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Marketing - 9 min READ

How to build a marketing sales funnel from top to bottom

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Author photo: Dann Albright

Dann Albright


Picture this: in one hand, you have a gallon of water in a bucket. In the other, you have an empty soda bottle. Your job is to refill the soda battle with the water in the bucket.

You pour from the bucket, hoping to get the water into the narrow mouth of the bottle, but you end up spilling it everywhere, and you use the full gallon of water to fill up a 20-ounce bottle.

There’s a simple tool that would make this process easier: a funnel.

The same is true of your marketing and sales pipeline. Without a funnel, you don’t know where your leads and prospects will go. Some still end up where you want them—but you have little control and waste a lot of opportunities.

A marketing funnel solves this problem. It channels potential customers to their destination (making a purchase). It’s faster, more efficient, and less messy.

It’s a simple tool, but it makes a world of difference.

Let’s take a look at how to build a marketing sales funnel from beginning to end.

One quick note:

A marketing funnel doesn’t have to be funnel-shaped. Some people like the flywheel model. Others use the Consumer Decision Journey loop—McKinsey’s Consumer Decision Journey doesn’t look like a funnel at all, but it serves the same purpose:

The shape doesn’t matter. Representations emphasize different parts of the customer lifecycle. Use whichever one you’d like.

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be explaining the AICDA (awareness, interest, consideration, desire, action) funnel.

Before building a funnel, start with your customers.

Before tackling the marketing sales funnel, you need to know who’s going into it. Which means creating buyer personas: succinct descriptions of customer groups.

For example, let’s say you sell real estate software. You might sell to two different groups: independent agents and agencies.

These groups have different needs, so you’ll market to them differently. You might emphasize the low cost and portability to independent agents while making sure to point out the collaborative and organizational features to agencies.

When you understand your potential customers’ pain points, goals, challenges, and buying habits, you can start work on the funnel itself.

For more information on how to develop buyer personas, check out OptinMonster’s full guide.

Make a plan to generate awareness.

Before someone makes a purchase from you, they have to know about your company. That’s what the awareness phase is about. By generating brand awareness, you put the first seed in potential customers’ minds that may someday become a purchase.

So how do you make that happen? There are lots of options.

Traditional advertising is a familiar method. Billboards, subway signs, bus stop placards, and TV ads get your brand in front of people. They might not think much of it at the time, but the next time they see your logo or hear your name, they’ll recognize it. And that’s important.

Research has repeatedly shown that consumers are more likely to buy new products from familiar brands. Getting your name out there results in big returns, even if they’re difficult to measure.

Today, you have options beyond billboards and Superbowl ads. Inbound marketing—drawing visitors in by offering something they want—has become one of the primary methods for generating brand awareness. By creating and publishing content that appeals to your target market, you’ll increase brand recognition.

And that leads to sales—Conductor found that consumers are 131% more likely to buy from a brand after consuming early-stage educational content.

Of course, there are other ways to generate brand awareness, too. Outbound email campaigns, online advertising, cold calling, and more creative ideas like sponsoring events all help generate awareness of your company.

Once you have a plan for building awareness, it’s time to move onto the next stage of your funnel.

Nurture leads to build interest.

Once someone knows about your company, it’s time to get them interested in your product or service. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that now is the time for hard selling. Let’s go back to the real estate software example.

People who make it to this stage are now thinking “maybe I should look into getting some software to help my real estate business.” They’re not convinced that they’re going to make a purchase. And they certainly haven’t committed to making a purchase from your company.

At this stage, your goal is to show them how much better their lives will be if they use a product like yours. So how do you do that?

In most cases, modern companies will use content that shows just how useful this type of product is. Case studies and testimonials, for example, show previous customers and how happy they are with a product or service.

Blog posts like “15 Ways Real Estate Software Makes Agents’ Lives Easier” also get people interested. It’s still educational content, but it’s less focused on getting people to your website and more focused on showing them the benefits of your product.

This phase is about showing people the benefits of your type of product or service. You don’t need to emphasize that you provide the best option—yet.

It’s also worth noting that you can generate interest in other ways. Cold-calling campaigns can bring problems and benefits to light for potential customers, even if they’ve never heard of you before. Advertising can do the same. Many companies use targeted lead nurturing campaigns via email.

Once your potential customers know they have a problem and that there’s a product or service out there to fix it, it’s time to move down the funnel.

Rise above during consideration.

The consideration stage is an interesting one. Depending on your business, you may not have to worry much about it.

For example, if you sell affordable t-shirts, your customers probably won’t spend days comparing the available options. They’re happy to pay $7 to try yours out.

If, on the other hand, you sell enterprise software, the consideration stage could take months. That means this stage is a crucial one.

In this stage, potential customers need to see why you’re better than your competitors. Do you offer more features? Better prices? More comprehensive support?

Make your value proposition clear. Just be careful about directly comparing your products to others’. Content marketing platform Skyword makes a compelling case that product comparisons are a bad form of content marketing.

If you want to make direct comparisons, leave it to your sales reps to walk prospects through competing options on sales calls. They can point out why your product or service is the best.

Testimonials and case studies (here's how to write them) are valuable. They emphasize the kinds of results customers can expect from your company.

At the end of this stage, the prospect should be convinced that you sell the best product or service in your field. Once you’ve gotten them to that point, it’s time to take it to the next level.

Foster a sense of desire for your product or service.

If a prospect gets to this point, they want to buy from you.

But what if they’re already over budget? Or they decide that your product would be nice, but isn’t totally necessary? There are still barriers between the prospect and the sale. Your marketing and sales team still need to be involved to close this deal.

Again, case studies and testimonials are great. Prospects want to get the great results that your customers have seen. Free trials are a huge asset in this step, too.

Think about our real estate software. If an agency uses a free trial and sees how much easier it is to stay organized with our software, are they going to want to go back to the way they were doing it before?

Ideally, this stage will be short. Throughout the interest and consideration phases, prospects have learned about your product. If all has gone well, they’ll want to buy. If they’re not quite there yet, a sales call or two should do it.

Many marketers stop here and hope that the customer will just buy the product. In some cases—like in the example of the t-shirt company—that might be all you need to do. Losing a sale or two because you didn’t go over every benefit the t-shirt provides isn’t a huge loss.

If we’re selling a high-value, low-value product, though, this is an important step. You might think that all of the work you’ve put in so far should generate a strong enough desire for your product that the prospect will take action.

But you’re not done quite yet.

Inspire action to get the sale.

This is the final step in this type of funnel. Your prospect knows about the product and wants to buy from you. Now all you have to do is make sure it happens. At this point, much of the onus is on the sales team.

But marketing can still play a role here. Ideally, you’ll want to get people to take action without even needing the sales team. That means making it as easy as possible to buy from you. Don’t put obstacles in the way of purchase!

You can also use tactics like coupon codes and limited-time-only sales to convince people to buy sooner rather than later.

Conversion-focused copywriting helps (learn more about copywriting here), too. Invesp has a great list of 10 tactics that inspire people to take action:

  • Elevate problems
  • Get agreement
  • Scarcity
  • Social proof
  • Reward behavior
  • Remove choice
  • Value comparison
  • Encourage reciprocity
  • Give clear instructions
  • Tell them why

You can use any combination of tactics you’d like. Just make sure that your prospects know what to do and can do it with as little effort as possible.

If you’ve convinced them to click “Buy,” they’ve moved all the way through the funnel. You’ve made a sale!

It doesn’t have to stop with the sale.

Remember that not every funnel ends after action is taken. Customer lifecycles certainly don’t. So it’s worth thinking about what comes next. Marketing teams can be involved in cross- and upselling, advocacy, repeat purchases, and customer growth, too.

Post-funnel engagement works differently at every company, but it’s worth thinking about.

Now that you’ve seen how to create a marketing and sales funnel, it’s time to take action. If you’re still at the beginning of the process, spend some time brainstorming buyer personas. If you’ve already put some time into personas, you can begin the process of building out your funnel.

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