The Decline of the Funnel and the Rise of Content Merchandising

That the Internet and its social media offspring have radically transformed how companies should be marketing themselves is obvious and undeniable. Equally undeniable is the growing potential of content merchandising in this shift.

One of the more articulate overviews of this transformation is found in a recent Harvard Business Review article by David C. Edelman, “Branding in the Digital Age: You’re Spending Your Money in All the Wrong Places.

It’s an insightful study on how our marketing world has been rocked, and how by taking an integrated approach to content merchandising–essentially the multi-tiered approach we advocate–companies can leverage new technologies and platforms to engage more closely with their clients, improve their brand awareness and experience, and increase sales.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety and covers several pertinent issues that are all worth consideration. But here I want to focus on how these changes are affecting the content piece of marketing strategies, so I’ll offer a brief summary of the article with that in mind.

The Marketing Funnel Metaphor: Going, Going, Gone

The traditional metaphor of marketing has long been the “funnel.” In gaining brand awareness, companies would target a disproportionate amount of the marketing budget at the wide mouth of the funnel where consumers, at the very earliest stage of their decision-making process, would consider several brand options for a purchase.

iPhone at the end of a tunnel

Rare is the product that catches the undivided attention of consumers.

Companies would invest again, to smaller degrees, at various consumer “touch points” along the funnel–the points at which companies can engage with and influence consumers–and again at the point of purchase, at the narrow opening of the funnel. But the points at which companies could influence a consumer’s choice were relatively limited and easily defined.

And because marketers relied on traditional “push” media (television, radio, and print) to “engage” with their consumers, they effectively had monopolistic control over their own messaging.

Unless you’ve been busy the past decade trying to remember your AOL email password and playing Pac-Man at your neighborhood tavern, the limits to this metaphor in today’s marketing world should be obvious.

The Funnel’s Demise: Web 2.0, Instant Communications, and Social Media

Tornado in a bottle experiment

Don't rely on the disappearing funnel to merchandise your products.

Enter into the equation the Internet, instant communications, and social media. Say goodbye to the funnel. (And while you’re at it, stop thinking your grade school tornado-in-a-bottle science project is still cool. It’s done.)

Consumers now have virtual access to seemingly unlimited sources of brand and product information, the vast majority of which is entirely out of the control of the brand–review sites, blogs, peer input, and so on.

And when purchasing products, consumers now enter what Edelman refers to as a “consumer decision journey,” or CDJ: a more dynamic and fluid process than the linear journey that the traditional funnel implied.

CDJ: A Dynamic Consumer Decision-Making Process

The four distinct phases of the CDJ–Consider, Evaluate, Buy, and the post-purchase phase, Enjoy, Advocate, Bond–offer a vast array of touch points at which consumers can be influenced.

A confusing roundabout road sign with exits for Altec Lansing, Pioneer, Bose and Sony.

Consumers are continually introduced to new brand options in their increasingly complex decision-making journeys.

These new elements mean that at any step along the way, new brands can easily be introduced to the process. Most points of influence are outside the control of the brand, such as tweets, user reviews, peer recommendations, blogs, and so on.

Companies, therefore, must be prepared to identify which touch points they can continue to affect if they want to win and retain customers.

This is where an integrated multi-tiered approach to content merchandising comes in.

A Case Study on Multi-Tiered Content Merchandising

Edelman offers a case study in which a television manufacturer, in order to determine precisely how consumers acted along the CDJ, put a group of shoppers on task to purchase new televisions.

Not surprisingly, shoppers had, in Edelman’s words, a “highly fractured experience” in their journey to purchase a TV. In their “evaluation” phase, their first point of contact in their research was overwhelmingly Amazon.com and other retail sites that offered peer reviews, product comparison tools, and in-depth product content. But as they continued more deeply in this phase, the shoppers reported extreme frustration.

According to Edelman, “Consumers reported that every brand’s model numbers, product descriptions, promotion availability, and even pictures seemed to change as they moved across sites and into stores. About a third of the shoppers who had considered a specific TV brand online during the evaluate stage walked out of a store during the buy phase, confused and frustrated by inconsistencies.”

Mall Escalators

Up the escalator, down the escalator. Without providing a consistent, multi-tiered merchandising experience for your products, consumers will continue to wander through stores, unable to make confident buying decisions.

Edelman continues: “This costly disruption of the journey across the category made [it] clear that the company’s new marketing strategy had to deliver an integrated experience from consider to buy and beyond.”

The solution? To address inconsistent content and online messaging, the company built a new content-development and -management system to ensure consistency and standards across all platforms. In other words, they instituted a multi-tiered approach to their content build.

The results? For a new product launch, the TV became a top seller on Amazon and the company’s best performer in retail stores.

Edelman’s conclusion?

“Uncoordinated publishing can stall the decision journey… in companies where the marketing function takes on the role of publisher-in-chief–rationalizing the creation and flow of product-related content–consumers develop a clearer sense of the brand and are better able to articulate the attributes of specific products.”

Just as importantly, by taking this foundational approach, you will, in Edelman’s words, “also become more agile with [your] content,” able to repurpose it for other media tools, like training and sales videos, that will support the consumers’ decision journey.

The Ping Takeaway:

  • Throw your efforts (and your budget) into making cross-platform contact with customers. Guide consumers through their shopping journeys by way of clear and consistent published content.