This is a guest post by Brandy Cross. Brandy is a native English freelance writer operating in the Netherlands, where she functions as a technical copywriter for companies ranging from Fortune 500s to startups.
The sales funnel is the go-to marketing device designed to attract and eventually convert prospective customers. For many organizations, it’s an invaluable component of online marketing, offering tools to build web traffic, improve existing customer relationships, and drive sales.
An effective sales funnel engages with prospects at every stage to deliver real value to the business and the consumer.
In this article, we’ll go over key strategies to plan, build, write, and manage better sales funnels that convert and retain your customers.
Validate your content and drive real business value
Most sales funnels heavily rely on content marketing to achieve validation. After all, you can’t have landing pages, email campaigns, PPC, or other campaigns without content.
At the same time, writing great content for sales funnels requires prep work, understanding your audience, and determining how and why your product fits into their lives.
Once you put the pieces together, a sales funnel should focus on delivering value to the customer and solving their problems at every step, even when that step is “I need more information.”
Set clear goals
Sales funnels can add considerable value for many organizations, but without clear goals, market research, and validation, they become a costly waste of time.
Only 10% to 15% of leads convert to paying customers, according to Belkins. Your sales funnel will remain empty unless you work to understand your target audience, connect the funnel to your business goals, and follow up on leads to drive sales. That requires establishing your goals in the first place.
For most businesses, assigning goals should be a three-part process:
- Set clear goals for content
- Validate business goals
- Establish budgets
1) Set clear goals for content
Any content you create should have a clear business goal and outcome. Sales funnels are not a case of “if you build it, they will come.” You need to build your system around a strong, cohesive message that drives the consumer towards an endpoint.
Sales funnels can have total overarching goals, like, “Improve sales for Y product by X%.”
They should also have smaller goals, allowing you to track production based on stages of the funnel, investment, return on investment, and what the funnel generates in terms of leads.
For example, if your funnel produces a healthy number of qualified leads, but they fail to translate into sales, the problem might be with sales, not the funnel.
Here are some things to analyze:
- Marketing qualified leads – Leads who meet goals or metrics set by marketing, who are deemed good prospects to nurture into customers.
- Sales qualified leads – Leads who meet goals or metrics set by sales, who are highly likely to become customers.
- Engagement rate – How many visitors are engaging with the funnel?
- Sales activity increases – By representative as well as by total product/service.
- Conversion rates at each stage – When and where are customers moving on to the next stage?
- Actual sales – How much money are you making in real, countable dollars?
Setting hard numbers at this stage requires knowing your audience, marketing budget, business size, and other details. Presumably, you already have that insight into your organization, or you can get it before taking the next steps.
2) Validate business goals
Review and justify the goals you set. Validating a sales funnel means creating demo content, running small campaigns, and testing reaction, conversion, and follow-up. It also entails confirming your core audience and their needs.
3) Establish budgets
Any business investment should be able to provide a clear and measurable return on value.
Content must deliver business value. That means linking the sales funnel to validated possibilities for recovering investment through factors such as increased sales, improved customer lifecycle, or other goals.
- Where is this content adding value?
- How can you measure that?
- How will you follow up to monitor its value?
In most cases, establishing tools to monitor traffic and register conversions and new leads from the funnel with sales will help you track value.
Identify prospective customers
Unless you’re brand new, most businesses have some idea of who their ideal customer is as well as some data around them. For example:
Who they are – Who is your customer? For most businesses, this question should read: “What problems does my product solve? Who experiences those problems?”
For some organizations, this consists of a broad range of demographics. For others, it’s fairly narrow. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Product A (Broad audience): Generic vacuum replacement parts
- Audience: Budget-conscious individuals with X vacuum brands
- Product B (Narrow audience): Legal citation automation tool
- Audience: Contract writers and lawyers without a large team to do manual work
When you can answer, “Who is my customer?” you can link the customer to a problem you solve. Most importantly, you know how to write for them and how to resolve their pain points.
Where they are – Location isn’t always important, but it can be. Small businesses, installation services, and other local companies incorporate location as an integral part of sales. Organizations like restaurants, construction companies, and installers (windows, solar panels, you name it) rely on location-based keywords for customer discovery.
Identify where your audience is and where you can sell. If location is important, your sales funnel has to be location specific, but you can also leverage that to build authority with local knowledge, insight, and networking.
Your point of contact – Where in the sales funnel do customers usually discover your website or social media? (Awareness, Interest, Decision, Sales).
If you track how and why people come to your website, you’ll know what they’re looking for. You can also see conversions and how many people are on your site, and make educated guesses about why.
Although you can create a functional sales funnel without this data, establishing a benchmark will help you measure value, how well your current funnel is performing and why.
How they research products – How do your customers search for and research products? Do they use social media, or ask friends for recommendations? Do they start with a Google search? On mobile or desktop? Do they compare products and services while shopping in the store? Do they want immediate solutions, or do they want to research and find the best products for the money?
Answering these questions involves extensive market research, including distributing surveys, interviewing customers, and, if your organization is large enough, investing in external market research. You need this data to determine content formats, layout, and compatibility with different devices.
For example, if 90% of your traffic is from mobile devices, you should invest more into conversion rate on the mobile experience than a new desktop site (unless you can also show desktop visitors have significantly higher conversion rates).
Once you know who your prospective customers are and what they want, you can further define and categorize them.
Different customers might want completely different things, and attempting to target all your prospects in a single sales funnel may actually alienate most of them. By segmenting customers, you’re able to hone in on specific desires and thus reach more prospects.
Customer personas allow you to create a clear story and call to action for your campaign, even when your product branches out in several directions, or people use it for different reasons.
What is a persona?
A customer persona defines a single customer based on motivation, while attempting to incorporate personality, research tactics, and problems. Customer personas help you put a face on who you’re writing to. They also allow you to tailor the sales funnel and sales responses by categorizing people into what they want and need, and how they respond to different forms of marketing.
Sample customer personas for a legal citation tool (Product B listed above)
JTBD: Find citations quickly and easily to improve her managers work and eventually get a promotion.
Problems: Spends a large amount of time manually searching legal citations, either for herself or her boss. Time constraints are an issue, but she doesn’t have the budget to hire an assistant to do manual work for her, or may be a secretary herself.
Communication: Busy, pressured, and looking for higher quality, not just time reduction. Her value output is important to her, and focusing on this as part of the sales pitch will drive conversion. Wants to know how things work and what people think about it before she’ll even consider buying it. Free demos can go a long way towards pushing a conversion, but she’ll only try a product if she’s convinced it won’t waste her time.
Platforms: Facebook, Google Search, Blogs (Medium)
JTBD: Make it easier for her team to do deep research to get better end results, and gain more clients.
Problems: Owns or manages a small legal firm and is concerned with monitoring and maintaining the quality of output. She wants to improve output for contracts and legal references without investing in more people.
Communication: Short on time. She wants to see proof of value, including whitepapers and case studies. She’ll likely assign someone to try out the product before implementation to make sure it’s a worthwhile expenditure. She’s most concerned with cost and time investment, but won’t do much research into the product herself. Sell her on the idea and top-level quality, and connect with her researcher at another stage.
Platforms: LinkedIn, Twitter, Word of mouth
Reading each of these personas, you could see why it would be smart for Product B to create different sales funnels for each persona. Marketing to persona 2 with messaging intended for persona 1 would likely result in no sale, and vice versa.
Once you’ve organized customer research into personas, you can prioritize them to determine how and why sales funnels should focus on one or another.
In an ideal world, you’d have the budget, manpower, and focus to launch campaigns for everyone at once. The thing is, you can’t.
You also wouldn’t want to launch every campaign at once simply because you want time to test processes, research, and ideas to figure out what works.
Some possible prioritization metrics include:
- Total volume of prospects and potential for sales
- Total lifetime value (money spent over lifetime of relationship)
- Ease of conversion (if Prospect A costs $500 to convert and Prospect B costs $200 to convert, but customer B is worth $300 net profit over lifetime and customer A is worth $5,000, it’s an easy choice. Unfortunately, choices are rarely that clear cut)
Making these key decisions is crucial to ensure your end product is cohesive, aimed at one demographic, and solves their problems.
Align content with buyer personas and business goals
Strong sales funnels hone in on target audiences to deliver solutions. That means choosing a specific persona and creating a style guide around it.
How does your persona want to communicate? Where do they get their information? If your audience appreciates easy-going, informal discussions, they’ll bypass a dense, academic-level blog, no matter how informative it is, and vice versa.
- What do they read?
- Where do they look at content?
- How old are they?
Test different content styles and tones to help you align on what adds the most value. If your organization has a limited budget for that kind of testing, create a single, broader style guide.
How well does your target understand the product or their own problems? You have to write in a way that sounds credible and convincing to someone who knows the product.
But, if your audience consists of high-level managers and C-Suite who don’t know the technical details, throwing around jargon might alienate your audience rather than add authority.
Use the right tools
Understanding your audience is the first step to creating a sales funnel, because it determines who you write to and why.
You can use this information for keyword research, lead management, and relationship management.
The right tools will help you collect and leverage data to automate processes, organize workflows, and manage customers.
Define search terms before you begin writing. Most campaigns should be constructed around 10-50 keywords, and organized around value, sales potential, and sales funnel stage or level based on keyword type.
Most keywords can be mapped to “informational,” “navigational,” or “transactional” searches. These, in turn, can be mapped to each stage of your sales funnel.
Keywords with high purchase intent belong at the bottom of the funnel. They make up about 15% of total searches, but will drive most sales. The best tools to perform keyword research include (but are not limited to):
- Ahrefs – Ahrefs delivers premium research tools to search keywords, review keyword trends, view website traffic, explore competitor keywords, and much more.
- Wordstream Advisor – Wordstream combines keyword research, marketing, and ongoing optimization (primarily designed around PPC) into 20-minute workflows powered by automation.
- Google – Most traffic still comes from Google. It’s important to understand how and what people are searching for on the platform. Google Trends is a helpful solution if you don’t have an AdWords account. If you do have an AdWords account, use Google Trends and Google Keyword Planner.
Monitoring content, clicks, and leads is imperative to ensure your sales funnel is driving value. You should have most tools in place before you begin a campaign. Others, like SEMrush and Moz, can help you build campaigns with keyword tools, active management, and active optimization.
- Google Analytics – Google Analytics is the de-facto for monitoring internet traffic.
- SEMrush – SEMrush delivers a full suite of keyword research and content management tools, including positioning, impact, conversion, and other data analytics.
- Moz – Moz delivers a complete SEO toolkit, offering performance tracking, ranking, site management, optimization tools, and insights.
You can also consider tools to deliver content, like Mailchimp, Google Surveys, Survey Monkey, and others. Many of these tools are free, but primarily function to disperse a single type of content.
Tools like Hubspot, Marketo, and Salesforce can help you manage content and leads, which is critical to drive value with your sales funnel.
There’s no one-size-fits-all tool for content management, analytics, or keyword research. You’ll have to find the solutions that best fit your organization’s needs.
The stages of your funnel
Most funnels comprise five to eight stages, including awareness, discovery, evaluation, intent, and purpose. Some organizations will add or subtract stages depending on the goals of the funnel, product, or service, the tracking technology used, and the ability to monitor customers and their behavior.
Researching problems makes up the top of any sales funnel. Prospects are attempting to hone in on their problem and so are looking for broad search terms to gather information. These terms very rarely result in a direct sale, but they can be a powerful way to increase traffic, build email databases, and foment trust with prospects. Leads generated may not be as targeted, but you will (likely) get a lot of them.
1) Awareness – The prospect is aware of their problem and is looking for a solution. They don’t know what that will be.
2) Discovery – The prospect discovers your brand (and others) as a potential solution.
People in the first two stages typically look for blogs, articles, and general answers to problems. You can also incorporate other media types like podcasts, video, and infographics. SEO and PPC are both valid tactics at this stage, but as PPC will rarely pay off, it’s better not to use it until you’re certain of the efficacy of your sales funnel.
- SEO – Build search traffic with blogs, articles, and optimized content. Tie results into customer relationship building, authority building, and with creating trust with the customer to get the most value from this stage.
- Relationship building – Create opportunities for readers to connect on social media. In some niches, you can offer gated content in exchange for an email. In some niches, email or video courses also work.
People in this stage have identified their problems and are actively searching for solutions. They might consider your brand, but chances are, they’re looking at options in a broader scope.
3) Evaluation – The prospect is evaluating you (and others) as a solution to their problems.
This customer knows what they need and is trying to narrow down their choices. Utilize blogs, landing pages, video content, and gated content such as ebooks, checklists, and whitepapers to convert at this stage. Email campaigns can offer value and eventually convert the customer.
- SEO – Drive prospects to landing pages aimed at relationship building, blogs, articles, and whitepapers. The goal should be to inform the prospect about specific solutions and about your brand.
- Relationship building – Connect with email and social media to continue offering value. Prospects at this stage are not ready to buy, so don’t try to convince them.
- Gated content – Gated content, such as offering whitepapers, case studies, and long-form information, can be helpful, provided you deliver real value to the prospect without trying to sell to them. You also need to follow up with valuable email marketing or a call.
- Social media – Maintaining a consistent and reliable presence across social media will increase the number of connections with customers, bolstering trust and, hopefully, authority.
The prospect is actively researching a purchase. Their search queries have likely updated to transactional and commercial keywords that include brand names and words like “review,” “value,” “discount,” etc. This customer knows what they want and is trying to get the best value for their money.
4) Intent – The prospect directly researches your business and may try a demo or trial.
5) Purchase — Conversion.
PPC is highly likely to pay off at this stage, with organizations like WordStream showing that customers are twice as likely to click paid ads as search ads for commercial and transactional queries. Here, you can utilize landing pages, direct marketing, and email to push final sales.
- Landing pages – Drive prospects to pages built around driving sales.
- Demos – Deliver demos and free trial content or walkthroughs, with customer service support if needed.
- PPC – Directly advertise products to prospects through high purchase intent keywords.
- Blogs and articles – Share brand comparisons, case studies, and target transactional keywords like “discount” and “coupon” to drive traffic directly to your own site.
6) Loyalty – The customer has made a purchase and you continue to invest to maintain the relationship. This is otherwise known as customer retention.
While most sales funnels start at the top, you don’t have to.
If your organization doesn’t have the resources to capture top-of-funnel prospects, you can start in the middle. You may lose longer-term prospects, but you’ll still acquire some traffic from mid-funnel information, just without the advantage of building trust first.
Both options have benefits, especially depending on total budget and market saturation of basic content.
Creating a hook
A “hook” is a point in your content where you connect with the customer and their needs and prompt a reaction to drive a result. Any content in any format should have a hook. This can be a call to action, a USP, or it can directly solve problems for the customer.
The hook you use should be based on the goal. Here, there are three primary types of hooks. Each of these must connect to the prospect and their problems, as well as to the product or service.
1) Relationship building
Relationship-building content should focus on the customer; you should highlight how you can solve their problems, and also answer their questions. This content is either top of funnel or after the sale. Focus on the prospect and deliver value first, with little to no self-promotion.
2) Lead generation
Lead generation is about collecting emails, likes, sign-ups, phone numbers — whatever the next step is in your sales process. In most cases, lead generation means delivering value, followed by a call to action (to get more value).
Lead generation hooks build authority and trust, and improve existing relationships by offering continuous value in exchange for contact information. This content is valuable in the middle of the funnel and, in the case of demos and free trials, at the end as well.
3) Driving sales
Driving sales entails delivering a USP followed by a call to action. This is only suited to end-of-funnel content and should not be utilized in relationship-building or trust-building stages.
Build a better sales funnel by crafting a continuous story
Your prospects are likely to connect with your organization across multiple channels, including social media, your website, and third-party reviews.
Your sales funnel should include a continuous story across every channel because, if your prospect moves to another and sees a different story, your message may get lost.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have general content on websites and social media; it just means that you should carefully segregate persona-specific content to avoid muddling your primary message.
Sales funnels can draw traffic, increase leads, convert sales, and, hopefully, extend the customer lifetime. Achieving this requires you to research your audience and their needs, strategically build content around those needs, and measure success at each stage.
Establishing next steps like follow-up tactics, how to market to qualified leads, when to hand leads over to sales, etc., are also crucial for a robust sales funnel, and should be mandatory during writing and planning. After all, if you don’t know what to do with leads, why collect them?