alternative to conversion funnel

What is a conversion funnel and has the engagement engine replaced it? According Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, the answer is YES!

Now, I really like the engagement engine as a replacement for AIDA (a communication model that’s been around for over 100 years). And, we’ll talk about why in a few minutes. But, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Early in the history of marketing, the AIDA communication model formed the basis of the conversion funnel — notice the resemblance to this image:

content marketing plan

The conversion funnel

This model is still valid and I’ve written a lot about how to maximize movement down the conversion funnel in terms of optimizing conversion.

The underlying notion of the conversion funnel is that actions and communication prompt prospects to move from one stage to another ending in conversion.

Now, there’s lots wrong with the original conception of the conversion funnel. First, it isn’t a linear pathway. Instead, prospects jump out of the funnel only to jump back in at an earlier point or a later one rather than moving smoothly down the funnel. Some prospects get stuck in the funnel and exit without every coming back or converting.

Another problem with the funnel is that conversion is only another piece of the process. For most businesses, getting existing customers to repurchase, purchase additional items, and remain loyal customers is an important part of conversion. Too many businesses forget this. But, it’s 5X easier (and cheaper) to keep an existing customer happy than it is to replace them with a new customer. A company should spend at least as much effort on existing customers.

Finally, a fundamental shift occurred along the conversion funnel. It used to be that brands drove movement down the funnel, now the forces driving movement come from outside of brand communication, while brand communications might still be the catalyst for everything else. Enter the engagement engine.

conversion funnel

Image courtesy of Spiegel Medill at Northwestern

The engagement engine is a powerful tool driving consumers (whether B2B or B2C) down the conversion funnel, hence it doesn’t replace the funnel, but augments it. Consumers still go through the 4 stages, but it’s the engine that moves them through them, rather than brand communications.

Now, I don’t blame Northwestern or the J-school. They’re both great institutions with stellar reputations. But, they’re not marketers and they don’t have a strong understanding of consumer behavior or marketing strategy.

So, let’s delve into this further.

How the engagement engine drives consumers down the conversion funnel

Like I said, it used to be brand communications — advertising, PR, sales people — that moved consumers down the conversion funnel. Now, everyone is in the act.

Today, we find that between 70% and 90% of the purchase decision happened before the consumer ever saw a salesperson or bought product on your website. Even business customers make decisions before buying and they like the option to buy online without seeing a salesperson. IBM proved this when their terminals were commoditized and they sold more that $1 billion of them through IBM Direct. Once a business customer owned some terminals or even mini computers, they didn’t need a salesperson to reorder. It was faster to just do it online or by phone.

What does this change mean for brands?

They can’t just produce brand messages to drive sales. They have to provide the information necessary to make decisions. In many cases, all the customer wants/ needs is pricing information.

Amazon is a great example. They provide extensive information about products prior to purchase and their recommendation engine is incredible. By crowdsourcing information from users, they provide the best, most accurate information to drive sales.

How to drive the engagement engine

Brands don’t control messaging using the engagement engine framework — which I think is pretty accurate. That means brands don’t have control anymore, but are simply another voice in the mix. And, not even the loudest or most persuasive voice. Trained by decades of brands lies and misinformation, consumers now take everything a brand says as suspicious. Brands must work to de-commodify their messages. In other words, brands need to get influencers to spread the good word of their brand rather than advertising their brands.

In the days before computers, word of mouth spread a brand’s reputation (good or bad — although bad spreads faster and farther). But, there were limits to the value of word of mouth since consumer voices were muted. Enter social media. Now, consumer voices are LOUD and can even drown out brand voices. And, consumers believe other consumers; even when they’re wrong or unethical. Recently, Amazon sued 1000’s of brands for posting fake reviews on its site and consumers face lawsuits for paid or false negative reviews on Yelp.

So, what’s a brand to do?

  1. monitor online conversations and join those conversations naturally, as part of the community
  2. understand your target market and what’s most important to them
  3. prompt conversations by posting interesting content, especially images and infographics
  4. be a good corporate citizen and share your involvement
  5. build and engage online communities by recognizing and celebrating consumer voices sharing your brand messages
  6. analyze engagement and use insights to enhance engagement efforts
  7. employ SEO to make it easy for potential buyers to find your content
  8. craft websites that provide excellent user experiences; making it easy to learn about products and make purchases online
  9. understand the mobile platform and provide user experiences optimized for that platform
  10. share content from others to position yourself as a thought leader in your product lines and to encourage others to share your content
  11. learn how to harness a community of influencers to promote sharing
  12. create social customer service teams to address questions, problems, and concerns voiced through social networks 24/7 — create performance metrics to ensure prompt responses and escalate problems
  13. identify roadblocks interfering with purchase intentions and remove them
  14. build subscriber lists to keep interested users up-to-date and offer special promotions to encourage purchase

Fundamentally, the engagement engine turns marketing from push communications to listening, responding, and understanding. It makes communications more customer-centric rather than brand-centric.