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How to Use the “Sales Funnel” to Create a Killer Marketing Plan

8 mins read

What is a sales funnel and how can it be used to create and measure digital marketing efforts?

Jennifer heard this question a lot from the people who attended our Facebook advertising webinar. Sales funnels are a pretty big deal in digital marketing, so we thought it was a good idea to take a few minutes to walk you through this super-critical concept.

This article is designed to help you better understand the traditional sales funnel and apply it to your digital marketing efforts. With the sales funnel in hand, you’ll be able to create a killer marketing plan that will work on every level!

First things first – what is a sales funnel?

Before we begin, you’ll want to take a good hard look at the image below. Print it out. Memorize it if you can. Understanding the sales funnel is going to be critical to mapping out how people learn about you, engage with your brand, and become customers.

The traditional sales funnel predated the internet by nearly a century – it was developed by advertising pioneer E. St. Elmo Lewis in 1898. St. Elmo Lewis laid out the following four steps on the buyer journey: Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action.

The AIDA Model (aka the original sales funnel)

  • Awareness – the customer is aware of the existence of a product or service
  • Interest – actively expressing an interest in a product group
  • Desire – aspiring to a particular brand or product
  • Action – taking the next step towards purchasing the chosen product

While this standard model is still relevant, the digital world has changed a few things. The “Interest” step is now often referred to as “Engagement.” This is because online, “Interest” is demonstrated by a potential customer taking initial action such as clicking on an ad or visiting a website. Through these actions, a customer is “engaging” with a brand. As companies increasingly work to build their communities, focus on branding, and grow engagement through email and social media marketing, this point in the funnel has become particularly important to understand and effectively measure.

Even 120 years ago, advertisers knew that their efforts had to carry someone from the awareness stage through to the purchase itself. Luckily, digital marketers have access to tons of tools which can work their super-measurable magic every step of the way.

Marketing at the “top of the funnel”: Awareness

Ever watch an infomercial and think “wow, I could really use that!”? Or read an article about tropical vacations and realize you need to get away? We’re not always aware of the products and services available to solve our problems, so marketers reach out through “awareness” ads to make sure we know exactly what they have to offer.

It’s pretty simple – potential customers should know who you are and what you can do for them. They should also be reminded of your awesome business from time to time so you’re top of mind when they make a purchasing decision.

Awareness campaigns can have a big impact, especially if they reach a lot of people over time. There’s a reason we are so familiar with brands like Coca-Cola, Levis, Target, and McDonalds. These companies spend a large part of their budget on “brand awareness” campaigns to make sure people everywhere know exactly what they offer. Here’s an example of an “awareness” ad from a top brand:


How to run a top-of-funnel campaign on social media

  • Make sure your social media pages clearly explain who you are and what you do
  • Create branded content that showcases the unique features and expertise of your business so people know you’re available when they need you
  • Create general social media ads that explain who you are and what you do so your name becomes more trusted and recognizable
  • Develop a logo and visual brand which truly represents what you do. Make sure your brand is posted everywhere possible!

Marketing at the “middle of the funnel”: Engagement and Desire

Alright, your awareness campaign is in place. People know who you are.  Thanks to some great content and eye-catching social media campaigns, they are clear on what you offer.

Provided there is a demand for your product or service, many people will venture down into the “middle of the funnel.” These people will start poking around – engaging with your brand, asking questions, and deciding if they’re interested in what you have to offer. These people are at the “Engagement” stage. If you can keep their attention, they’ll move into the “Desire” part of the funnel and decide they want your product or service.

Some people may be propelled into the mid-funnel from your awareness campaigns. Alternatively, you could receive engagement from people who are interested in what you sell but don’t know your business offhand. For example, a person who needs a car tune-up may find you from a search for a local repair shop. When that happens, your first contact with that person is midway through the funnel – they know what they want and they’re actively seeking it out.

Remember – businesses that catch a person’s eye during the “awareness” stage will see better results later on. That’s because they were able to establish trust, brand recognition, and expertise early in the buying process. For example, the searcher looking for car repair could have seen the repair shop Facebook ad before she even had car trouble. This would make the repair shop’s website stand out when she needed this service.

See how it all works together?

Marketers should do the following things to market to mid-funnel searchers:

  • Invest in search engine marketing (SEM) so you show up as earlier as possible in search results.
  • Make sure you have several positive reviews on Google, Facebook, and major review sites so you stand out from the competition.
  • Use keyword targeting to send your Facebook ads to people who are discussing topics related to your business.
  • Develop a great website that captures people’s attention and moves people from engagement to desire.

Closing the deal at the end of the funnel: Purchase and Retention.

People often hope their digital marketing funnel will result in purchases like this:

A person sees an “awareness” ad that catches their attention. 

They click on it, engage with the website, and decide they want the product.

They buy it online right away.

While a well-optimized funnel can definitely make this happen, it doesn’t always go quite so quickly. When big-ticket items or commitments are involved, buyer journeys often play out more like this:

If you want to make that final sale, it’s a good idea to “nurture” your audience. That means that if someone engages with your brand by following a social media page or joining a newsletter, you should follow up with them. Use content, email marketing, and targeted social media ads to keep the relationship going. Stay relevant to your audience. And, when it comes time to buy a product, make it easy for them to complete the purchase. After all, you don’t want to stand in the way of a customer giving you money!

Here are a few ways to make your website conversion-friendly:

  • Experiment with different “call to action” buttons on your website, emails, and social media ads to see which are most effective.
  • E-commerce sites should use a secure, recognized system that accepts a variety of payment options and makes tax and delivery costs crystal-clear.
  • Use a free trial or a satisfaction guarantee to lessen the risk of someone trying your product/service.
  • Follow up with prospects who were close to a purchasing decision to encourage them to complete the process (you can do this with retargeted ads, sales calls, or email marketing depending on your sales process)
  • Simplify your contact form as much as possible so it is easy for prospects to submit.

Your job doesn’t end once a customer reaches the checkout. In digital marketing. retention is the name of the game. It can cost a pretty penny in funnel-friendly advertising to create a customer, so it’s worth the investment to make sure you keep them coming back. In fact, research shows that acquiring a new customer costs an average of 5x more than keeping a current one happy.

You should give something back to your customers to reward them for their loyalty – valuable content, “points,” contests, discounts or just friendly check-ins. You can use these “freebies” to encourage future sales by giving former customers special previews and exclusive sales. Bigger-ticket vendors should also have special sales staff who work to nurture relationships with high-end clientele.

Why the Sales Funnel Matters for Your Marketing Plan

A while back I wrote a blog post about attribution, one of my favorite-ever marketing topics (I’m fun at dinner parties, trust me). In that article, I discussed how multiple marketing efforts often work together to motivate a  purchase or create a “buyer.”

That’s useful to know, but only if you can figure out what efforts are worth trying in the first place. At needls, we think that preparing your social media, website, and email marketing funnel are key steps for all digital marketers. A funnel-centered marketing plan will help you attract the attention of potential customers, carry people through to purchasing your product, and keep them coming back for more.


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