The Traditional Sales Funnel is Broken (And How Smart Businesses Nurture their Leads)

by Peter Boyle

Last updated on August 27th, 2017

Paid Ads > Webinar > Email Nurture > Push for the Sale

Traffic Generation > Lead Magnet > Nurture > Grab the Sale

Exit Intent > Lead Capture > Reengagement Series > SELL


Everywhere I turn in the world of internet marketing all I see is advice on how to create the most basic yet aggressive sales funnel.

We’re told to push users toward the end goal. An end goal which is collecting their email address or increasing sales. And often, there’s little or no talk about how to progress from the funnel’s end goal.

And that presents a huge problem.

The problem I have with ~80% of sales funnel advice is that they all describe the funnel with a very definite end.

We get what we want, be it the sale or email capture, then basically tell the customer to piss off until we need something from then again.

As soon as that need arises, we go through the same steps with a new funnel and new goal.

It’s tiring. A business is not made by linking a series of sales funnels in the most tenuous way. Businesses thrive with a holistic, audience-centric approach.

The sales funnel might have a binary outcome, convert or not, but that doesn’t mean you should be splitting your audience in two. Ignoring the half who have given you what you want so you can focus on those who have yet to convert.

The sales funnel always has and always will be an integral part of business and consumer journey mapping, but completion does not signify the end of a customer’s journey. Completion is a single milestone in your wider strategy.

I’ve spoken before here about the benefits of focusing on retaining your current customers over having to constantly fill your funnel.

Retention is cheaper than acquisition and provides far more benefits in terms of profitability.

Focusing on simple funnels to drive sales seems to be the common approach to online business, especially with the new breed of internet marketers. There’s rarely talk about building value, establishing an audience, and providing long term value beyond the initial sale.

The belief and proliferation of advice advocating simple sales funnels has led to one very frustrating development.

The Same Tired Promises from Different Mouths

You’re reading this on the CrazyEgg blog. So I’m going to make an assumption that you are an interested, intelligent marketer. Someone who reads various sites on marketing, entrepreneurship, start-ups and the like.

With that assumption made, I’m positive you’re also served the heavy handed remarketing ads served through ad networks, particularly Facebook.

These ads follow a basic template format which could be summed up as:

Action > Incredible Result > Tight Time Constraint

Some of my favorites I’ve paraphrased below.

Two years ago I was a broke, down and out loser who couldn’t afford to pay his bills. Now, after just 18 months of work I’m worth a bazillion dollars and I’ll show you how I did it. Click here/sign up for the webinar now/register interest etc.

Learn how this 21-year-old college dropout went from crippling debt to private jets. Register for the eye-opening webinar now.

Your list is the most important element of your business. Learn the tried and true methods that’ll help you grow your list by up to 300 new subs per day.

My Facebook feed is filled with this crap. It’s incredibly frustrating, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Sales funnel and ads

Erick (the top commenter) is right, it often feels like a new form of MLM. I see so many people creating offshoot and derivative works of more successful programs.

No-one is learning how to run a business. They’re learning how to create a sales funnel promoting a product. A product which doesn’t offer value, but simply creates more marketers making the same tired promises.

I’ve signed up to a few just to see what they’re doing and, without exception, they follow the same format.

You sign up for the lead magnet/webinar/report etc. and are entered into a less than subtle, hard-sell funnel. Every email is not focused on helping the audience but on getting them to buy. There’s nothing entertaining or educational in 90% of the emails I’ve received.

Why is This a Problem?

Is selling information or products online a problem? No.

Are the basic funnels people use and promote an issue? Nope.

Is the problem that this is, basically, a new evolution of MLM? A little.

What really bothers me is how there’s this new breed of digital marketer being told that all you need to run a successful business is a single sales funnel.

That creating a webinar, running some paid ads, and implementing a basic email automation sequence is the secret to long-term success.

I have a huge problem with that.

Sure, I think any business’s primary focus should be on increasing conversions, but – and this is a huge but – if your focus is on sales alone, then you’re only gonna piss people off. You turn into that skeezy used car lot salesman who makes grand promises and refuses to accept no for an answer.

This seems to be an unpopular opinion with modern marketers. Especially those concerned with CRO.

But, and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees with me, a sales funnel does not make a business.

This sales funnel centric approach fails to see anything beyond the conversion. It’s a simple push from initial contact to purchase.

Once that purchase is made, that user might as well be dead.

Focus is on filling the top of your funnel and pushing people through until they purchase. It can make money, but it has a limited lifespan.

What You Should Focus on Instead of Sales Funnels

Take a look at the commonly used image of a sales funnel.

Traditional Sales funnels


There’s a huge problem with that model – the hard beginning, middle, and end.

No wonder so much modern marketing advice advocates a simple attract, nurture, convert structure. It’s all the traditional model leaves us room for.

But when you stop to think about it, the traditional sales funnel raises more questions than it answers. In particular:

  • What happens once someone has moved through that funnel?
  • How do you interact with people that have already converted?
  • Are converters now dead to you because they’ve taken the primary action you want them to?
  • Do you continue to engage them, or only re-engage with your next funnel? Your cross or up-sell?

If you follow that traditional model, you’re losing business.

Not all of your leads will enter at the top of your funnel and methodically work their way through either becoming a paying customer or exiting when they realize it’s not for them.

Sure, these things can happen, but what about attracting at different stages of awareness and cross-device journeys? These are two widely covered marketing beliefs which beliefs which debunk the traditional linear approach sales funnel.

Let’s first look at the stages of awareness. A generalized view puts the basic journey from unaware to most aware at five steps.

Stages of awareness in the sales funnel


In images like the above, we’re once again presented with a linear journey working logically through each stage.

However, modern consumers are incredibly smart. 81% of users complete as much research as possible before making any decisions, and they’ll find the information they need from as many sources as possible.

And so we, as marketers, have to produce content to attract different users at different stages of consideration, and thus, different stages of the sales funnel.

Which kind of throws a spanner in the works of that linear model, right? It’s not just about attracting users at the preliminary stages of the funnel.

Good content aimed at the solution aware will bring in new potential leads at a point which, in the traditional sales funnel, is half completed. We’d need to add “lead inlets” to represent the leads that come in at later stages, creating a kind of spideresque sales funnel representation.

Then we have the cross-device and cross-channel journeys of modern users which take the spider diagram we have and completely screw it up.

According to Comscore, multi-platform journeys are now the norm for users.

Cross device and the sales funnel

And so we have people jumping from mobile to desktop, back to tablet, before moving back to desktop to finally complete a single stage of the journey.

These developments in user behavior show us that there really isn’t a linear customer journey. In a single sales funnel you’ll have users entering halfway through your funnel, some will exit at a middle stage, some will skip various stages, and others still will engage multiple times at the same stage.

But of course, that doesn’t make a compelling analogy or snazzy little diagram for marketers like me to exploit in articles like this. It’s all too complicated.

The short of it is, prospects do not enter your funnel at stage one before methodically working their way through each stage and, thinking in terms of single sales funnels is limiting for your business.

Do you really want to put a definitive beginning, middle and, most importantly, end on your sales funnels? No. Because the best users come from all sorts of sources and at all sorts of stages of the funnel. They jump around repeating and skipping certain stages.

But most importantly, good customers stick around for repeat purchases which simply isn’t represented in the traditional sales funnel.

So How Do We Approach the Modern Sales Funnel?

The first step is to understand how the modern sales funnel actually works. The idea that the traditional, linear sales funnel is a flawed concept is nothing new. However, it’s something that seems to receive very little coverage.

One of the best explanations and representations of the modern sales funnel comes from an eConsultancy white paper written by Brian Clark of Copyblogger.

In it, Brian explains the failures in the traditional sales funnel and provides the below interpretation of the modern funnel.

Modern sales funnel

What’s most interesting about Brian’s visual representation is how there is no end to the customer journey. Which, when you think about it, is correct.

We’ve all read the articles on how current consumers are worth far more and are cheaper to keep than attracting new customers.

The mistake brands make is thinking that if a consumer doesn’t progress from one stage to the next they’ve exited the funnel.

However, the only time a user truly exits the funnel is when they actively disengage with your brand.

For example, I recently purchased a new pair of football boots (soccer cleats in the US). I always buy Adidas boots because I once had a pair of Nike’s fall apart on me after a month.

That bad experience caused me to take a step back from Nike products and I decided that I no longer wanted to purchase one of their products.

However, I wasn’t exactly a lost customer to them. Rather, I’d simply taken a few steps back in the sales funnel.

If Nike could rebuild the trust that had been broken, they had a chance of re-engaging me and bringing me back into the fold. Thanks to their huge presence, this is something quite achievable for Nike. You can’t actively disengage with a brand that has content and advertisements are everywhere.

Over the last few years their continued presence, numerous testimonials from players, and sport-wide sponsorships slowly worked to rebuild the trust I’d lost in them.

Five years ago I wouldn’t even consider buying Nike again, this year however, the final selection had been narrowed to two products.

Nike Mecurial’s or Adidas Ace 17s.

If Nike had viewed me in the traditional sense of the sales funnel then I was a lost prospect. I’d exited the funnel because I’d failed to move from one stage to the next.

However, all that had really happened was a loss of trust. I’d moved back a few stages and stalled, but I was far from a lost cause.

As Brian Clark puts it,

“Conversion is a constant process, from outer circles to the innermost. Each step inward represents a greater degree of belief that we are the solution to that individual’s relevant problems and desires. The successive experience reinforces greater belief, which leads to trust and another step through our customer lifecycle.”

I’d moved back through lack of trust and, all they needed to do was reinforce my trust and belief to once again re-engage me and move me forward.

Their constant presence and trust building content had slowly worked to win back my favor and get me to once again trust in the brand.

It’s All About Attraction

The image put forward by Brian accurately represents my real life experience with Nike. Non-converters aren’t lost forever, they’re simply stuck at a particular hurdle. One which can be overcome with the right tactics and incentive.

In my opinion, it all comes down to attraction. The more attractive your content, the more people will be drawn to your brand. If you’re finding a certain element of your marketing doesn’t convert, then it’s simply a case of discovering how to boost the attractiveness of that element.

I like to think of it in terms of that basic school experiment we all did to understand magnetic fields. You know the one, where you’re given a magnet, some paper, and a handful of iron filings.

The magnet is your brand, the iron filings your potential consumers.

Just like the magnet, your brand will immediately have a number of consumers who are drawn to the centermost area. However, there will be some who are just a little too far removed from your messages pull. They might show a slight attraction, but it’s not enough to pull them in.

To grab these near believers, you’re going to have to increase the attractiveness of your message. Just like increasing the magnets pull, increasing the attractiveness of your offering will attract more users to the centermost circle – the circle representing paying customers.

However, don’t think it’s just about attracting people to the centermost area. Once there, you have to keep them there. If you ignore those who are already in the circle, you remove the attraction that pulled them in.

To stop nurturing both current and potential customers is akin to removing the magnet from the paper. You’ll see your users scatter and be drawn away from you to other brands who are actively nurturing relationships and drawing people in with magnetic messages.

Couple Brian Clark’s concentric circles with the idea that your brand is a magnet. If you’re not attracting enough users to the centermost circle, then increase the attraction and magnetism of your brand through more effective content, messaging, and promotion.

Understand that your customers are an audience, but an audience is only held together so long as you continue to serve them at every stage in their journey – that includes after they’ve purchased from you.

If you can continually publish great content that answers questions and solves problems at every stage of the customer journey, you’ll not only attract more users to the central circle where fans and sales are made, but also keep them there for repeat purchases.

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Peter Boyle

Pete Boyle is a conversion focused copywriter and marketing consultant. He helps brands increase their revenue through compelling copy and smart email campaigns. Click here to connect with Pete or download one of his free marketing guides.


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  1. Tristan Bailey says:
    March 25, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    It’s like the funnel becomes more time % of day awareness. Like advertising to hold eye balls but more minds and conversations. The more you can be in the conversation and mindshare a good % of a prospects week the more loyal they are likely to be.

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