The funnel isn’t really a funnel at all, but seeing it as one makes it easier to manage

A simple adaptation of the classic funnel makes Google’s contemporary marketing model more manageable.

FunnelWe don’t make life easy for ourselves, do we?

Buckets, pillars, cycles, pipelines, stages, touchpoints, channels, segments, paths, journeys, phases, conversions, gateways, hops, drops, leaks, silos, platforms, streams, pathways, rates, metrics, KPIs, targets, leads, prospects, opportunities, qualifiers, MQLs, SQLs, buyers, customers, engagements, interactions, attrition, retention, churn, lifecycle, cadence, nurture, outreach, onboarding, offboarding, CRM, ROI, ROAS, CLV, frameworks, playbooks, roadmaps, strategies, tactics, initiatives, benchmarks, scorecards, dashboards…

That’s not even the half of it.

In a world so swamped with jargon and technobabble it’s no wonder the simple concept of the funnel is one which we jump on so readily.

It makes so much instinctive sense. In a world full of volatility, ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity, something like the funnel is a calm port in a storm.

So, when in 2020, Google introduced a new model called The Messy Middle, the port suddenly felt rather less calm.

The Messy Middle is a paper worth reading. It is a huge body of data-backed work, exploring the behaviours and biases that are at play when people are making purchases in the modern world; and which ones are most important for marketers to know about.

It’s hugely informative, and the ‘calling card’ of the paper is the beautifully designed diagram above.

I love it.

The funnel’s strictly linear nature has always been a blunt tool, and Google’s Messy Middle model is a fundamentally better representation of how the real world works.

No consumer ever jumps in at the top of a funnel, slides down into well-crafted and perfectly designed pieces of content, clicks their way through the different forms or hoops you want them to click or jump their way through, and ends up making a purchase at the end of it.

It’s just not that easy.

When you look at actual consumer behaviour, as Google put it, it’s messy.

At the heart of its messiness, is the infinity loop which showcases the endless cycle of evaluation and exploration in which customers can find themselves; and which prompts the marketer to ask themselves “how do we get them out of this mess?!”

I love it for its honesty.

But I struggle to actually do anything with it.

‘It’s not customer-centric’: B2B brands on why an alternative to the funnel is needed

Unfortunately, The Messy Middle does exactly what it says on the tin; it shows us how the real world works, but its loops and circles are, well, messy.

Models like this work best when they help us make sense of the world around us, as well as giving us tools to be able to operate more effectively.

In a world that is already messy enough, models need to be both real, and usable, so it is easy to be tempted back towards the clunky simplicity but easy application of the funnel.

That’s a shame because Google’s model is such a great step forward…

…so what if there was a way to combine the two?

Managing the ‘messy middle’

The model below takes Google’s real-life picture of the messy middle and maps it against the traditional funnel’s ease-of-use. Botanists would call this process cross-pollination; I don’t know what marketing model makers call it.

It follows the direction of the funnel, but appreciates the loops and circles of the Messy Middle.

First, the wide circle of exposure becomes the top-of-funnel entry-point that brand builders know and love.

If people are going to buy your brand, they first need to be exposed to relevant stimuli so they know it exists. That’s a natural starting point. Less an infinite circle, more of a gateway, and one which implies that at any one time, there are more people out-of-market than there are on the path to purchase.

Triggers are the next critical step; call them category entry points if you like, but they need identifying and leveraging. They are the relevant prompts, designed for moments when people come into contact with your brand.

In The Messy Middle, the infinity loop of exploration and evaluation represents the importance of helping potential customers access the information they need in order to make a decision.

Exploration tactics introduce consumers to a brand’s world, its possibilities, and its offerings. It’s about making the customer curious and piquing their interest.

Evaluation tactics give consumers the details they need to make informed decisions, helping them assess the product’s fit for their specific needs.

Having these two blocks side by side in the middle of the funnel neatly demonstrates how different types of content and information need to coexist; feeding off triggers and leading onto purchase.

Is the marketing funnel still relevant?

For example, drinkware brand Yeti’s visually captivating Instagram feed showcasing the lifestyle around their cooler boxes and coffee cups is exploration content, while evaluation content might be a series of customer testimonial videos.

Exploration events look like a Mermaid Gin sailing sponsorship on the Isle of Wight, associating themselves with the fun of their origin story, while evaluation moments are the tasting stations where you can try the gin and understand why it is the best ingredient for making a martini with (take my word for it, it just is.)

Exploration is your mate in the pub who says, “ChatGPT is going to change the world” and evaluation is the free version you use for a while before handing over your money.

I love The Messy Middle for its realism, and the funnel for its reliability.

The infinity loop of well-designed and considered content needs to contain as many “off ramps” as possible to get potential customers into the delivery of the last 100 yards.

The calls-to-action, the search and SEO, the website forms and conversion, the purchase, the experience.

The product delivery.

Fail here, and to be honest, who cares whether they’ve arrived in a mess or not?

For marketing to make a difference, theory needs to turn into action; and while I think we universally accept that the funnel isn’t really a funnel at all, seeing it as one does make it easier to manage.

Sure, there will always be some people who walk straight into a bar and order a beer they’ve never heard of, just as others will have heard all about a platform called TikTok and yet never have an account.

I love The Messy Middle for its realism, and the funnel for its reliability, and I suppose in the end the old adage is true – ‘all models are wrong, but some are more useful than others’.

Hopefully, this cross-pollination of old and new can be useful to others too.

Johnny Corbett has worked in marketing and commercial leadership roles for large corporate businesses and startups, across food and drink, technology, financial and professional services, as well as politics and the public sector.