Is the B2B sales funnel out of date, as buyers change how they make buying decisions?

 inbound marketing programme moments in the buyers journey and how the sales funnel needs to change

With the changes in the way that we buy and research our purchases, buyer behaviour is moving outside of the traditional definition of the sales and marketing funnel. The B2B buying experience has rapidly evolved in recent years, the expectations of when a buyer wants to interact with the seller now comes much later in the buying journey. And with so many messages thrust into our daily lives, it’s no wonder that we are filtering out the noise, sometimes at the expense of your company's message.

In today's market, 67% of the buyers journey is now done digitally and buyers actively seek to educate themselves or find recommendations primarily using online channels. When you consider this shift in B2B buyer behaviour it makes sense that it can be difficult to reach and influence an audience through the traditional marketing methods.

So How Should Companies Respond To The New Buyers Journey?

If marketing has one goal, it’s to reach an audience at that one moment in their buying journey when there is an opportunity to influence the purchase decision. Marketing has always sought to create, identify and influence these "moments of truth", or touch points, when a buyer is most susceptible. Marketers have the opportunity to be contextual, informative and influential to show customers how their product or service addresses the customers needs.

In order for businesses to connect and educate an audience, they need to have a deep understanding of a customer’s full buying journey. The changes in buyer behaviour,  relentlessly driven by the Internet, are directing sales and marketing to adopt a more buyer-centric strategy, targeting the specific needs of the buyer using digital resources.

The internet has changed pretty much most things in our life today. And it has also played a role in turning the buyer-seller relationship completely upside down. The information that buyers need to make a purchase decision is just a click away.

The sales environment as a whole is witnessing a significant shift from the traditional method of B2B prospecting (outbound) to one that is more buyer-friendly (inbound). As buyers - before we make a purchase decision, 60% of us rely on Word Of Mouth - friends - social media, 49% on customer references and recommendations, 47% on analyst reports, and 44% on media articles (source HubSpot Inbound Sales Report 2016).

There is often in my mind a mis-match between how sellers communicate and buyers source and digest content. Traditionally as sellers we have pushed out a message using outbound tactics that suited our needs.  Whereas buyers now are far more likely to ignore that message and use online sources for self-research and education without the need for any initial direct sales contact. 

Understanding buyer attitudes, motivations and digital behaviour is crucial in creating a road map on how to traffic visitors to your website.

What Is The Value Of A Sales Funnel?

The traditional sales funnel maps the journey a person takes from prospect to customer. Although it is typically called a sales funnel, marketing has always be at the heart of the funnel. The concept of the classic sales funnel dates back centuries and offers a simple metaphor to think about the path a customer takes on their way to making a purchase. It is a journey initiated by the marketing effort to attract leads into the top of the funnel, then sales focuses on converting prospects toward a purchase as they progress down the funnel.

The chart below shows the buying journey (from Awareness to Decision) that your B2B sales prospects theoretically take as they go from realising that they have a problem right through to shortlisting vendors and making a purchase. 

Sales funnel and buying journey for inbound marketing

sales funnel can show what content needs to be delivered to satisfy the needs of particular buyer personas as they progress along this buying journey. The funnel visualises the customer journey and it's stages for applying your marketing and sales efforts accordingly. For example, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about product features at the beginning when visitors haven’t even heard of your product or don't realise that they actually have a need.

The sales funnel will look different for each business, but we can think in common terms of top of the funnel (TOFU), middle (MOFU) and bottom (BOFU). Companies may also have their own names for particular stages relevant to their buyers journey.

sales_funnel for inbound sales and marketing


The funnel traditionally has been a linear process where visitors start at the top of the funnel and then make their way down through different stages. The narrowing of the funnel conveys the smaller percentage of people who are nurtured toward a sale at the bottom.

A sales funnel, the path to purchase, the buyers journey and customer journey mapping are to a great extent interchangeable. As they all refer to a series of channels that customers touch from prospect to purchase. The customer journey map refers to the emotional experience consumers have in their buying journey and identifies the gaps in customer experience where a company falls short.

But typically all of these approaches cover a buyer who is:

  1. Contemplating making a purchase
  2. Researching and narrowing down a shortlist of options
  3. Buying the selected product
  4. After sales experience from onboarding to becoming a repeat customer to being a brand advocate

What Is Wrong With The Sales Funnel?

With B2B buyers predominantly doing their own research, critics have suggested it is time to modify the traditional view of the sales funnel. Linearity in mapping the customer journey can be limiting because it assumes that all the customer start from the same place, moving through the same steps, and finishing at the same end point.

But in reality, in today's digital world buyers behave differently. Moving around the funnel from one stage to another, entering and leaving at different points. This fluidity is contrary to the idea of a traditional funnel which has only two openings, at the top and bottom and ignores the leakage through the sides.

The traditional approach to a funnel shows marketing leading a consumer through the top of the funnel and handing off further down for sales to close a deal. In today's market however where buyers are keen to do self-research, marketing needs to take more responsibility because they are providing the content to educate buyers and nurture them before they reach out for direct sales contact. So the influence that marketing has in the sales funnel is expanding, as the role to nurture contacts grows and marketing is handing off contacts to sales at a later stage in the buying journey.

It's Time to Transform Your Sales & Marketing Strategy

Most buyers are already in the Awareness stage of their buying journey – before they engage with salespeople, having already done their own research. For years, the customer touch points have been understood through the metaphor of the “funnel”— as a prospective buyer starts with identifying the problem at the top of the funnel, as marketing helps them to recognise symptoms and articulate their pain. 

But today, the traditional  funnel lacks scope to capture all the touch points and decision making factors from the buyer, coupled with extended product choices, multiple channels and a buyer keen to undertake self-research and education.  Each of these touch points take place at a particular stage along the buyers journey, in a context unique to the buyer.

Inbound Marketing A New Customer Journey

Marketers need to find new ways to get their product or services in front of buyers as they begin their buying journey. Historically marketers had been taught to “push” marketing toward consumers at each stage of the funnel to influence behaviour.  But what is clear is that buyers are shifting away from the traditional outbound marketing toward a preferred two-way conversation built on engagement and satisfying a buyers need for education. Transforming selling to match the way people want to buy.

The inbound methodology in principle tries to attract rather than distract an audience and grow attention organically by generating website traffic using content that visitors are searching for. This audience may have already shown an interest in what you have to offer - by visiting the website, downloading content or opening an email you have sent that they opted in for. 

Every day we form impressions of a company from the various touch points such as ads, sponsorship, direct mail, conversations with family and friends, and our own product experiences. These accumulated impressions will shape to some extent the initial consideration set that we put together as we start our buyer's journey.

The structure of the funnel makes it possible to focus on different aspects of the sales and marketing challenges. At each stage in the funnel leads and prospects seek control of the process and actively “pull” information through online resources to learn more. It is at these stages that the content marketing efforts pay off, as the change in the way buyers make decisions means educating rather than selling moves the lead closer toward a sale.

It is a bad habit but most companies consciously focus on either end of the funnel — building awareness at the top or closing sales at the bottom. Understanding more about your customers by creating a buyer persona reveals the format, style and communication preferences of your buyers. Knowing which touch points have the potential to influence a particular lead can direct your sales and marketing efforts. And focusing more on the consideration phase in the middle of the funnel, content creation offers an opportunity to engage with leads without selling to them.

How Do I Make A Sales Funnel For My Business?

Keep in mind every funnel looks different, it depends on certain factors such as industry, business model, pricing and your target audience. When you create your sales funnel it helps to organise yourself around defined Buying Lifecycle Stages.

For example these stages could be:

Visit: Those visitors that arrive at your website that stick around or jump off.

Lead: Typically you have collected intelligence on a visitor, often for some sort of content-based offer on your website.

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL):  MQLs are those people who have identified themselves as being engaged because they have filled out a form found further down the sales funnel for example for a demo request.

Sales Qualified Lead (SQL): SQLs are those leads that your sales team has accepted as valuable enough to warrant a direct sales follow up.

Opportunity: Opportunities are contacts who have become real sales opportunities in your CRM and are deemed ready to buy.

Customer: You have closed the sale, now the effort is to keep your customers loyal and get them to become brand advocates.

Take Away

You have to know your buyer, if you are going to grow your revenue. Since only 30% of content marketers according to the Content Marketing Institute believe that they are effective with their content, creating content that targets a particular persona is becoming increasingly important. The path to purchase isn’t always a direct route as buyers today face many decisions. The buying process today has more stakeholders, different agendas, tighter budgets and other factors that force a decision to be made at each step before anybody can move forward. 

Download our Buyer's Personas templates and guide, to get you started and focused on your customers pain.

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