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It’s time to retire the marketing funnel

A man takes down the top of a marketing funnel from a wall. A nearby flatbed truck holds the other pieces of the marketing funnel.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

The advertising industry is quick to adopt new technological advances, but one dusty old artifact we’ve clung to for too long is the marketing funnel. In a world where consumer behavior is as unpredictable as it is varied, clinging to this outdated model is hindering our ability to connect with customers effectively. So it’s time to retire the funnel and embrace new models that can more accurately reflect the complexity of today’s market.

The traditional marketing funnel, born in 1924, offers a linear path from awareness to consideration to purchase. However, today’s consumer journey is anything but linear. Customers interact with brands across multiple touchpoints, often jumping between stages and channels in unpredictable ways. This dynamic nature of consumer behavior renders the traditional funnel ineffective and obsolete.

Consider a customer who discovers a product through the brand’s Instagram post, then sees a billboard for it and eventually purchases it from a retailer. The funnel fails to capture this complex journey, leading to missed opportunities and inaccurate insights. In today’s omnichannel commerce landscape, the funnel creates more blind spots than windows.

Media channels are becoming full-funnel

When media channels operated independently as silos with mutually exclusive purposes, the funnel made more sense. But today, most channels are expanding their capabilities to provide advertisers with the reach, awareness, nurturing and even last-touch attribution they’re looking for. Retail media is a perfect example: Traditionally thought of as a last nudge before purchase, retail media networks (RMNs) now offer upper-funnel benefits like first-party data sets for building lookalike audiences. Additionally, RMNs are increasingly merging with connected TV and search platforms, as seen in Walmart’s acquisition of Vizio and Google’s new retail media offering. The lines are blurring among advertising channels, so our consumer behavior models should reflect that.

"The traditional marketing funnel is a relic of the past, ill-suited for today’s omnichannel world."

To succeed in this new era of marketing, brands must leverage first-party data to create personalized and dynamic customer journeys. Unlike third-party data, which provides a generic view of consumer behavior, first-party data offers a detailed understanding of individualized preferences and behaviors.

By building creative campaigns that collect first-party data, brands can personalize messaging, predict future needs and create experiences that resonate with customers on a deeper level. This data-driven approach allows brands to look beyond the immediate purchase and forge lasting, meaningful relationships with their audience.

Remodeling the customer journey

So what’s the alternative? Instead of relying on the linear funnel, marketers should adopt a more flexible and holistic view of the customer journey. 

One superior approach is the “messy middle” model, which acknowledges the nonlinear nature of consumer decision-making. This model recognizes that customers move between stages of exploration and evaluation, often revisiting and reassessing their options before making a purchase.

Another good idea is the Hankins Hexagon, which views the customer journey as a series of interconnected stages, rather than a linear progression. This model allows for more flexibility and adaptability, as customers can move freely between stages based on their individual needs and preferences.

Additionally, the spiderweb model emphasizes the interconnectedness of touchpoints, highlighting the importance of consistent messaging and experiences across all channels. 

Finally, McKinsey & Company’s “consumer decision journey” recognizes the complexity of real-world decision-making, mapping out the various paths customers take on their way to a purchase.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s important to draw insights from as many data sources as possible to understand how your particular brand’s customer base discovers and considers it. Our media planners consider a client’s goals, target demographics and budget parameters to curate an individualized strategy that will meet consumers at multiple touchpoints and stitch them together. These curated media plans tend to reflect some combination of the “messy middle” or the Hankins Hexagon models.

The traditional marketing funnel is a relic of the past, ill-suited for today’s omnichannel world. By adopting a more fluid and data-driven approach, brands can build customer journeys that resonate more deeply with customers and drive long-term loyalty and advocacy. It’s time to put the funnel in the antique shop and usher in a new era of customer engagement.

This op-ed represents the views and opinions of the author and not of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, or The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk.