Focus on Audiences, Not Funnels

Rather than optimizing funnels, marketers should focus on nurturing an audience of engaged people who care about their brand.

Funnels look good in presentations and can be a semi-useful way of simplifying long and winding customer journeys. But I don't like thinking about brand marketing in terms of funnels.

You know the type of funnels I'm talking about, they often look like this:

(via Sprout)

These funnels tend to encourage marketers to focus on leads not people. It's all about how you can get as many leads from the top of the funnel through to the bottom — often by any means necessary.

And that's an expensive process. Really expensive. As Jay Acunzo shares on Marketing Showrunners:

  • The cost of consumer attention is now rising 7-9x per year
  • Consumer trust is narrowing, and;
  • Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) is up by nearly 50% over the past five years.

So at every stage of the traditional funnel businesses are faced by increasing costs, and declining rewards. Wistia found this out first hand:

(For that $2m in ad spend Wistia generated 43 million impressions… and about as much traffic as one blog post. Full thread here.)

Instead of focusing on funnels, we should focus on building audiences.

The power of an audience

With tradional funnels, the idea is that we generate as many impressions as possible at the top of the funnel, some of those impressions result in new leads, and eventually a few convert to become customers.

But this approach ignores many of the benefits of a successful marketing strategy. As I mentioned in the piece on narrative-driven content:

We should no longer think of what we produce as content to drive signups for Buffer, but as content to build a loyal audience of people that look like our ideal Buffer customers.

Instead of trying to force people through a funnel from awareness to acquisition, we need to focus on how we can build an audience of people that truly care about and trust our brand.

This means switching the our focus from acquisition to affinity.

Becoming a customer shouldn’t be the end or only goal of a marketing strategy. The goal should be relationships (not conversions) — even if someone doesn’t buy from you they can still build affinity with your brand and influence the purchasing behaviours of others.

For example, I’m a big fan of Basecamp. I subscribe to its podcast, read its blog, and Rework is one of my favourite books. But I’m not a Basecamp customer.

In the traditional funnel I would have fallen out somewhere around interest or consideration. But that clearly doesn’t represent my relationship with the brand, or the fact that I would openly advocate for Basecamp if anyone I know needed a project management tool.

When you focus on building an audience, you increase the number of people that have an affinity with your business. And highly engaged audience members will share your content and spread the word about your business, even if they aren't going to become a customer themselves.

Think audience-first and grow your business

At Buffer, our marketing has always been audience-first. We try to prioritize our audience's experience over optimizing for Buffer signups. This means we don't plaster our blog with popups or in-your-face CTAs and we don't gate our content.

Implenting some of these tactics might result in short-term growth but might not help to build a loyal audience. As Paul Jarvis explains in Company of One:

By adding a pop-up message offering access to a free report on every page on your website, you might increase the number of subscribers to your company's mailing list, but you might also end up with a list that has few email opens and more unsubscribes making your net-net growth very low or even negative.

Our goal isn't to grow the biggest list, or aquire as many email addresses as possible. Instead, we focus on being guides. We aim to help our audience to solve their problems and inspire new ways of thinking and approaching challenges. And if an audience member wants to try Buffer out at some stage that's awesome. If not, that person is still incredibly valueable to us.

Even if an audience member isn't a customer (and never becomes one), they can still share our content, talk posivity about Buffer and help us reach new people.

Over time, audience building efforts compound. The bigger your audience, the more people are sharing your content and talking about your business with friends and collegues, this in turn leads to more people discovering your business, and so on.

And through years of taking this approach, word-of-mouth is one of our strongest aquisition channels (measured as "acquaintance" below):

Marketing isn't about clicks or leads, it's about people. Getting more customers is crucial for all businesses and the best way to do this is to focus on building an audience of people that care about your brand, not pushing leads through funnels.

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