One central component of marketing is the idea of “the funnel.” You can look at it in different ways, but essentially it teaches you how customers move through their interactions with a brand: typically it’s something like awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, adoption/conversion, and advocacy. My dad took MBA classes at Columbia in the mid-1960s and I took MBA classes at the University of Minnesota in the mid-2010s, and this was taught at both places, both times, in largely the same way.
That’s a bit of a problem, though, because social media and other developments (i.e. content marketing, e-commerce, and simple word of mouth) have changed the marketing funnel fairly drastically. First of all, by no means is the process linear — which is how the funnel is typically taught. It’s instead now circular, meaning that people can enter at different points and return to previous stages as opposed to simply moving through. Another major thing: there’s long been this idea that “advocacy” (i.e. talking about the brand) has to come after “adoption” (i.e. buying something from the brand). That’s 100 percent not true anymore — for example, I’ve “liked” the Portland Trailblazers on Facebook but have never attended a game or purchased a piece of merchandise. So in some context, they got the advocacy but not the conversion/adoption. THE SYSTEM IS TURNED ON ITS HEAD, PEOPLE!
Here’s the central issue, as explained by HBR, and then one potential idea:
In both B2B and B2C businesses, customers are doing their own research both online and with their colleagues and friends. Prospects are walking themselves through the funnel, then walking in the door ready to buy.
As an example, Julie Bornstein, CMO at Sephora, has seen social media change how people buy beauty products. Recommendations from friends have always been important, but now these recommendations spread “quicker, faster, and further” at every stage in the funnel. The decision on what to buy increasingly comes from advocates who share their experience in a way that pulls in new customers and informs their purchase decision. Sephora’s response has been to bring all the stages of the funnel together into a single place, creating its own online community where people can ask questions of experts and each other about brands, products, and techniques.
There are different ways to get at this problem — some just re-designed the funnel as a circle and called it something like “User Experience Journey.” That’s definitely one approach. Another approach, bigger with tech companies/Silicon Valley, is to simply integrate the marketing into the product itself, rather than having the marketing be a solely external force. A concept there? The iTunes store. Apparently the head of Global Small Business Marketing for Google has said the discussions there are never “How can we market this?” but rather “What products deserve marketing?” The goal of marketing there is essentially amplification of a trend that people would have gravitated to anyway. It’s hard to exist on social alone — some companies have done it, though — but what Sephora did, described above, is another approach: basically you “ape” social on your own site, turning it into a forum of like-minded individuals sharing context and information. You’re ostensibly just looking to create networks of connected individuals, which is probably the most powerful way to get a product sold.
Another concern: how business schools teach all this stuff. Remember: you’re ostensibly paying an MBA $95,000-$120,000 to be a marketing lead on something. If that person has primarily been studying a linear funnel and then enters a world that doesn’t do the linear funnel at all, that’s a significant problem. Universities are famously often described like oil tankers — takes a long time to turn around their thinking — which is why business schools are predominantly reputation-driven and not necessarily content-driven (business changes faster than the instruction around business can keep up). But still, ideally more schools are adjusting their core marketing curriculum to talk more about social and the gradual demise of the funnel (and hell, the sheer re-conceptualization of marketing).