The erratic path to decision no longer resembles a funnel: it's a whirlwind of activity with input coming in from all sides PHOTO: “tornado” by sammydavisdog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

With the shift to the cloud, the business of selling enterprise technology has changed as dramatically as the technology architecture itself. 

But a few orthodoxies have hung on through that transition, even though they may be doing marketers more harm than good.

One of those doctrines is a model that's been preached for 20 years or more: the B2B marketing and sales funnel.

traditional marketing funnel

The Traditional B2B Funnel Has No Place Today

The funnel appeals because it seems so logical. And it does successfully capture some simplified version of the truth about how enterprise sales works. 

But the funnel is rooted in a time when buyers were information-poor, sales cycles were slower and salespeople needed to appease multiple gatekeepers to reach a potential buyer.

By comparison, think about how the internet upended commerce for consumers. Now consider how the cloud similarly has changed it for enterprise IT buyers. 

Growth hackers already have been routing around the classic, idealized B2B funnel. It’s time for the rest of us to accept that the funnel no longer reflects how our customers make purchasing decisions — especially when it comes to selling today’s cloud-based services. Only then can we adopt tools and strategies better suited to the new realities of how to engage and convert B2B prospects.

Buyers Are Taking an Irregular Route

recent McKinsey & Co. article points out the reassuringly-deterministic view of the “buyer’s journey,” where a brand can drive a prospect in more or less linear fashion from awareness to purchase, doesn’t hold up anymore.

McKinsey's research revealed buyers are taking an irregular path to purchase. Competing brands drop in and out of prospects’ favor, and even concerted CRM and loyalty programs are losing effectiveness in keeping them them on track, as the authors point out:

“We see such data as an important signal that new technologies and greater choice are changing how consumers are thinking and acting across their consumer journeys.”

Look at the funnel as a tornado though, and you may have a model that’s closer to the reality of how today's buyer is reaching a decision. It’s not an orderly process, and it’s definitely not linear.

marketing tornado

Real customers are far more self-directed today. They move in and out of this twisting funnel cloud at will. A few may stick to the path, but most will wander and re-enter at unpredictable points. 

Moreover, the variety of touch points, competing messages and media noise they encounter increase the complexity and challenges.

At the end of the day, keeping them involved is critical, especially since Gallup tells us that only 29 percent of B2B customers are really engaged, with the rest either indifferent or actively uninvolved with brands. Engaged customers are proven to deliver higher revenue and profitability. 

So how can you keep these prospects in close orbit within this whirlwind? By adopting the philosophies and tactics growth hackers have proven work for tackling this very challenge.

Growth Hacking the Tornado

The key here is to adopt the mindset of growth hacking, which is about agile experimentation. It’s less about specific tactics (you’ll work those out for yourself) and more about following several proven strategies that’ll help you tame the tornado:

Embrace agility

You’re not dealing with a static, linear model anymore. Your prospect is exposing his/herself to input of all kinds in making a decision. 

You need to gear your marketing and sales culture toward anticipating their needs. Sitting around waiting for carefully qualified leads isn’t going to cut it — speed and flexibility are essential.

Experiment (and test) constantly

Experimentation and testing is at the heart of growth hacking, as we’ve previously outlined. The same experimentalism and measurement that applies to product development needs to become part of your marketing and sales. 

The “funnel cloud” purchase model will shift its shape and veer direction constantly over time, requiring you constantly test new ways of connecting with and converting prospects.

Watch the weather

Guess what? It’s like the Midwest in May out there, with your competitors trying to suck prospects into their own twisters, too. To combat them, you have to invest in persistently auditing your reputation, segment, competitor activity and gathering other intel. 

Even more than that, be ready to react to an unexpected change in the weather. Like tornados, opportunities can come unexpectedly. Don’t overanalyze, just act.

Build empathy and listen to your gut

A superficial, old-school buyer persona won’t help you much if you’re trying to engage prospects on the basis of real empathy and understanding of their needs and wants. 

Yes, rich, deep personas based on interviews, third-party data and other resources can help you develop effective messaging and targeting tactics. But putting yourself in your customer’s shoes and making quick decisions from that perspective of empathy will go a lot further than any pretense of a constructed buyer persona might.

Focus on the total user experience

At the start of a product’s life, the user experience (whether based on marketing, sales demos or actual onboarding) will either delight or repulse your prospects and customers. That terrific, awesome, I-can’t-wait-to-share-it-with-my-peers customer experience ought to apply beyond the product, too — to every marketing touchpoint, to the sales process, and to CRM and customer service.

Never stop making news

Whether through a stream of regular product rollouts or improvements, or through research, white papers or conference and webinar participation, you should never let up on building good buzz. The B2B tornado allows no room for complacency about your market position. 

Remember the old sales adage “always be selling?” I suggest you extend that to marketing as well. Like a shark, “always be swimming.”

Become a content publisher

B2B buyers aren’t looking at ads anymore, they’re looking for useful content that helps them solve issues — and gives them a good idea of the brainpower behind a brand. Put a team in place that publishes a steady stream of content: blogs, ebooks, white papers, SlideShares, videos and more. And make sure it avoids any taint of salesmanship. 

Facts matter. Buyers can tell the difference between fluff and real information.

Hold great events

There’s a reason companies like Oculus still ape how Steve Jobs mounted dramatic presentations and conferences. Even a well-produced webinar gives B2B prospects a chance to immerse themselves in your brand, team and offerings. Events drive home an image of accessibility, create dialogue with potential customers, and can generate material which you can repurpose across different channels.

Offer free tools

HubSpot offers “Website Grader” for evaluating how well-optimized your website is for sales. You’ve got to provide your email, naturally, so HubSpot can follow up later. The key is to make the tool truly unique and functional, capable of passing any sniff test with IT professionals. To greatly oversimplify, tools are the next wave in content marketing.

Be a shelter, not a weathervane

Even while being agile and responsive to the market, make sure you represent a valuable and authentic “rock” that customers know they can rely upon. 

When they’re buffeted by challenges, they’ll look for those vendors who offer a port in the storm. Be true to your brand, the unique problem you solve and how you go to market.