What Is The Digital Marketing Funnel?

The traditional marketing funnel (also known as a purchase or sales funnel) is a well-established concept in marketing. Used to map the customer journey—from engaging with a brand to purchasing its products or services—companies worldwide use this device to create successful, high-value marketing campaigns.

However, since the introduction of the first marketing funnel way back in 1898, the concept has evolved somewhat. Taking into account changes in our economy, our technology, and how we engage with modern brands, modern funnels are much more sophisticated.

Unsurprisingly, the digital sphere has its own variation of this well-established technique, incorporating the different digital channels and social media platforms consumers use. This is called the digital marketing funnel.

But how exactly does the digital marketing funnel work, and what distinguishes it from more traditional approaches? In this post, we’ll explore the digital marketing funnel in depth, including how to use it to enhance your digital marketing strategy. 

We’ll cover everything you need to know, including:

  1. How does the traditional marketing funnel work?
  2. What is the digital marketing funnel?
  3. What are the stages of the digital marketing funnel?
  4. The digital marketing funnel and the traditional marketing funnel: what’s the difference?
  5. How to create and use a digital marketing funnel
  6. Key takeaways

Ready to find out more? Time to read on!

1. How does the traditional marketing funnel work?

Back in 1898, an advertiser named Elias St. Elmo Lewis designed a model to map the customer journey. This was called the AIDA model, which stands for awareness (of a company or brand), interest (in a product), desire (to own that product), and action (purchasing the product). With that, the first marketing funnel was born!

Today, there are many variations on the original AIDA model. Although they can differ quite a lot, all of them can ultimately be divided into three or four core stages:

  • Top of the Funnel (ToFu) or Awareness Stage, which deals with a customer’s awareness of a product/service and/or brand.
  • Middle of the Funnel (MoFu) or Consideration Stage, which progresses to a customer’s consideration of different options that might interest them.
  • Bottom of the Funnel (BoFu) or Decision Stage, which involves a customer’s decision-making process about which product they wish to purchase.
  • After Purchase Stage, which looks at a customer’s post-purchase behavior, such as brand advocacy and loyalty.

While individual steps within these categories vary between models, we’ve outlined some of the most common ones in this post.

Regardless of the model, however, the aim of all traditional marketing funnels is to break the customer journey into discrete steps. Doing so allows marketing professionals to better segment and target their marketing activities, leading to better delivered and more cost-effective messaging that nudges buyers towards making the right decision.

That said, the traditional marketing funnel doesn’t always capture the full richness and complexity of the modern media landscape. User journeys are rarely linear. For this reason, new types of marketing funnels have begun to emerge. And this includes the digital marketing funnel.

2. What is the digital marketing funnel?

When the original AIDA model debuted, the customer journey was much simpler. Plus, we didn’t know what we do today about consumer habits and behaviors. While traditional marketing funnels are helpful in the right context, they’re not always as effective for modern marketing. 

The digital marketing funnel contains more steps and is more complex and less linear than the original AIDA model and its variations. It has emerged, in part, to address the following issues:

  1. The sales journey is much more complex in the 21st century. In the mid-20th century, most marketing campaigns were limited to print media, TV, and billboard advertising. That was it! Today, we have thousands of online channels. The customer journey is no longer linear and is much more complex than it used to be.
  2. There is more competition. While there has always been healthy competition between brands, today’s startup world constantly sees new products, services and competitors emerging. To stay relevant, brands are segmenting and refining their offerings into ever more niche areas. The traditional marketing funnel doesn’t cater to this.
  3. We know more about our customers than ever before. While the internet has complicated the marketing landscape, it has also allowed us to track, collect and analyze customer data in ways that were unimaginable when Lewis first devised the AIDA model. Now that we can segment customers to such an astonishing degree, we require a more sophisticated approach.

So, the digital marketing funnel aims to solve these problems, giving modern marketers more targeted tools that help them to deliver their campaigns.

3. What are the stages of the digital marketing funnel?

The traditional marketing funnel is still beneficial for devising high-level strategies. But for actionable tasks in an online world, we need a more sophisticated approach. Like the standard funnel, the stages in the digital marketing funnel can vary. However, in general, digital marketing funnels are less linear (and more customer-focused) than their traditional counterparts. 

We can break the digital marketing funnel into pre- and post-purchase stages. Unlike the traditional funnel, it is shaped more like an hourglass:

Digital marketing funnel infographic

As you can see, the digital marketing funnel includes additional stages to make it more relevant for a modern, internet-connected audience. The main stages of the digital marketing funnel (broken into pre- and post-purchase stages) include:

  • Engagement
  • Education
  • Research
  • Evaluation
  • Justification
  • Purchase
  • Adoption
  • Retention
  • Expansion
  • Advocacy

Next, let’s explore what each of these stages involves. 

Engagement

The engagement stage involves interacting with potential customers to raise brand awareness. This means managing your online presence and reputation, commonly using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, which have the broadest reach. Consider this stage as the introduction to your brand. Perhaps it’ll involve responding to customer reviews on sites like TrustPilot, or maybe you’ll create viral memes to keep people entertained. 

You probably won’t be promoting your wares at this point, but giving potential customers a flavor of your brand instead. Are you fun? Serious? Respected? Luxurious? How can you present yourself to promote your core values while also ensuring that potential customers remember you and are open to future interactions with your brand?

Education

People are always using the internet to learn new stuff. This provides brands with a unique opportunity to create high-quality, informative content that achieves two things. First, it targets your core audience, drawing them to your website (good for you!). Second, it provides them with the information they’re looking for (good for them!). If you run a gardening company, for instance, wouldn’t it be great if your customers considered you an expert in horticultural matters? 

To achieve this, you could start a gardening tips blog for beginner gardeners. By targeting the right keywords and topics, you’ll draw more customers to your site. They’ll learn about gardening, and over time will start to consider you an expert source of information. Consciously or subconsciously, this will build their awareness and respect for your brand.

Research

As potential customers grow more aware of the product or service you’re offering, they’ll start to read more about it. This is where you’ll need to start looking at competitor websites and social media to see what information they’re providing. Are their campaigns clear? Well-targeted? What information are they missing?

Using all this data, you can devise a strategy that counters any gaps in your competitor’s approach, ensuring that potential customers include you in their research. Your aim here is to become one of the top options consumers include on their list should they decide to purchase your product or service.

Evaluation

During the evaluation phase, consumers will be interested in purchasing a product. They’ve done their research, seen what’s available and will (hopefully) have selected you as a possible provider. The evaluation phase is where you need to subtly reinforce your credibility, ensuring they choose you over your competitors. 

During this stage you’ll need to continue building trust and incentives, perhaps offering an online workshop, free product trial and competitive pricing. Transparency is key here: Don’t try to obfuscate and don’t push too hard, or you’ll put people off.

Justification

Even if you’ve succeeded in convincing a consumer that you’re the best provider for their chosen product, this doesn’t guarantee they’ll become a paying customer. Many factors play into decision-making processes—not all of which are directly in your sphere of influence. 

Building a trustworthy brand is something you have direct control over. However, there are other factors you don’t. For instance, customers may love and covet your luxury clothing brand, but might also be saving for a holiday. Or: perhaps they like your product, but just don’t think they need it that badly. The justification stage is when you should try to overcome any inertia, or resolve any remaining doubts or queries a consumer might have.

Purchase

Finally, we reach the purchase stage of the digital marketing funnel. While revenue is essential, in the digital sphere, it’s also another part of the customer experience. With so many sales and e-commerce options, you must ensure your purchase process is straightforward, easy to use, secure, and transparent. Don’t try to hide shipping costs or other fees, for example. Most customers will be happy to pay them, but if they feel you tried to cheat them out of money, it might sour them to your brand.

Adoption

A common problem for businesses is when consumers (who have experienced slick sales and marketing during the sale) feel let down by post-sales care. This is rarely deliberate, but a symptom of how many businesses are structured. As the first post-purchase phase, you can think of the adoption stage, then, as the onboarding process for new customers. Ensure you are meeting a customer’s expectations, fulfilling their objective needs, and providing them with a continuing positive experience of your brand. 

From an internal standpoint, this might involve your marketing team working with project or product teams to ensure that, as customers are ‘handed over’, their experience remains consistent. Whether you’ve sold a take-home product, a software solution, or a personal service, this is where you need to deliver on your promises.

Retention

While figures vary, it’s generally accepted that for most well-established companies, about a third of their revenue comes from repeat customers. For this, retention is vital. Retention is the post-sales phase that involves delivering a high-quality customer experience, even through rough terrain, such as customer complaints or troubleshooting. 

Depending on your offering, you might want to produce well-written user guides or other educational materials, provide helpdesk and email support, or offer training workshops. These can be challenging to deliver, especially when a customer has a complaint. However, dealing with issues quickly and transparently will often turn things around and vastly increase your customer retention rates.

Expansion

The expansion stage of the digital marketing funnel is your chance to enhance your offering. Following the initial transaction and customer support, you should aim to develop ongoing trust with your customers. If they respect your products,  brand, and customer care, they will start to see you as an authority. This is your opportunity to up- or cross-sell additional products that further serve their needs.

This benefits you (more revenue) but also the customer (as it solves whatever issue they are facing). Be aware here: a common mistake many brands make is to push the expansion phase before they’ve built the necessary foundation of trust. For most customers, this will seem pushy and is likely to turn them off. Think of this stage as a slow burn, rather than a hard sell!

Advocacy

The final stage of the digital marketing funnel is the advocacy phase. This is when loyal customers, who trust your brand and love your products, are ready to become brand advocates. Loyal customers will usually be more than happy to tell their peers, friends, and other contacts about a positive experience with your company. Many studies also show that positive recommendations and word-of-mouth are the best PR that brands can get. 

Once you’ve got a satisfied customer, give them plenty of opportunities to share their experiences. This could be something as simple as a ‘share’ button on an emailed purchase receipt, inviting them to leave an online review, or offering incentives like loyalty discounts and other rewards for those who directly promote your brand on social media.

4. Digital marketing funnel vs. the traditional marketing funnel: what’s the difference?

By now, the most important differences between the traditional and digital marketing funnels should be clear. For the avoidance of doubt, here are the main differences between them: 

Traditional marketing funnel

Fewer stages: The traditional marketing funnel is more generalized and covers fewer (but higher-level) stages of the sales/marketing process.

More linear: The AIDA model and its variations outline a linear consumer journey where customers progress between stages in a given order.

Offline-focused: While the traditional marketing funnel can be applied to digital campaigns, it generally lacks the nuances of modern online. It’s best suited to offline-only marketing, or for strategies where ‘digital’ is used as an umbrella term for one aspect of a broader campaign.

Brand-focused: The traditional marketing funnel prioritizes securing revenue through purchase. It is highly brand-focused and nudges customers towards an action that primarily benefits the company. 

Digital marketing funnel

More stages: The digital marketing funnel has more stages, reflecting the complexity of the online sales/marketing process. It is more reflective of the modern world.

Non-linear: Unlike the traditional marketing funnel, consumers can enter the digital marketing funnel at any stage. Their journey is not linear. They may skip or repeat phases and demand a customized experience.

Online only: By focusing on digital activities alone, the digital marketing funnel is a higher-precision tool for managing online campaigns . It helps brands create a much more targeted experience for their customers.

Customer-focused: Modern consumers are much savvier and know when they are being marketed to. As a result, they tend to have much higher expectations. Good brands know this and will place the customer experience first in order to build loyalty and retention. 

5. How to create and use a digital marketing funnel

While the digital marketing funnel is more precise for online activities, it still helps to think of it as a framework. No company has unlimited resources, so start by realistically evaluating what time, budget and people power you have available. You can then focus your efforts where they will bring you the most return on investment. 

For some general tips on constructing a marketing funnel, check out section 3 of this post. Then read the following tips for creating and using a digital marketing funnel to drive customers to your business.

Prioritize SEO and content marketing

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving your website’s rankings on search engine results pages. This is done by optimizing for brand-relevant keywords. Most SEO strategies involve building a clear and informative content base that drives users to your site. 

SEO takes time, though, so you should prioritize content production with a clear content plan. Start with keyword research to determine which terms your customers are using. From here, you might want to consider starting a blog, creating product pages, or other marketing material that can be used at various stages in your digital marketing funnel.

Consider paid advertising

While a good SEO strategy is always helpful, if you have spare budget, why not consider some paid advertising? This could involve partnering a high traffic website that is relevant to your users or by placing ads directly at the top of Google. While paid advertising can work well, it also requires content towards which you can direct people, so make sure you’ve perfected that first. It can also be time-consuming to get your head around, at least initially, and requires constant monitoring. 

To make an informed decision about whether to go down this route, check out this complete guide to SEM.

Don’t forget email marketing

Many digital marketers avoid email marketing these days, or use it minimally. This is because early digital marketing got a bad rap for spam. We’re sympathetic to those early digital marketers, though—the concept of ‘digital’ was pretty new and there were limited alternatives to email (no social media back then!) So, okay, sure, you don’t want to spam a bunch of prospective customers with irrelevant content. But email marketing still has its place. 

These days, it’s well used in the post-purchase stages of the digital marketing funnel. Use it to update customers on new products, provide access to exclusive free content (people love free stuff!) or to promote offers and rewards to build loyalty.

Be selective about social media

Most digital marketing campaigns use social media these days, creating pressure on brands to have a presence everywhere. This is nonsense.  Instead of spreading yourself thin, research your target audience and focus on the social media platforms they use. Feed this into your content strategy to strike a balance between your brand voice and platform-appropriate messaging. And make sure you mix it up. 

For example, a clothing campaign for women in their fifties on Facebook will be very different from one targeting teenagers on TikTok!

Use A/B testing

A/B testing is when you have two different versions of a landing page with different messaging. You can then compare the success of both pieces of content. While this involves producing twice the amount of content, it provides useful insights into what works well and what messaging appeals most to your customer. You can then tweak your campaign accordingly. 

A/B testing works especially well in the early stages of the digital marketing funnel when you have very little to lose and everything to gain by testing out different approaches.

Engage with influencers

If you have the budget and the contacts, consider working with online influencers. Influencers are people or companies who already have a following that might be interested in your product. Whether through sponsorship or mutual promotion, influencer marketing can be a powerful way of reaching a broad audience fast. 

Double up where you can

When devising your initial content strategy, consider how you might be able to reuse or repurpose content at other stages of the digital marketing funnel. For instance, blog content designed to inform potential customers during the education stage could also be repurposed as user guides during the retention phase. 

Similarly, could some of your written content be repurposed as video scripts to diversify your multimedia? When you start looking closely you’ll spot many time- and money-saving ways to maximize the potential of your content.

6. Key takeaways

In this post, we’ve explored what the digital marketing funnel is, how it compares to the traditional marketing funnel, and how you can use one to create high-value digital marketing campaigns. 

We’ve learned that:

  • The digital marketing funnel first emerged to counter some of the limitations of the traditional marketing funnel.
  • Pre-sale stages of the digital marketing funnel include engagement, education, research, evaluation, justification, and purchase.
  • Post-purchase stages of the digital marketing funnel include adoption, retention, expansion, and advocacy.
  • The traditional marketing funnel is linear and brand-centered with fewer stages.
  • The digital marketing funnel has more stages, is non-linear, and puts the customer at its heart.
  • Common techniques used in the digital marketing funnel include SEO and content marketing, paid advertising, email campaigns, social media, influencer marketing, and more.

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