For over a century, the marketing funnel (also known as the sales funnel or purchasing funnel) has been the backbone of marketing theory. Since its inception in 1898, marketing and sales professionals have used it to map every step of the buyer’s journey, from awareness of their product through comparison and then to the final purchasing decision.
But the customer journey is not really linear anymore. Consumers, particularly millennials and those of Generation Z, don’t get to a purchase decision by following that straight line. Through online and mobile shopping, they may enter the funnel at any point of the buyer’s journey. They may travel backward, from purchase to comparison. They may vacillate between the two.
And after their purchase decision is made, the journey doesn’t end there. According to Inc. Magazine, 45 percent of millennials expect to engage with the brands from which they buy.
Now, the buyer’s journey, which can look more like a meandering path than moving from point A to point B, determines what each brand’s marketing funnel looks like.
What’s driving this reshaping of the marketing funnel? First, it’s how consumers are searching for solutions to their problems, how they compare products, and what motivates them to pull the trigger on a purchase. And second, it’s how brands match their content to meet the myriad points in which consumers are entering the funnel.
In other words, it’s all about shaping the funnel to match user intent.
What Is User Intent?
There was a time when it was enough to write a blog post or create a landing page, include some keywords to help you rank in search and call it a day.
That’s no longer enough.
More and more, both potential customers and search engines are looking beyond the simple use of keywords and measuring how well your content relates to that keyword and satisfies a user’s search.
The Three Types of Search Intent
There are generally three kinds of search intent: navigational, informational and transactional. People are either searching for something specific (like a particular product or brand) searching for information (like how to solve a problem) or transactional (they know what they want and they’re ready to buy it).
The informational searchers are the ones that marketers are after with their content marketing strategies. But it’s just as important to look at the kind of content created for navigational and transactional searchers, too.
If someone’s ready to buy, signing them up for your email list after they do so could keep them in the funnel. If they know exactly which product they want, creating white papers or comparison pieces could get your product front and center.
Leveraging User Intent to Rank
Ranking high on search engine results pages (SERPs) and bringing users back to your site means creating rich content that satisfies the intent if a user’s search.
For example, crafts for toddlers is a keyword with a lot of search volume. If you’re a craft supply company, writing an extensive blog post with a lot of craft ideas would work well to draw in potential customers.
But just throwing together some crafts and adding the keyword won’t be enough. You can assume parents will be looking for age-appropriate crafts (a three-year-old can handle more complicated crafts than a one-year-old). They might be looking for crafts for certain holidays, or for rainy days. By covering all of these subcategories with secondary keywords, you satisfy user intent.
When anticipating how potential customers enter your marketing funnel, you need to anticipate the kinds of content they will want to consume at different stages.
Let’s take a look at the stages (both outdated and new) of the marketing funnel.
The Outdated Marketing Funnel
As I mentioned, the marketing funnel has been very linear, traditionally, and potential customers moved in a reasonably predictable pattern from one end to the other. Given the simplicity of its process, marketing efforts to meet the needs of your target audience in different parts of the funnel were pretty formulaic.
The concept of a funnel gives you a pretty good visual of the buyer’s journey. At the very beginning of the process, you’re drawing in a large group of people, and as you move down through the stages, your pool of potential buyers gradually whittles down to a few quality leads.
The old marketing funnel had three primary stages: awareness, evaluation, and sale. In these stages, your potential customers become aware of your product, they evaluate it to make sure it fits their needs, and then they buy or move on.
The New Marketing Funnel
Now, you can break the marketing funnel down further. Different marketing professionals have different names for each stage, but they mainly come down to this: awareness, interest, consideration, intent, evaluation, and purchase.
And those stages can be grouped into three broader categories, the ones that belong to marketing (lead generation and lead nurturing) and a final stage that belongs to sales.
Let’s take a closer look.
The awareness stage is the very top of the funnel, where your lead generation begins. This is where your blog and social content draw in potential customers who are searching for answers to a problem.
Interest: Once you’ve got a user’s attention, they’ll start looking into your company and learn more about your product.
Consideration: When they consider your product or service. They’ll compare it to other similar brands out there or look for, perhaps, a product video on YouTube.
Intent: The intent stage is the signal that someone is getting ready to buy. They could ask a question of your customer service rep or just put something in their cart.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll go right to check-out. They could just as easily move back to the consideration phase as they make their final decision.
Evaluation: Before they make that final decision, a potential customer may look at reviews of your product, or search for a coupon.
Purchase: Some people may think this is the end of the road, but a repeat customer is much easier to get to convert again than it is to take a new one through the entire journey. Keep that relationship going with newsletters, and opportunities for customers to give feedback.
Strategies for Determining Marketing Intent
In the new marketing funnel, potential customers could enter at any point. They move fluidly through the phases, and they even move beyond the purchase stage and continue to engage with your brand.
To create the right content for your buyers’ journeys, you first need to understand user intent when people are searching for keywords pertaining to your brand.
There are a few strategies for finding user intent. Let’s explore them.
Create a Buyer Persona
The first step to determining user intent is to understand who your user is. Google does a great job of this in their piece on how user intent is changing the marketing funnel.
Go to your marketing research and paint a picture of the kinds of people who end up your customers, or the sorts of potential customers you’re targeting.
Once you know who your customer base is, determine how they find you. What queries are they entering in search? Which search and social platforms do they use? Do they tend to read reviews from peers (as millennials are wont to do) or are they more interested in price (as Gen-Xers are)?
Figure out where they’re most likely to enter the sales funnel, how they tend to move through it and at what point they are ready to buy.
Analyze Keywords and Entry Pages
You can also use tracking tools like Google Analytics to determine where users are entering your site and what keywords they’re using to find you.
If most people find you through your blog and your top keywords include questions on solving a problem or satisfy a need, your potential customers are discovering you organically, through SEO. They’re starting at the very beginning of the buyer’s journey — the awareness stage.
They may find you when comparing similar products or services, in which case, your keywords may include the name of your competitor.
If your top entry pages are your product pages, or your top keywords include the name of your brand or product name, your users are well beyond the awareness stage of the funnel and are probably looking to compare or evaluate your product.
Creating Content for the Customer Journey
Once you determine user intent and where people are entering the marketing funnel, you can start to assess your content. Create new content to match user intent and shore up the content you already have.
Analyzing Scroll-Through Rate and Time on Page
Once you determine where users are entering your site, you can assess how well your content is satisfying user intent.
Create a list of your entry pages with the highest page views and then take a look at their scroll-through rates and time on page. If users are not scrolling down very far or not spending much time on your pages, then you probably have user intent mismatch. Your keyword is right on target, but your content is not satisfying the user intent behind the keyword.
It’s time to improve your existing content or create entirely new material.
Collect a list of keywords you want to target and plugging them into search. Look at the top results to see what they’re covering.
Since search engines like Google give weight to content that satisfies user intent, the top-ranking search results are most likely doing just that. See how they are answering those keywords and determine if you can do them one better.
Find the Gaps
Do a content gap analysis by comparing your content offering to that of your competitor. Is there anything they’re ranking on that you haven’t covered at all?
Or perhaps there are high-ranking pieces that they haven’t covered completely. If you can find another angle or a subcategory to include, do it.
Look at your buyer personas, as well. Are there steps in their journey through the marketing funnel where your content is lacking?
Look beyond your blog content. If users are landing on your product pages, make sure the product descriptions are thorough, explain how it addresses their pain points, and compares it to your competitor’s favorably.
Optimize Your Existing Content
Finally, look at your individual pieces to make sure you’ve covered every topic completely. Look back at our crafts for toddlers example. Sure, you can create a quick top-five list. But you could also create a cluster of articles that cover crafts for all seasons, ages, price ranges and level of parental involvement.
Run your content through a semantic analysis tool like MarketMuse. It will look at your content and suggest additional keywords and topic areas that you may be missing.
The more angles you cover on a topic, the more user intent scenarios you are satisfying.
There’s no doubt the way people find information and is changing the marketing funnel as we know it. Now, understanding more about our audience, where they enter the buyer’s journey and the intent behind their searches will shape each brand’s individual funnel and how they move potential customers to customers and perhaps to brand loyalists.