He was the saddest Santa Claus I’ve ever seen.

It was December. The stores were in full holiday mode, including my local retail superstore.

I was shopping, walking along the back wall when I saw them—two employees. One held a point-and-shoot camera and wore a Santa hat. The other wore a loose-fitting Santa suit, hat, and fake beard.

“Santa” was sitting, slouched on an undecorated bench in a dimly-lit area outside the bathrooms. The other employee stood a few feet away, waiting for customers to request a picture with Santa.

Neither smiled. Both looked bored.

Incongruity: Telling the Wrong Story

Those two retail employees are a perfect example of incongruity in a marketing effort.

Whatever manager decided the store should have a Santa hoped to engage shoppers with a fun, festive experience.

What the employee in the Santa suit actually communicated was:

  • “This is miserable.”
  • “Being here is miserable.”
  • “Is it time to go home yet?”

The idea of “Santa” primes me for fun, joy, and excitement. For smiles, and laughter, and holiday cheer. That’s what I expect to feel when I see a Santa in a retail store. The store’s message was incongruent.

What I got from these two employees was quite different.

Sales Funnel Example

Digital marketers make the same mistake all the time.

We set out to excite prospects about our product or service. But we unwittingly set up our funnel in a way that kills the very excitement we were hoping to generate.

Whenever incongruity happens, your target audience will see two things at the same time:

  1. The story I’m trying to tell (e.g. holiday cheer)
  2. The story I’m actually telling (e.g. employee misery)

Incongruity will kill your conversions in a sales funnel.

Let me use an example to illustrate how congruity works for digital marketers.

Let’s pretend I have an info-product called “Nathan’s Awesome Consulting Method” I’d like to sell to consultants who need more clients. Let’s also say it sells for $297.

I’ll use a pretty standard IM funnel:

  1. Blog posts with Facebook ads to drive traffic
  2. Retargeting ads to a lead magnet
  3. Tripwire offer on the lead magnet download page
  4. Upsell to the $297 on the tripwire thank you page
  5. Email follow-up for those who didn’t purchase the tripwire or the full package

Straightforward stuff for anyone who’s done a funnel before.

Specifically, I’ll use these items:

  1. High-value blog posts about consulting.
  2. A PDF lead magnet called 5 Simple Methods to Land 2 New Consulting Clients in the Next 30 Days
  3. A tripwire: a 60-minute video training as a tripwire, cost $7. Let’s call it: Land as Many Clients As You Want, Whenever You Want (Nathan’s Proven System)
  4. The main $297 product: Nathan’s Awesome Consulting Program

Congruity: One Audience, One Problem, One Promise

One Way Story

Behind the scenes, my little made-up funnel hits the three key criteria for congruity in a sales funnel:

  1. It’s aimed at one well-defined audience: consultants
  2. It’s aimed at one problem: landing new clients to grow a consulting practice
  3. It promises one thing: grow your consulting business

The audience and the problem never change. And neither does my promise to the audience.

What changes is the magnitude of my promise.

At the top of the funnel I promise to solve your problem in a small way: land two clients in 30 days.

By the end, I offer a full system anyone can use to find as many clients as they want, whenever they want.

I’m solving the same problem but in different ways.

Where Marketers Go Wrong

marketer annoyed

I regularly meet marketers who get bogged down in the mechanics of their sales funnel, obsessing about technical details like:

  • The color of the CTA button
  • A/B testing of one specific landing page within the funnel
  • How many days is “ideal” between messages in the follow-up email sequence
  • Conversion rates of different lead magnet offers
  • Pricing packages

And a thousand other things.

None of these things are bad, of course. But the mechanics of a sales funnel won’t help you if you forget to step back and examine the message customers receive as they move through the steps of your funnel.

As a marketer, you have to go back and forth with this. You have to constantly zoom in to fix the small stuff, then zoom back out to make sure the story you’re telling still makes sense all the way through your funnel.

How to Wreck a Well-Designed Sales Funnel

Let’s say my opt-in lead magnet is only converting at 30% and I’m not happy about it.

So, I decide to dump my lead magnet: 5 Simple Methods to Land 2 New Consulting Clients in the Next 10 Days.

I swap it out with a new lead magnet called 7 IRS Loopholes for Self-Employed Consultants.

Now my funnel materials look like this:

  1. High-value blog posts about consulting.
  2. PDF lead magnet: 7 Little-Known IRS Rules for Self-Employed Consultants
  3. A tripwire: a 60-minute video training as a tripwire, cost $7. Let’s call it: Land as Many Clients As You Want, Whenever You Want (Nathan’s Proven System)
  4. The main $997 product: Nathan’s Awesome Consulting Program

Having done this for a while, I can tell you what will happen.

Opt-ins might go up for the “IRS Loopholes” lead magnet.

But whether they do or not, I predict the overall sales numbers for the funnel will almost certainly drop.


Because now I’m making two promises in my sales funnel, instead of just one.

“IRS Loopholes” makes a different promise than every other step of the sales funnel. And thus it attracts a different crowd of people to click on the initial Facebook ads at the top of the funnel.

Before, I was attracting consultants who had the pain of not having enough clients. It’s why they clicked to enter the funnel.

Now I’m attracting consultants who want to find IRS loopholes. That crowd might also have the problem of not having enough clients. But they might not. I’ll never know, because that’s not why they clicked to enter the funnel.

Congruity: Priming the Prospects Mind for the Sale

In sales funnels, “priming” is the art of preparing someone to see an offer.

What they see before the offer primes them for what they’ll see on the sales page.

People who download a PDF book about IRS loopholes? They have not been primed to think about the problem of finding more clients as a consultant.

When “IRS loopholes” people hit my tripwire page, I’m asking their brains to process a shift—from the pain of paying taxes to the pain of not having enough clients.

That shift? It will be jarring to the brains of my readers.

Because incongruity kills conversions, every time.

3 Elements of a Congruent Funnel

If you are designing a funnel, here are three elements you must have to make it successful:

Element #1: A Well-Defined Audience Segment

When you set up a funnel, start with your audience and work backward. Funnels work because they promise to solve a problem for a group of people. To do that, you have to clearly define who you’re trying to attract with your top-of-the-funnel content.

Element #2: A Problem

I like to literally write out the problem statement I’m going to solve for my audience. For example:

  • “I don’t make enough money to pay the bills”
  • “I can’t find clients”
  • “I hate my job. I want to quit and work for myself, but I don’t know how”
  • “I’ve tried to lose weight but nothing works”
  • “My marriage is in trouble”

Element #3: One Central Promise

Every step of your sales funnel should solve the same problem in bigger and better ways. That’s how you attract the right people into the funnel. And that’s how you convert them as they move through the different steps.

3 Dead Giveaways of an Incongruent Funnel

Funnel not working as well as it should? Here are three giveaways that will tell you if you have a congruity problem:

Giveaway #1: No Well-Defined Audience

Don’t expect good results if you don’t know who you’re trying to reach with your funnel.

Giveaway #2: Not Solving a Problem

Newsjacking content might get a lot of clicks at the top of your funnel, but it’s not how you get the right people into your sales funnel. Same with ads about your product’s features. Focus on a problem that’s common in your target audience.

Giveaway #3. Multiple Promises in the Funnel

As we described earlier, switching promises mid-funnel is jarring to your prospects. A different promise might boost your results in one part of the funnel, but it might also torpedo your overall sales results.

Performance Marketer A Real-Live Example

At Performance Marketer, the team obviously spends a lot of time working on our own sales funnels.

As a company, we have 10 – 15 products in total, which we’ve separated based on target audiences. From there, we focus on making a funnel for each audience, attracting them with a specific promise, then leading them to the appropriate product.

For example, our site Membership Site Masters is a course on how to build a successful membership site.

The audience:

  • Internet marketers who want to make recurring revenue online with membership sites.

The problem statement:

  • “I want to make monthly revenue from a membership site. But I don’t know how to make it work.”

The promise:

  • We’ll teach you a proven system for how to set up, fill, and profit from a membership site of your own, including the technical stuff

The content assets we use in the funnel are:

  • Lead Magnet #1 : 114 Membership Site Niche Ideas
  • Lead Magnet #2 : 4 Video Mini-Course on why it’s a great idea to create a membership site)

The main product:

  • A step by step course on how to create a membership site (including technical aspects)

We also add a downsell option:

  • The first module (a 7-course video) on the different types of videos you can use in a membership site

See how every piece of the funnel—including the products themselves—are congruent?

We attract people with content and lead magnets that talk about membership sites. This attracts people we know are interested in the topic. Then we follow through with products that solve the same problem in a bigger, easier way.

The key to our success?

The audience drives the rest of the funnel design.

That’s why we keep all those materials on their own domain at Membership Site Masters. We use the same method with all our products and properties, including Performance Marketer itself.

I know “congruity” sounds like a big fancy academic word. But I hope the examples above help you see why it’s such an important element to your success in online marketing.

Don’t be like superstore Santa—sending mixed signals to the people you’re trying to reach.

If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this:

  • Choose an audience.
  • Find a problem they have that you can solve
  • Make everything in your funnel about that one promise, including the products themselves

Do those three things, every time, with every funnel.

If you do, I predict you’ll see an immediate improvement in the effectiveness of your efforts online—and the money you make as a result.