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 500 to startups.
The sales funnel is a go-to marketing device designed to attract and eventually convert prospective customers. For many organizations, it’s an extremely valuable part of online marketing, offering tools to build web traffic, improve existing customer relationships, and drive sales.
A good 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 pieces to building and writing better sales funnels that convert and retain your customers.
Validate Your Content and Drive Real Business Value from Sales Funnels
Most sales funnels heavily rely on content marketing to achieve this. 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 heavily relies on prep work, understanding your audience, and understanding how and why your product fits into their lives.
Once you put the pieces together, a sales funnel should be about 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 might just be a waste of time.
A Salesforce survey showed that 79% of marketing leads are never converted into paying customers. No sales funnel is valuable if you don’t continuously put in the work to understand your target audience, connect the funnel to business goals, and follow up on leads to drive sales. That requires understanding your goals in the first place.
For most businesses, assigning goals should be a three-part process:
1) Set Clear Goals for Business Content
Any content you write should have a clear business goal and outcome. Sales funnels are not a case of “If you build it, they will come”. Your sales funnel must be build around a strong, cohesive message that ultimately drives the consumer towards a single goal.
Sales funnels can have total overarching goals, like, “Improve sales for Y product 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 is generating in terms of leads.
For example, if your funnel is producing a good number of qualified leads but they aren’t turning into sales, the problem might be with sales and not with the funnel.
Here are some things to look at:
- Marketing Qualified Leads – Leads that meet goals or metrics set by marketing, who are deemed good prospects to nurture into customers.
- Sales Qualified Leads – Leads that 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 is difficult without understanding 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
Any goals you set should be reviewed and validated. Validating a sales funnel means creating demo content, running small campaigns, and testing reaction, conversion, and follow-up. It also means validating your core audience and their needs.
3) Establish Budgets
Any business investment should be created with the ability to provide a clear and measurable return on value.
Content must deliver business value and 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 value?
- How will you follow up to monitor that value?
In most cases, establishing tools to monitor traffic, register conversions, and to register new leads from the funnel with sales will help you track value.
Identifying Prospective Customers
Unless you’re brand new, most businesses have some idea of who their ideal customer is and some data around them. For example;
Who Are They – 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 different 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 can solve. Most importantly, you know how to write for them and how to solve those problems.
Where Are They – Location isn’t always important, but it may be. Small local businesses, installation services, and other localized businesses heavily rely on location as part of sales. Organizations like restaurants, construction companies, and installers (windows, solar panels, you name it) rely on location-based keywords.
Identifying where your audience is, where you can sell to, and why that’s important. 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.
What is Your Point of Contact? – Where in the sales funnel do customers usually run into your website or social media? (Awareness, Interest, Decision, Sales).
How do you find this out? If you’re tracking how and why people are coming to your website, you know what they are looking for. You can also see conversion, see how many people are on your site, and make educated guesses about why.
Why is this important? You can make a perfectly valid sales funnel without this data, but establishing a benchmark of what you are getting and why will help you measure value, and will help you decide how well what you have now is working and why.
How do they Research Products – How do your customers look for and research products? Do they use social media? Or ask friends for recommendations? Do they start out with Google search? On mobile or desktop? Do they compare products and services while in the store looking for them? Do they want immediate solutions, or do they want to research and find the best products for the money?
Answering these questions can involve significant 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 be investing more into conversion rate on the mobile experience, rather than a new desktop site – unless you can also show that the 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.
This is important because 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.
Using customer personas allows you to create a clear story and call to action for your campaign, even when your product might branch in several directions or people might 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.
Customer Personas for Product B (listed above)
Name: Barb A
Age: 27-43 years old
Sex: 65% female, 35% male
Problems: Spends a large amount of time manually searching legal citations, either for herself or for her boss. Time constraints are an issue, but she doesn’t have the budget to hire a secretary to do manual work for her (and may be a secretary herself)
Communication: Busy, pressured, and looking for quality increases not just time reduction. Her value output is important to her and focusing on this as part of the sales pitch will drive conversion. Barb is intelligent, probably childless, and 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)
Name: Susan G.
Problems: Susan owns or manages a small legal firm and is concerned with monitoring and maintaining the quality of output. She wants to improve quality output for contracts and legal references without investing in more people.
Communication: Susan is 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 good value. She’s most concerned with cost and time investment but won’t do much of the 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 Susan with messaging intended for Barb would likely result in no sale at all 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 budget, manpower, and focus to launch campaigns for everyone at once. The thing is, you likely can’t.
You also wouldn’t want to launch every campaign at once simply because you want time to test process, 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 ensuring that your end-product is cohesive, aimed at one demographic, and designed to solve problems.
Aligning content with buyer personas and business goals
Good sales funnels target specific people and audiences to deliver solutions. Doing that well means choosing a specific persona and creating a style guide around that persona.
How does your persona want to be communicated to? Where do they get their information? If your audience appreciates easy-going and informal discussion, they won’t get much out of 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?
If you can try out different styles and tones and test them, that may help you to align on something that adds the most value. Most organizations have very little budget for that type of testing, so you’re likely best-off picking a single, broader style.
How well does your target understand the product or their own problems? You have to write in a way that sounds authoritative and convincing to someone who knows the product.
But, if your audience is made up of high-level managers and C-Suite who might not actually know how technical details work, throwing around a bunch of jargon might alienate your audience rather than add authority.
Understanding your audience and your targets is the first step to writing a sales funnel, because it allows you to determine who you’re writing to and why.
You can use this information for keyword research, lead management, and relationship management.
Tools will help you in leveraging and continuing to utilize and collect data by automatically collecting data, automating processes, organizing workflows, and helping you manage customers.
Define search terms before you begin writing. Most campaigns should be built around 10-50 keywords, 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 can, in turn, 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 actual sales. Keyword research is best completed using tools including (but not limited to):
- Ahrefs – Ahrefs delivers free and premium keyword research tools to search keywords, review keyword trends, view website traffic, explore competitor keywords, and much more.
- Wordstream Advisor – Wordstream builds 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 good 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 critical to ensuring that your sales funnel is driving value. Most tools should be put in place before you begin a campaign. Others, like SEM Rush 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.
- SEM Rush – SEM Rush delivers a full suite of keyword research and content management tools, including positioning, impact, conversion, and other data.
- 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 deliver a single type of content.
Tools like Hubspot, Marketo, and Salesforce will help you manage content and leads, which is critical to driving value with your sales funnel.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to content management, analytics, or keyword research tools. You’ll have to research to find the solutions that best fit your organization’s needs.
The Stages of Your Funnel
Most funnels are built around 5-8 stages. These typically include:
Some organizations will add or subtract stages depending on the goals of the funnel, product or service, tracking technology used, and ability to follow and monitor customers and their behavior.
Researching problems makes up the top of any sales funnel. Prospects are attempting to formulate their problem and are looking for broad search terms to gather information. These search terms will very rarely result in a direct sale, but they can be a powerful way to build traffic, begin building email databases, and begin building trust with prospects. Leads generated will generally be low quality, 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 solution.
People in the first two stages are typically looking 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 directly looking for solutions. They might be reviewing your brand, but chances are, they’re looking at options on a broader scope.
3) Evaluation – The prospect is evaluating you (and others) as a solution to their problems.
This customer knows what they are looking for and is trying to narrow that down. Utilize blogs, landing pages, video content, and gated content such as eBooks, checklists, and whitepapers to convert at this stage. Email campaigns can help you to offer value and convert the customer.
- SEO – Drive prospects to landing pages built around 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, don’t try to convince them to do so.
- Gated Content – Gated content offering whitepapers, case studies, and long-form information can be helpful, providing you deliver real value to the prospect without trying to sell to them, and providing you follow up with valuable email marketing or a call.
- Social Media – Maintaining a consistent and helpful presence across social media will increase the number of connections with the customer, improving trust and hopefully improving 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 is directly researching 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 demo and free trial content or walkthroughs, with customer service support if needed
- PPC – Directly advertise products to prospects high purchase intent keywords
- Blogs and Articles – Share brand comparisons, case studies, and target transactional keywords like “discount” and “coupon”. to bring traffic directly to your own site.
6) Loyalty – The customer has made a purchase and you continue to invest to maintain the relationship. 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 begin capturing 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 advantages, especially depending on total budget and market saturation of basic content.
Creating a Hook
A “hook” is a point in your content when you connect to 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, it can be 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 be connected 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 to solve their problems and answer their questions. This content is either top of funnel or after the sale. Here, you should focus on the prospect and deliver value first with little to no self-promotion present.
2) Lead Generation
Lead generation is about collecting emails, likes, sign-ups, phone numbers whatever is the next-step 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, build trust, and improve existing relationships by offering continued 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 of the funnel.
3) Driving Sales
Driving sales means 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.
Building A Continuous Story
No part of an organization or a sales funnel exists in a vacuum, especially on the Internet. 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 channel and sees a different story, your message will get muddled and maybe even lost.
That doesn’t mean that 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, help you to build leads, convert sales, and hopefully, extent the customer lifetime. Achieving this means researching your audience and their needs, carefully building content around those needs, and measuring success at each stage.
Establishing next steps, like follow-up tactics, how to market qualify leads, when to hand leads over to sales, etc. are also critical to a good sales funnel, and should be considered mandatory steps when writing and planning a sales funnel. After all, if you don’t know what to do with leads, why collect them?