The Inbound Marketing Funnel: How It Works

8 minutes

The traditional sales funnel details the customer journey, eventually ending in a sale.

The sales funnel has had so many iterations that it’s hard to keep track. My focus here is to go beyond the regular old funnel and explain the inbound marketing version.

Let’s walk through the components of the modern marketing flow and then take you step-by-step down the funnel.

We’ll start by breaking down the classic funnel. It’s a powerful image in business.

The Original Sales Funnel

Elias St. Elmo Lewis invented the original sales funnel in 1898. He was the first to visualize the customer’s complete buying journey. His outlined stages formed the AIDA linear hierarchy (attention, interest, desire, and action). Lewis initially focused on applying this theory to personal selling, which meant selling products directly to customers.

The traditional sales funnel has been replaced by the inbound marketing funnel, which takes these ideas and make them more relevant to modern marketing channels.

Marketers and advertisers quickly took over the sales funnel. They believed that the ultimate goal should be to inspire customers to take action — to make them feel compelled or obligated to buy the product or service. This changed the direction of the sales funnel, which veered toward the version that we’re familiar with today.

This funnel shows how to make a sale. However, it misses many crucial steps that could mean the difference between a sale or not. So it had to be reworked multiple times because the needs of the customer and marketing teams changed over time.

Inbound Marketing

Now that we know the elements of the funnel, let’s get to inbound marketing. Inbound marketing attracts customers by informing them about products and services and then interacting with them. On the other hand, outbound marketing is all about blasting a message to a large audience.

Inbound marketing is a way to get your message in front of your target audience. It enables you to make a more targeted content marketing campaign that will save you money instead of blindly advertising to your target audience.

Your goal is to engage your current customers with content and build a relationship with your potential customers, thus gaining and growing customer awareness.

Inbound marketing should not only help you get leads through your customer journey — but it should also improve every step of their journey along the way. You don’t want to merely attract attention — you want to maintain it.

The best-case scenario would be when someone looking for specific information about your industry and products would come across one of your recent blog posts. Then, they would learn more about the information that they sought while being exposed to your brand.

Potential customers will see your blog as a trustworthy source if you are ranked high in the search results when they look for content about your industry.

The Buyer Persona

Who’s asking the questions you’re trying to answer in your blog posts? Is it the buyer, or is it someone who can influence a purchase? You must first understand your target audience before you can move a prospect through the funnel. The opposite of a successful marketing campaign is putting your ads in front of too many people.

Sharing relevant content with your target audience is an effective way to generate leads. But how do you identify them?

Although this isn’t an easy task, it is vital for an effective marketing campaign that converts. First, you can figure out your typical users’ location, gender, and age through Google Analytics. Then, cross-reference that with your CRM data – and the experiences of your sales team – to create a buyer persona.

The Inbound Marketing Funnel

Now it’s time to put the pieces together.

The inbound marketing funnel is not just a standard funnel with additional steps. Instead, it adds new dynamics and allows for more targeted marketing towards leads.

However, every company is different, and the inbound sales funnel might not work in every scenario. Therefore, each company should tailor it to its specific marketing needs.

AIDA Revisited

Let’s go back and look at the original sales funnel. Here are the steps we used to create it:

  • Attention: This is when you reach out to your target audience and grab their attention.
  • Interest: By creating interest in your product, potential customers will want to learn more.
  • Desire: A customer signals their interest in a particular product at this point.
  • Action: The customer buys your product, followed by brand advocacy if they like it enough to recommend it.

Going Down the Inbound Marketing Funnel

Inbound marketing funnels take these ideas and make them more relevant to modern marketing channels. They incorporate the customer stage as well as content type and traffic source.

Here are the stages for a modern funnel:

  • Awareness: This is the top section of your funnel (TOFU). It is here that people find your brand and start to look at your messaging. They aren’t yet ready to buy from you.
  • Interest: These are prospects who are interested and ready to learn more about your product or service. They’re trying to find out whether your offering will meet their requirements. This section is called the middle of the funnel (MOFU).
  • Consideration: This stage marks the moment of truth. Prospects are actively considering buying your product or service. Once they have made the purchase, they will move to the bottom end of the funnel (BOFU).
  • Purchase: Conversions occur here. This is when your lead has decided to buy your product/service.

The Inbound Marketing Funnel: A Walk-Through

We have now identified the various parts of the inbound marketing funnel. Let’s put them all together and then walk through each step, including the best types of marketing content to use for each stage.

1. Awareness: Getting Noticed

Primarily, we need to drive traffic. We want people to come from various sources (searches, links, social media, etc.) and get to the top of the funnel. We want traffic to go to one of the many pieces of content we offer.

Traffic Sources

Without an audience, any funnel will be useless. This same funnel also works for capturing leads via traffic sources.

These sources include:

  • Search, both organic and paid
  • Referral traffic
  • Direct traffic
  • Social, both organic and paid
  • Retargeting
  • Email traffic

Traffic is a great way to get your brand noticed wherever your target audience may be looking. You’ll get more leads and convert more customers this way.

The awareness stage begins once the leads have reached the top. They are now looking at different content and learning more about the topic your company is an expert in. For example, a podcast or blog can help you gain a newsletter subscription.

Marketing assets for the Awareness stage:

  • Blog posts
  • Personas
  • Infographics
  • Social media posts
  • Custom images and illustrations
  • Calls to action (CTAs)

2. Interest: Keep people coming back

If your content is compelling, it may increase your lead’s interest in your product and make it more likely that they’ll do further research about it. At this point, they enter the interest stage.

Some of your leads may have already subscribed to your newsletter. However, they might also be interested in more detailed content, such as eBooks, whitepapers, webinars, etc. Email marketing automation is a great tool to nurture leads because you can send messages about products or articles that they have read.

Marketing assets for the Interest stage:

  • Newsletters
  • eBooks
  • White papers
  • Webinars
  • Nurture emails
  • Explainer videos
  • PPC ads

3. Consideration: Gentle Prodding

After expressing interest, leads then move to the consideration stage. It’s crucial at this point for you to keep nurturing these leads with content that convinces them that buying your product is the right choice. You also want to encourage them to reach out directly to your sales team for a demo or proceed to the purchasing stage.

Marketing assets for the Consideration stage:

  • Case studies
  • Testimonials
  • Conversion landing pages
  • Sales emails

4. Purchase

At the bottom of our funnel, we find the purchase stage. When a lead buys your product, it is a conversion.

For B2B, this refers to the end of contract negotiations and forming a new business partnership.

In a B2C environment, you hopefully have a new happy customer.

Customer relationships don’t end at the point when people buy from you. You need to follow up on their transaction, ask them to review your product, and encourage them to seek support if necessary.

Marketing assets for the Purchase stage:

  • Slide decks
  • Product demos
  • Product catalogs

5. Loyalty: Retention and Evangelism

Marketers tend to ignore loyalty in their strategies because sales funnels, since the early 1900s, have been, um … funnels. Your potential leads flow in one direction and convert into customers at the end. There is no depiction of what comes next.

But what happens next is undeniably the most critical aspect of your sales and marketing lifecycle: customer retention.

Why are repeat customers better than new customers?

Marketing assets for the Loyalty stage:

  • Product and service guides
  • Use cases
  • Video tutorials
  • FAQs

Time to Build Your Own Inbound Marketing Funnel

The funnels for different companies are not the same. While the steps may look the same, the content you use to get there is dependent on your industry and audience preference. You can guarantee follow-through at each level of your funnel by using engaging content and an inbound strategy.

What does your inbound marketing funnel look like?

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