A tried and true conceptual framework for marketing, the "sales funnel" or "purchase funnel," has enjoyed a kind of renaissance. Not surprising. Although articulated more than a century ago, the "sales funnel" feels as though it were invented to illuminate e-commerce.
The online store potentially exercises control over the "buyer's journey"—another reborn concept—that no brick-and-mortar store ever achieved. The "funnel," of course, is a metaphor for the guided steps ("journey") by which a potential buyer becomes aware of a product or service, becomes attentive to it, appreciates its value, seeks out additional information, chooses a place that sells it, and buys it.
(We pause here, but that is not the end of the funnel in "holistic" or "end-to-end" marketing, which goes on to ensure customer satisfaction, foster customer loyalty, and nurture an enduring relationship with the brand.)
The "take away" for marketers is that this entire journey through the funnel can occur online. That means: Potentially within the circumference of influence of the marketer.
A Trip through the Online Purchase Funnel
Some brief comments on the architecture of the online purchase funnel:
1. "Inbound" marketing, which tends to characterize the Web, means drawing potential buyers into the funnel by offering information, ideas, a trustworthy source of advice. The potential buyer is not driven into the online store of a forceful sales pitch, but drawn into a relationship. Social media, skillful SEO, a well-designed "landing page" on a website: All mediate this process.
2. The process continues by holding the visitor's attention with genuinely informative information, credibly researched and presented, with the use of visuals (today, especially, video) to make the information highly palatable.
3. Introduction to the brand and the online shopping experience are carefully handled at every step. For example, the homepage of Netflix is not about films, per se, but how the reader faces no risk in trying the service. Clearly, Netflix is convinced that one step through the tunnel involves strong reassurance that you won't be trapped in it by renewable monthly fees.
4. Even the online visitor to a website has a choice where to buy the product. Thus, there is an art to making the act of buying online easy, attractive, and reassuring. One sales funnel expert, for example, says: Keep the "buying" page—checkout, the "buy button"—looking like the rest of the website. Visitors become uneasy if they feel they have been sent somewhere else to make the purchase when it is the website that has gained their trust.
5. The online art of converting a sale into customer loyalty deserves a separate article, but, again, the online store has a built-in advantage. When the buyer has traversed the tunnel—from interest to attention to trust to a decision to buy—that trust also wins the seller the buyer's email address—still by far the single most valuable item in the cyber shopping world.
An impressive arsenal of data-backed insights, useful tools, design principles, and techniques have evolved to realize the full potential of the online sales funnel.
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