Photo:Madeline Ball

As the digital space expands, so does its ability to break through limitations posed by borders – both the literal and figurative kind. Gone are the days where people needed to overcome challenges of geographic distance, partial information or delayed gratification. In the age of the internet, any business model that functions based on concrete and rigid stages is no longer valid, and has been replaced with much more fluid methods of operation. If this is the case, then it’s clear that the marketing funnel, which has long been recognized as the sole path to purchase, is no longer relevant.

To provide a brief introduction, the traditional funnel comprises four stages: awareness, consideration/interest, preference and purchase. Beyond the notion of these stages, is the idea that a prospect necessarily enters the funnel at the top (the awareness stage) and falls out at the bottom after making a purchase. But, with all of content marketing, advertising, and social media that we are exposed to daily, can this model still hold up?

It seems that a more modern take on a funnel would account for the fact that prospects today may start at the top, but easily jump around the different stages, may even leave at some point, come back to a different stage, and then eventually buy. With this in mind, a linear-style purchasing pattern, such as the marketing funnel, simply doesn’t cut it. B2B companies need to abandon the notion that prospects are still following a pre-determined journey to their purchasing decision, and that the path to conversion can take on various forms.

Considering all of the different ways that prospects conduct online research and consume content, it turns out that the journey looks nothing like a funnel. For example, you can reach a company’s website from a Tweet, organic Google search, blog post, advertisement or dozens of other ways. Afterwards, you might read more about the products, or download a white paper, or sign up for a webinar. This process of self-educating and researching can go on for months, and chances are you might leave in the middle and even come back months later. In other words, different stages of the traditional marketing funnel are occurring in a myriad of places, through multiple channels.

A 2013 report published by The Futures Company, called “New Rules for Retail,” proposed a unique new analogy called “the purchase fish.” Basically, instead of starting at the top of the funnel and heading down in one direction only, a fish lets us illustrate all of the shifts that consumers take in all directions before reaching the head. Today, the customer holds much of the power – and has control over almost every aspect of how, when and where they conduct research before buying. As a result, there’s no question that the constricting nature of the marketing funnel stages is obsolete.

The wonderful thing about the purchase fish is that it considers all of the intricate parts of the marketing and sales process, including multi-channel research, on-going communication with the online community, and most importantly: engagement. The fish model emphasizes the need for constant engagement with the prospect, no matter what “stage” that person is in. It highlights the need for brands to constantly reach out to prospects during their decision-making process. In the era of the purchase fish, brands must provide prospects with a continuous stream of valuable and educational content, which reaches them at all points across the internet. In addition, they need to always be “listening” to prospects’ needs, concerns, and wants across social media channels.

In the past, brands had the ability to control the type, frequency and even quantity of information the consumers had access to before purchasing a product or service. The strict nature of this enabled them to push consumers through the funnel in a very specific way, given that people really had no other choice. It’s time to relinquish the long-held idea of a funnel, and adopt the idea of a model that is border-less, and understand that consumers are now the ones who dictate their preferences regarding how they move through each stage. It has never been as important for brands to be accessible across multiple channels, and adopt the idea of a continuous “fish” of engagement.