The right piece of web content can pique a prospect’s interest and convert them into a paying customer. It can boost your search engine rankings, become a conversation piece on social media and help turn your brand into an authority on a certain topic.
The problem is that many marketers can’t predict which pieces of content will perform well and which will miss the mark. One way to mitigate the disparity is to plan content for every stage in the funnel.
Before we define what the content marketing funnel is, let’s answer another question: What is the marketing funnel? Most marketing professionals know the answer to this question, because it’s the same basic concept as the sales funnel or the buyer funnel.
In sales, the “funnel” is the process that companies and their marketers lead prospects through en route to the purchase of a product or service. The concept is so named because it has a funnel shape. The funnel is largest at the top, where companies are generating leads and working to qualify them. It narrows as the process moves forward and brands continue to communicate with, negotiate with and qualify their leads. Gradually, some of those leads will peel off — whether because they decide now isn’t the right time to purchase, because they rule out the product or service due to price (or another factor), or because they decide to work with a competitor instead. Leads that travel all the way through the funnel end up converting from prospects into paying customers.
The content marketing funnel mimics this shape with the goal of helping usher leads and prospects to the bottom of the funnel, where they become customers. Usually, when we think about customers being led through a funnel, the person doing the “leading” is a sales associate. The salesperson communicates closely with the lead throughout the process, answering their questions, tailoring the product or service package to suit the prospect’s needs and ultimately negotiating the sale. Because of this conception of how the buyer funnel works, many content marketers don’t immediately realize the need for a corresponding marketing funnel.
However, the fact of the matter is that sales funnels are playing out everywhere — and not always under the watchful eye of a trained sales associate. On the contrary, especially in today’s era of online shopping, it is incredibly common for prospective customers or clients to become aware of your brand without you even knowing. As a result, you need a way to push these prospects through the funnel on their own time and without direct interaction with your sales team. You need, in other words, a content marketing funnel.
Think of the content marketing funnel as a strategy that can govern your content generation efforts going forward. When businesses start doing content marketing — or decide to ramp up their content marketing efforts — the questions they ask are usually about volume. How often should I be posting on my blog? How active do I need to be on social media? How much money should I be spending on content marketing? How frequently should I be pushing out more in-depth content, such as e-books and white papers? How about video? Finally, how much should I be spending on my content strategy?
These aren’t bad questions, per se, but they overlook a fundamental truth about content marketing, which is that volume does not equate to success. There is no specific dollar amount you can spend that is suddenly going to turn your content marketing strategy into pure gold. You can’t guarantee conversions just because you post on Twitter twice a day and publish three blog posts per week. Success in content marketing is more about serving up quality content that answers a question or serves a need of the users you are trying to reach. Arguably, the best way to craft a content strategy that does those things consistently is to follow the compass of a content marketing funnel.
Your goal, in other words, shouldn’t be to hit quotas but to create content that corresponds with specific stages of the sales funnel. Part of the confusion around content marketing is that it seems to have different goals. Is the goal to increase awareness of your brand? To tell customers about your product or service and build their interest? To achieve lead conversion and generate revenue? The answer is “all three,” which can be a bit baffling until you discover the concept of a marketing funnel.
How can one piece of content do all three of these things? Well, it isn’t supposed to. Instead of thinking of content marketing in that macro sense, think of it as a funnel with three distinct stages:
Designing an effective content marketing funnel is about creating content associated with each of these stages. Don’t think of content marketing as just generating blog ideas at random. Instead, you want each piece of content you create to achieve a specific goal for one of these three stages. Your content strategy, in other words, is going to break down into three categories: awareness-stage content, consideration-stage content and decision-stage content.
Below, we will outline the goals of each stage of the funnel, talk about what prospects are looking for during these stages and provide some tips about the types of content that perform best for each stage.
Typically, a prospect will enter your sales funnel (and your content marketing funnel) with a problem or pain point he or she is seeking to solve. This prospect is dipping their toe into the marketplace to find out what potential solutions might be out there. For the prospect, the awareness stage is largely about research. They are seeking content that can educate them about what options are available to meet their need, answer their question or resolve their pain point.
For your brand, the awareness stage is about making sure that prospects 1) know your brand exists and 2) know that you offer a product or service that matches their need.
There is a balance to be struck with the type of content you are serving prospects in this stage. On the one hand, you need to fit in mentions of your product or service so that your prospects are aware that you offer some sort of solution to their issue. On the other hand, your prospects are likely just hearing about your brand for the first time, which means they don’t really care about you or trust you just yet. As such, you don’t want your awareness stage content to be too much about your brand. Little mentions are fine, but a full brand story isn’t something your prospects will be interested in — at least not yet.
Instead, you need to make the content about the customer. You need to show that you understand the challenge they are facing and that you are empathetic to it. You also need to show that you are dedicated to helping them solve that problem. Most of all, you need to establish your brand as an authority on the subject so that your prospects start thinking of you when they think about potential solutions to their pain point.
The best awareness stage content, therefore, is pitched toward two things: discovery and education. Ads and paid search features can factor into the former, but your main focus should be on the latter. Figure out what questions your prospective customers are asking (or searching for on Google) and turn them into blog posts, tip articles, FAQs, videos, how-to guides, e-books, white papers, infographics or webinars. Be generous with information. Share statistics. Share details about how common certain pain points are. Share insights on the negative impacts that those pain points can have on the industry you serve and the people in it. The more information on a topic you can provide, the more you can establish your brand as one that prospects not only need to be aware of, but also remember.
Now that prospects are aware of your brand, your goal is to encourage them to consider your product or service seriously as the way to meet their need. Prospects at this stage are doing in-depth research to decide where they are going to spend their money. They’ve done the basic homework of the awareness stage and narrowed down their list of brands or products to a few. Ideally, your brand made the cut. Now, the consideration stage is all about making sure you pitch your product or service as the ultimate solution to the prospect’s problem.
Consideration-stage content, then, is going to be much more product-focused than awareness-stage content. You can talk about your brand more here — though not without losing the empathy and understanding that resonated with prospects in the first stage. The solution you are pitching is still about the customer and his or her challenge. It’s just that, to discuss the solution you are offering, you need to make a case for yourself. In other words, you’re not going for the hard sell just yet, but you are throwing your name in the hat.
The best consideration-stage content is going to show prospects exactly how your product or service can solve their problem. Case studies are terrific here, because they allow you to talk about previous customer or clients, explain the challenges they were facing, and illustrate how your brand solved those problems. This type of content resonates with prospects because they can often find parallels between their own situations and a past customer’s use case. Seeing how you solved a past client’s problem can help the prospect envision how you could meet their needs.
Other examples of effective consideration-stage content include product webinars, FAQs or how-to guides that focus specifically on your product, product descriptions, product data sheets, product or service pages, or demo videos.
At this point, your prospects are very nearly ready to become customers. They might just need one final nudge to get them through the funnel completely. Crafting decision-stage content, therefore, is about determining what needs to happen for your prospect to decide to pull the trigger and make a purchase. Said another way, this type of content needs to double as your “final pitch.”
You’re done with the longer-form content at this point. Your prospects don’t need any more webinars or blog posts or e-books. The things they are looking for now are simpler, and they might not even be content generated by you. On the contrary, some of the most effective decision-stage content is user-generated, such as customer reviews or testimonials.
Other times, decision-stage content might not even look like “content” in the traditional sense. Free quotes or estimates, free shipping, a streamlined purchase process, easy product comparisons, live product demonstrations, phone consultations, easy web chat systems where customers can ask any final questions, coupons or discounts — all these touchpoints are examples of effective decision-stage content. Collectively, they help give that last nudge to convert your prospect into a customer.