Marketers have long imagined their buyer journeys in the shape of a funnel, one that starts at the top with awareness, narrows through the phases of engagement and influence and ultimately culminates in a purchase. As familiar as this imagery has become in our industry, there’s one big problem with it: Almost every brand’s marketing funnel today is broken in half.
Today’s brands should be fighting most of their battles for consumers in the middle of their marketing funnels, but almost none of them are. That’s because they’re almost entirely blind to what’s happening with their content marketing, which represents the ever-important engagement and influence phases of their customers’ journeys. As such, they’re missing the vital connections between the beginning and end of the path to purchase and grossly misallocating their media budgets based on the incomplete understanding that comes with that blind spot.
Today’s marketers have a comfortable—perhaps too comfortable—understanding of the tops and bottoms of their funnels. At the top, for the most part, sits TV. It’s joined to varying degrees by out of home and other pieces of the awareness puzzle, but linear TV and its emerging digital video offspring dominate the top of the funnel.
Marketers have become resigned to the loose metrics available at the top of the funnel, things like reach, frequency and, for the more ambitious, measures of brand awareness and favorability following exposure to certain commercial spots. While the measurements are imprecise, marketers intuitively understand the value of capturing consumer attention through sight, sound and motion in this well-established medium. The connected TV and over-the-top revolution might bring marketers to demand more accountability within these budgets in time, but the industry simply isn’t there yet.
Then, on the flipside, there’s the lower funnel, where the digital ecosystem of search, display and social platforms offers the ability to understand the ROI on ad spend down to the most infinitesimal levels. The lower funnel is owned almost entirely by the likes of Google, Facebook and, increasingly, Amazon. And their focus on attribution, often based on last-click and last-look metrics with widely acknowledged weaknesses, has served them well.
The ability of Google, Facebook and Amazon to draw correlations between ad exposure and purchases have resulted in a massive influx of additional digital ad dollars over the past two decades. Marketers are giving the bulk of their budgets to these platforms for the same reason that companies pay their salespeople so much: They’re the closest to the purchases. The platforms get credit for the final mile of a long journey and charge a premium for it. But that’s largely because the entire middle of the journey is still invisible to advertisers.
Few customers move directly from awareness to a purchase. In fact, 81 percent of shoppers conduct online research before buying. What ultimately drives their purchase decision is the content they encounter during this online research phase, from product content to reviews and buying guides to sponsored brand content.
Marketers intuitively understand the importance of content. It’s why they place content on their sites and other owned properties rather than just a series of ads. However, brand marketers’ understanding of the role this content plays in driving sales is almost nonexistent. As a result, content is being vastly undervalued within the marketing funnel, with much of the budget that should be bolstering these vital mid-funnel efforts sliding into the already-bloated bottom. To repair their broken mid-funnels, brands need to take steps to address the following questions.
What content does the brand have?
Brands must understand the inventory across their owned and earned properties to gain a global understanding of what their organizations are creating, both inside and outside of the marketing department.
What content is working?
Brands should then monitor key metrics around consumption and conversion for content on their own sites and social channels. Brands need to move beyond proxies for content consumption, such as social engagement, and instead focus on actual consumption metrics such as time spent, content completion and scroll rates. Regarding conversions, marketers should identify what content later leads to specific actions, such as purchases, free trial registrations, return visits or product browsing.
How can that content work harder?
Based on the above content performance discoveries, brands can then identify which pieces of content are worthy of broader paid media promotions. Just as marketers refine their media spends around ad creative that performs best, they too should dedicate budget to the content that delivers real impact. The days of relying on organic reach are over.
Brands can no longer afford to neglect the mid-funnel when it comes to their attribution efforts. If marketers can’t connect their content marketing efforts to business outcomes, they will never be able to properly optimize their media spends across the full funnel. Until then, the funnel will remain broken, and valuable customers will fall through its cracks.