If you’ve ever looked into theories of marketing, you’ve likely come across the concept of a marketing funnel. The funnel is a way of tracing a consumer’s journey, from being a potential prospect for a product or service to actually buying that product or service. (“Customer journey,” by the way, is the accepted term that marketers commonly use to reference this process.)

Using the model of a funnel to illustrate a customer’s journey allows you to depict the flow of each step involved in a purchasing decision. A funnel’s inverted-pyramid construct reflects how a potential audience of consumers ultimately tapers off through the process into a subset of actual buyers.

In a traditional funnel model for a specific product (or service), the process spans four phases. First, a consumer becomes aware of that product. The consumer then develops an interest in it, usually through the acquisition of relevant information. Next, the consumer gets a desire to acquire the product, and finally, the consumer takes action by pulling the trigger to buy the product. This process is known as the AIDA model of a funnel.

As you can see, the traditional funnel is a neat progression that yields a linear, point-A-to-point-B user experience. Terrific, right?

Is the marketing funnel dead?

Here’s the issue: This kind of funnel, many digital marketers say, no longer works. The traditional marketing funnel is out of synch with what really goes on with contemporary consumer behavior in today’s world of digital marketing. Ever-emerging technology, social media and consumer expectations have made the concept of a funnel obsolete.

Newer versions of the marketing funnel have replaced the traditional model. A major difference that’s evident in new paradigms of the funnel is the non-linear experience for consumers. There is no one particular progression for consumers to follow. Instead, consumers are apt to jump into their buyer’s journey at pretty much any point, and also leave at any point along the way.

Brad Smith, a digital marketing expert based in New Zealand, says the updated model for that journey is no longer “an organized cone.” It’s more like a pretzel – a twisted pathway with no discernable beginning or ending.

“When the funnel came about, buyers could only buy from local stores,” Smith writes. “And advertisements were synonymous with word-of-mouth marketing.” That has obviously changed.

What’s surprising is that the traditional funnel is still part of marketing conversations today. After all, its origin dates back more than a century ago, when Elias St. Elmo Lewis, a pioneer of American advertising, introduced the AIDA-model funnel in 1898.

Where’s the fit in modern marketing?

It would be natural to regard this concept as an anachronism in contemporary marketing practices. The funnel pre-dates television, direct mail, personal computers, the Internet and smartphones.

And yet, in the view of some marketing experts, the traditional funnel still merits value. Mark Ritson, an Australian marketing and branding specialist who often presents keynotes at international marketing conferences, is one such expert.

“Very simply, the sales funnel represents the yellow brick road of marketing,” Ritson once wrote. “Having identified a target segment, the funnel charts the various steps in the buying journey and then populates the steps with the proportion of that segment at each stage in the process. With this analysis complete a marketer can use the funnel to decide where to focus their efforts, what the brand objectives should be, what tactical tools to invest in and what investment and return are expected.”

To those digital marketers who assert that the traditional funnel is dead, Riston says they are missing the point of the funnel because they do not understand the difference between strategy and tactics.

The funnel “charts the consumer journey,” Riston has noted, “not the tactical attempts of brands to influence it.”

Even though constantly new technologies have changed the tactical options available to marketers, he has written, “the essential challenge of marketing strategy and the enduring value of a properly derived sales funnel remains undimmed.”

Looking in a holistic way

This perspective of a marketing funnel, Riston said, enables marketers to look at a funnel in a holistic way and then decide “where to focus their efforts, what the brand objectives should be, what tactical tools to invest in and what investment and return are expected.”

Such a holistic approach leads to marketers having an array of options for fine-tuning each marketing funnel they work with. They end up formulating different funnel models for different products and industries.

In some models, they may add additional stages to the customer journey, allowing for comparison shopping, for instance.

New versions of the funnel

Several common variations of the old, AIDA model have emerged: the hourglass funnel; the looping funnel; and the micro-moments funnel.

The hourglass model focuses on the value of forging customer relationships by adding steps to both the top and bottom funnel sections, the pre-purchase phase and the post-purchase phase.

A looping funnel is not as linear. It allows for customization and flexibility. And, a micro-moments funnel makes it possible for marketers to concentrate on various motivations of buyers. Rather than follow customer actions, the model presents opportunities for marketers to anticipate what a target audience will do at specific moments in the buying process.

With the addition and expansion of multiple phases in marketing funnels, marketers have come to refer to the process stages as the domains of top-of-funnel users (TOFU); middle-of-funnel users (MOFU); and bottom-of-funnel users (BOFU).

The key takeaway for all of this is that marketers have to step up their efforts to provide target audiences with more enhanced and tailored content marketing – throughout the stages of any kind of marketing funnel. Moreover, potential customers have repeatedly shown a documented desire to learn about products and services through informative and relevant content, rather than by way of straight advertising and sales pitches.

Gerald H. Levin, a freelance writer and editor, specializes in content development for businesses. He is a member of the chamber. Reach him at ghlevin@gmail.com or through www.ghlevin.com.