What the heck is a marketing funnel and why should I care?

A primer on the audience funnel for digital news outlets.

As journalist entrepreneurs, our day doesn’t end once we hit publish. Our job is to understand that we’re in the business of delivering products that are so valuable to our audience, they will want to pay for them. 

To do this, we need to understand the entire journey we want our audience to make from the moment they first read a story, to the moment they pay for our work.

Key to this understanding is an audience conversion funnel. It’s important to your work, so here’s what you need to know about it.

What is an audience conversion funnel?

The term funnel is borrowed from the marketing world. It’s a visual way to think about the journey we want our audience to take from awareness at the top, to maintaining interest, to desire, to action at the bottom, also known as conversion. A conversion can be any desired action, such as subscription, membership or referral. Our funnel can also reflect a number of conversions along the journey. 

Though the concept of a funnel implies that the process is as simple as the flow of gravity—it’s not. In real life, it’s a multi-stage decision-making process. As consumers, we want to get to know the product and the people behind it, see how the product serves us in their daily lives, and weigh the costs and benefits against competitors. Now more than ever, everyone is campaigning for our attention and our money. That means we will lose people along the way. 

Your funnel represents your diverse strategies to capture and maintain your audience’s hard-earned attention — and trust. Think of it as a relationship that’s built and earned. And it’s up to us, as journalist-entrepreneurs, to nurture it. 

How does it work?

Traditionally, a marketing funnel is structured into three parts. The top of the funnel is how we capture the attention of our target audience — the people who we hope will consume our product. In other words, it’s how we “get them to come.” The middle of the funnel is how we “get them to stay.” And the bottom of the funnel is how we “get them to pay.”  But we’re not done there. We need to get our members to keep paying, whether that’s renewing membership or contributing to our next campaign. Let’s call this retention.

While the funnel includes the tactics we employ at each stage, we can also think of each stage as a segment or sub-group of our audience at a stage along the journey.

As The Lenfest Institute points out, our funnel should be tailored to our unique circumstances. In the context of digital media, that means it’s complex. Consider this: at the awareness stage, someone might find our content via Google keyword search (SEO), social media, a newsletter forwarded by a friend or direct contact with a journalist — to name just a few.

Similarly, our funnel should also reflect the many ways in which our audience members become regular consumers and eventually super fans of our work, such as through repeat visits to our website, filling out a survey or reading about our outlet’s values and mission.  

Repeat consumers of our work are what we call loyal audience members. They’re not only the most likely to pay, but likely provide all kinds of additional benefits to our business. They’re the ones who consistently comment on our social media posts, send our newsletters to their friends and take the time to write us thoughtful feedback. 

In other words, they’re advocates who provide built-in marketing and demonstrate we’re delivering something valuable. In the graphic shown, this segment is tacked on to the bottom of the funnel, but keep in mind that we likely have highly engaged audience members that aren’t paying members. Though a traditional marketing funnel might cast them aside, we must treat them like gold. 

How do I use it?

Once you’ve sketched out the journey different members of your audience take and ways to track them, you essentially have a skeleton for audience growth and revenue strategy. That means you can begin to quantify the size of your audience at each level of decision-making, so you can develop scenarios as a benchmark to measure progress. This will be essential for setting goals, tracking progress and delivering essential fundraising campaigns. 

Our funnel also helps us identify where we may be falling short, and strategize accordingly. For instance, it was through a marketing funnel analysis that The Discourse Cowichan improved their middle-of-funnel tactics, and grew their audience by more than 500 per cent

Now you’re all caught up on what marketing funnels are, read this story to learn how to put them to work.

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