage indefinitely or move back and forth between stages. Marketing and sales team needs to understand this change and evolve to support this new buying behavior. But before this, we need to understand the traditional sales funnel
What is a sales funnel?
The traditional funnel is a path that a buyer supposedly takes in a sequence of customer touchpoints with the brand that influences their decision to purchase and advocacy.
According to the traditional sales funnel, we expect the customer to move from the top of the funnel (awareness) to the bottom (purchase) in a linear manner. For example- a prospect might be passionate about fitness. He/she would come across an article on fitness bands:
They’d probably next click on one of the links and reach a landing page that engages prospects further down the funnel. Most likely the one with a dominant CTA.
The customer would next be led on to make a decision:
This is crudely how a linear sales funnel is expected to work.
However, how many of you would buy a product just based on this?
Today, prospects form perception and impressions of brands from a plethora of touch points such as advertisements, news-reports, interactions with influencers, family and friends, and product experiences. A person sitting in Singapore today has access to reviews being posted by current product /service users in Kansas and consider it in their decision making. This makes the modern decision-making journey is unpredictable.
The nonlinear sales funnel:
The nonlinear sales funnel is founded on the premise that we all like to buy things but hate being sold to. Modern buyers have immediate access to the vast expanse of data and information. In just a couple of clicks, a prospect can compare other car insurance policies, get recommendations on products which are best suited for his needs, compare overall product and services, read reviews online and even receive proposals and pricing from other companies without even needing to speak live with any sales guy. In fact, B2B buyers are more than 70% through their buyer journey before engaging in any communication with a sales guy. (Forbes)
As for B2C, imagine you log on to Amazon, you see a good table lamp and you instantly buy it. You like it so much you post ten pictures of it across social media. You went from “Awareness” to “Purchase” to “Advocacy” in less than five minutes. These are examples of a nonlinear sales funnel.
Customers can enter, exit, hop, skip and dance around your sales funnel in any direction today.
To make things more complicated, the stages at which the buyers enter the sales funnel is no longer indicative of where they are at their buyer’s journey. For example – A prospect enquiring about pricing is no indicator that he is in a negotiation stage of his buyer’s journey. He can even leave your sales to funnel and jump to your competitor at any point in time.
McKinsey interestingly summarises this nonlinear decision-making process as a circular journey with four phases: initial consideration; active evaluation, or the process of researching potential purchases; closure, when consumers buy brands; and post-purchase, when consumers experience them.
Hacking the nonlinear sales funnel
While I’m sure you understand the non-linearity of the sales funnel, it’s important to figure out actionable areas that marketers and salespeople can work on together to strengthen their funnel. Some key points to discuss here are:
Marketing must never stop
The traditional linear sales funnel says that marketing must hand over Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) to Sales post engagement. Thereafter it’s largely the sales team’s show. This isn’t applicable anymore. The role of marketing can never end. Even when your sales teams are wooing the “hot-leads”, chances are your “hot-lead” is being wooed by someone else too. Marketing needs to create clear yet subtle touchpoints here and ahead in the post-purchase journey to create an army of unpaid evangelists.
Influencers play a big role
Influencers have an incredible say in familiarizing the audience with your brand. They often motivate people to jump funnels or stages within the funnel if they’re really considered experts in something. This goes in line with the research from Issuelab that nearly 74% of people prefer to choose companies based on other’s experiences that are shared online. Thus, making it critical for companies to invest in third-party endorsements for promoting their brand.
Tailor the message to the decision makers dynamics
Depending upon the nature of your product/service, create tailored messaging for multiple stages. e.g., in B2B decision making generally happens in teams. According to International Data Corporation, an average B2B deal has 8 decision makers. Whereas in B2C its mostly one buyer – who may buy on impulse or do a ton of research before buying. You need to create ads for both situations.
Tailor the message in terms of channels, media type, segmented-demographic. e.g. video content works but don’t have just one video for all. According to a research by Hubspot, almost half the respondents watched at least hour of video every week and almost more than half are done through YouTube. Of these, 65% of the respondents are spurred to visit the linked business websites or do further research about the brand and its offerings. Facebook has pegged their views to billions of videos each day.
Let’s say you are manufacturing phone accessories in Asia. You need to have tailored content based on gender and location combinations etc. Like a video for women in China who earn and one for Chinese female school and college students. Be a narrow niche ninja!
Tap into the power of Communities
Most buyers are now members of numerous personal and professional communities on Facebook, LinkedIn, Niche portals etc. where they discover solutions to their problems and learn about the products. e.g., we’ve seen our niche community on sharing sales and growth hacks – IdeasThatScale work rather well to create awareness and engagement beyond sharing value on what’s working what not.
Users from different stages of buyer’s journey ask questions, share ideas, decide /change their minds and perhaps sometimes even makes a decision. A good amount of discovering and learning takes places in similar groups. Marketers need to provide valuable insights and content to these communities and aim at targeting various personas within each. It’s important for marketers to have their eyes or feet on the street to understand brand sentiment around their product. Negative customer experience has a huge impact on the buying decision.
Impulse Purchase based on Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
FOMO is real. It is as real as you breathe oxygen. The social media juggernaut has brought it into our lives and altered modern buying behavior. This is clearly evident from the way people engage with, share and view content. Modern tech-savvy consumers do not want to miss out on anything and are always on the lookout for deals and latest trends. The companies who have understood this phenomenon have encashed upon this.
FOMO helps shorten the linear and nonlinear sales funnel drastically. Successfully harnessing its power means skipping through the engagement and evaluation stages which generally are the longest.
Bring back those who jumped out of your funnel
Prospects who have jumped out of your funnel need to be re-engaged smartly. Over conversations with marketers, I have found three strategies working well to re-target prospects.
1. Time Bound Deals: Having Time Bound deals ties in with FOMO but has seen to be working well. e.g. In the SaaS world, the availability of LifeTimeDeals creates a tremendous amount of FOMO purchases.
2. Cashback and refund policies: Having a lucrative policy that offers users to try out a product and refund it if they don’t like it works great for targeting indecisive or doubter buyers
3. Coupons and Vouchers – This strategy helps target price-sensitive prospects.
It is very important to have a marketing strategy that pushes people to remain in your sales funnel. Retargeting is an important component of the nonlinear sales funnel and an effective one. For example, by installing Facebook Pixels on your website or blog you can get insights into how people use your website and even build custom audiences. Once you have a custom audience, you can run retargeting campaigns with an intent to ensure those people return to our blog/website. This will increase your brand awareness and also the efficiency of your ads. Retargeting will also help you generate more leads.
Email marketing becomes more effective when it is used in tandem with retargeting. Thankfully our product Alore CRM allows creating Facebook custom audience. This is an asset when we need to retarget our “funnel jumpers” via email DRIP campaigns etc. You are in touch with the audience at every point.
You need to understand that social media has disconnected advocacy from purchase. One no longer needs to be a user to be a product evangelist or advocate. In today’s changing digital landscape, consumers are engaging with and experiencing a brand in a number of ways apart from purchase and usage. You get connected to the brand through live events, content, social media and also by word of mouth. For example- you can be a Rolex or Lamborghini advocate without owning one. Marketers need to take notice of this social influence while designing their nonlinear sales funnel.
I am not trying to say that the linear sales funnel journey is dead (yet). However, the changing consumer preferences, awareness and decision making habits have led to a massive shift in purchase and advocacy of a product or service. Businesses are required to take note of this changing landscape. The sales funnel must enable and empower a prospective customer and just not persuade and promote. Whatever funnel we choose to strategize upon – linear or nonlinear, businesses must clearly address the multi-dimensional influence of social media and understand that marketing needs to be involved at every step and beyond. They need to be prepared for the unpredictable movement of prospects in the funnel ( jump, skip or exit). Importantly, the role of non-purchasing customers in building a certain relationship and the value of the brand is unmissable. Customers might not be ready to buy a $20 book today but will probably buy a $2000 live training from you in two years if you continue to nurture that relationship.
Would love to hear your thoughts on what you’re doing to address the nonlinear sales funnel in your business!