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How to optimize your marketing funnel for the customer journey
Ask 10 marketers about marketing funnels and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Why is that? A marketing funnel isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy; your marketing funnel is uniquely tailored to how your buyer buys.
This works well if you know the habits of your target audience. Your marketing funnel provides more value to your marketing strategy when you understand your customers—then you can make informed decisions to improve the customer experience as they move through the funnel.
Our goal with this piece is to help you get the most out of your marketing funnel. We cover:
TL;DR: every marketing funnel is unique and should be designed for how customers buy—not how you want to sell. Combining quantitative and qualitative data will help you understand how real customers shop and behave on your site, so you can optimize your marketing funnel for the customer journey and increase conversions.
What is a marketing funnel?
A marketing funnel is a series of stages to guide prospects through the customer journey. The funnel helps marketing teams plan and measure efforts to attract, engage, and convert prospects through content and other marketing materials, like landing pages and ads.
Marketing funnels are commonly based on the ‘AIDA’ model:
But you can simplify the funnel into a three-stage model:
Top of the funnel (TOFU): awareness stage
Middle of the funnel (MOFU): consideration stage
Bottom of the funnel (BOFU): conversion stage
Note: you can rename or add stages like ‘loyalty’ and ‘advocacy’ to any funnel model, but the function of the marketing funnel—to attract, engage, and convert leads—remains the same regardless of how you identify specific stages.
For the rest of this article we'll look at the TOFU/MOFU/BOFU funnel model.
💡 Keep in mind: sometimes marketing funnels and conversion funnels are thought of as interchangeable, but it’s important to understand the subtle differences between them.
Marketing funnels generate leads: they attract prospects at the top of the funnel, and help marketers measure and track efforts to engage and convert prospects in the middle and bottom of the funnel.
Conversion funnels generate sales: they capture the customer journey from awareness to conversion, which could mean buying a product, completing a form, signing up to a list, or another type of micro-conversion.
👉 Read more: learn how to optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel for the nonlinear customer journey.
What is the difference between the marketing and sales funnel?
Just like the marketing and conversions funnels share similarities, the marketing and sales funnels are closely related in that they describe the process of turning prospects (potential customers) into actual customers, by taking them from the awareness stage (top of funnel) to the conversion stage (bottom of funnel).
The primary difference between the two consists in the way the conversion stage is defined. Generally, a site visitor who has signed up to your product or service, or a free trial, has reached the end of the marketing funnel. The sales funnel, however, is more specifically designed to turn leads into paying customers. As such, one objective of marketing funnels is to turn Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) into Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs).
Marketing funnels are also broader in scope, especially if you break down the bottom of the funnel into different stages.
If you go beyond the conversion or purchase stage, the marketing funnel also includes a loyalty stage that consists of turning one-time customers into repeat customers. This step usually entails marketing tactics like loyalty programs and other forms of continued relationship. Finally, the very last of the marketing funnel stages is about making those loyal customers into advocates of your brand.
3 stages of the marketing funnel
The traditional funnel model is linear, beginning at the top of the funnel and ending at the bottom, where your prospects convert.
The challenge is that marketing funnels don’t always work like this in the real world. People don’t always jump into a funnel right at the top and progress step-by-step through each stage until they come out the bottom, a new customer.
Many people bounce in, out of, and around the funnel before they convert. Or, they may make it to the bottom of the funnel and then (gasp!) drop out, never to be seen or heard from again.
The marketing funnel—like people's real-life buying behavior—is nonlinear, which is why it's important to understand the customer journey from the moment of awareness to the moment of conversion. And part of that is understanding how each stage works in the traditional marketing funnel model.
1. Top of the funnel: awareness
The top of the funnel (TOFU) is where prospects become aware of your brand and engage with it for the first time. They might not know a lot about your product or service yet, so this stage focuses on content and marketing material that promotes brand awareness.
Use this lead generation stage to attract prospects, and show them what you have to offer:
Include content pieces that educate potential customers about concepts related to your product or service in your content marketing and SEO strategy
Create a landing page or infographic that introduces your brand, service, or product to new visitors.
Share a post on social media that highlights your unique selling proposition (USP).
Use paid ads on social media and in podcasts that are relevant to your target audience.
2. Middle of the funnel: consideration
Potential customers enter the middle of the funnel (MOFU) once they’ve engaged with your brand in a meaningful way: maybe they’ve subscribed to an email list, are following you on social media, or have signed up for a webinar.
Use this stage to engage with prospects—to earn their trust and set your brand apart:
Write an article or white paper that provides value, answers a question, and solves a problem for your potential customers.
Invite visitors to participate in a survey to learn more about the drivers, hooks, and barriers they encounter with your brand.
Share case studies and product comparisons.
Create landing pages specific to individual customer segments.
💪 Pro tip: surveying potential customers is an opportunity to learn how real people shop and behave on your site. Ask open-ended questions like
Where did you hear about us?
What are you hoping to find on our site today?
What persuaded you to [take a specific action]?
What are your concerns or questions about [our product or service]?
👉 Read more: nobody knows more about what your customers want than your customers themselves—here are 15 more website survey questions to ask.
3. Bottom of the funnel: conversion
The bottom of the funnel (BOFU) is the last place prospective customers go before they convert. You’ve gotten their attention, built trust, and fostered a relationship with them.
Use this stage to convert prospects—give them specific reasons to choose your brand over your competitors:
Offer a trial or demo so visitors can experience your product or service first-hand.
Write a how-to guide or article that answers questions and eliminates any doubt or blockers potential customers may experience.
Share social proof, like customer reviews and testimonies, to build even more trust.
Make feature and price comparison charts easy to access and understand.
Send segmented email marketing campaigns and use on-site surveys—for example, send an email to users that have abandoned their shopping cart, or put an exit survey on the checkout page.
💡 Keep in mind: every customer experiences your marketing funnel differently. You might create content for the top of the funnel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that customers can only access it at that stage. For example, someone might jump directly to the middle or bottom of the funnel because they’re already aware of their problem and your solution, and are ready to purchase.
👉 Read more: create a unique marketing funnel tailored to how your buyer wants to buy—not how you want to sell. Learn how psychographics and personas can help you get to the truth about why and how people buy.
Measuring the success of your marketing funnel
Understanding your customers requires observing and communicating with them—not just looking at numbers on a chart and making assumptions. To measure your marketing funnel's success, you need both quantitative and qualitative data (more on this later).
That said, there are still some key quantitative metrics to keep in mind when you measure your marketing funnel's success and effectiveness.
4 marketing funnel metrics you should measure
1. Cost per acquisition (CPA)
CPA measures how much you’re spending on marketing to acquire each new customer. Teams usually look at this number to analyze their paid advertising, email marketing, social media, and other paid marketing efforts.
To get this number, divide the entire cost of your marketing campaign by the number of conversions. From there, the idea is pretty simple: if the cost outweighs the gain, you might want to consider ending the campaign or testing alternatives.
2. Customer lifetime value (LTV)
LTV (or CLV) measures the continuous value a customer brings to your company. This metric is all about customer retention, which carries particular weight for SaaS (software as a service) companies because subscribers pay regularly. However, LTV also gives insight to industries like ecommerce and traditional sales—if you can predict the likelihood of a customer making another purchase.
💡 Keep in mind: CPA and LTV are affected by factors like marketing and company costs and how you price your product or service. It's hard to know how much prospective customers are willing to pay, especially if you're a SaaS startup. Market research alone won't tell you how much to charge—you have to test prices and listen to your customers.
👉 Read more: learn which factors to consider when pricing your SaaS product.
3. Conversion rates
Conversion rate measures the frequency of conversions. Some marketers only focus on the final conversion: sales—but you can measure each stage's success through micro-conversions or goal conversions. For example:
TOFU conversion: how many visitors convert to marketing qualified leads (MQLs)
MOFU conversion: how many MQLs convert to sign-ups or subscribers
BOFU conversion: how many sign-ups or subscribers convert to customers
Measuring goal conversion rate allows your team to make more informed decisions about each funnel stage rather than just the final outcome.
Pro tip: Hotjar Funnels help you understand where and why your users drop off.
Define the key stages of your users’ conversion path and visualize where they abandon your site.
Once you’ve identified conversion gaps, take action to improve conversion rates by watching session recordings of users who left without proceeding to the next stage.
4. Conversion rate per channel
Each marketing channel has different goals, so it’s important to analyze the success of each one. These channels might include
Paid ads (Display, SEM, Social, Podcasts)
Referrals and influencers
Like with goal conversions, teams with clear definitions for conversions in each channel will have an easier time measuring success. Ask yourself:
Is clicking on a paid ad a conversion?
Is responding to an email a conversion?
Is signing up for a newsletter a conversion?
Answering questions like these will help you identify what you want from each channel, so you can measure whether it’s working or not.
💡 Keep in mind: traditional analytics tools like Google Analytics work well for tracking and measuring quantitative metrics like traffic, exits and bounces, cost per acquisition, and goal conversions.
But to measure the success of your marketing funnel, you need to understand how people are using your website (beyond traffic and conversions) and why they behave a certain way while they browse or shop. Then, you can optimize your marketing funnel to increase conversions at each stage of the customer journey.
4 tools to increase conversions throughout the funnel
Now you know: when you focus on measuring quantitative data (i.e. numerical data) without considering qualitative data (i.e. how people experience your marketing funnel and how they think or feel throughout their customer journey), you’re missing an important part of the picture.
Here are four tools to bring quantitative and qualitative data together, in one place, and help you increase conversions throughout the marketing funnel:
Funnels: to identify where users are dropping off
Heatmaps: to understand user behavior
Session recordings: to understand individual journeys
Surveys: to get user feedback
1. Identify where (and why) users are dropping off
Funnels show you exactly where users drop off rather than proceed to the next step. They calculate the conversion rate at each step and let you watch session replays of users who didn’t convert, combining quantitative and qualitative data.
Conduct funnel analysis to increase conversion rates throughout your entire marketing funnel.
🔥 A funnel example for the entire marketing funnel: compare conversion rates across traffic channels to measure the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns.
For instance, you want to know which of the traffic to a landing page converts better between two different paid ads campaigns, or which of two affiliates brings in the highest-converting traffic. Or you need to track the performance of the control and the variant when running an A/B test.
Use the “compare with” filter in Funnels to weigh up different variations of your marketing funnel to identify where to focus your optimization efforts.
2. Understand user behavior with heatmaps
Heatmaps show popular (red) and unpopular (blue) areas and elements on your page, and reveal how people move on and interact with your site in aggregate. Analyze website heatmaps to identify page elements that are (or aren't) working to get people moving through your funnel.
Once you have insight into how users are behaving on key pages of your site, you can focus on making changes that will have the most impact to increase conversions—and either ditch the efforts with less rewarding outcomes, or A/B test alternatives.
🔥 A heatmap example for the top of the funnel (TOFU): look at heatmaps on pages that are a part of your TOFU strategy, like blog and landing pages.
Let's say you want visitors to click on a call to action (CTA) you've placed at the bottom of a landing page. A scroll heatmap might show that only 20% of your visitors are making it to the bottom of the page—which means 80% of them aren't even seeing your CTA. In that case, you could try moving the CTA (or adding another CTA) to the middle or top of the page.
After you've optimized the page, look at heatmaps again to learn whether the change impacted your conversions.
💪 Pro tip: use Engagement zones to understand with which elements of a page users most interact with.
This combination of click, move, and scroll heatmaps data overlays a grid on top of your page so you can analyze how users engage with your page, at a glance.
3. Understand individual user journeys with session recordings
Session recordings capture website visitors' actions—like mouse movements, clicks, taps, and scrolling—so you can see how real users engage with your website from page to page.
Insight from recordings helps you identify blockers or pain points users experience throughout their journey on your site—like broken elements, website bugs, or a confusing design—which might reveal why users drop off at a particular stage of the funnel.
🔥 A session recording example for the middle of the funnel (MOFU): use session recordings segments and filters to find recordings of pages that are a part of your MOFU strategy, like category and product pages, guides and how-tos, case studies, and comparisons.
Let’s say you want users to add a product to their shopping cart from your product comparison page, but the page has a high exit rate and hardly any conversions. A session recording reveals that users are rage clicking on a non-clickable element and are exiting out of frustration. In that case, you could try removing the element, or making it clickable so the page is more intuitive to how real people interact with it.
After you've fixed the page, watch session recordings again to see whether the change improved the user experience (UX).
💪 Pro tip: filter session recordings by Frustration Score to watch users who had a frustrating user experience to spot improvement opportunities.
4. Get feedback from real users with on-site surveys
On-site surveys are one of the fastest and easiest ways to get direct feedback from real website visitors: find out what’s stopping them from converting, or poll customers who’ve just converted to find out what does work.
Surveys give you a chance to engage with real visitors at each step in the funnel so you can learn how to improve the customer journey and increase conversions.
🔥 An on-site survey example for the bottom of the funnel (BOFU): use on-site surveys on pages that are a part of your BOFU strategy, like how-to or demo pages, category and product pages, and shopping cart or checkout pages.
Let's say a customer has just purchased on your site. Before they exit, you can ask them to rate their experience on a scale, and follow up with another open-ended question depending on the rating. For example, a high score might lead to a question like, “what did you love most about the experience?” and a low score might lead to “how can we improve your experience in the future?”
Note: you can also invite visitors to participate in an external link survey, giving you the chance to ask more detailed, thoughtful questions to get even more insight from your visitors.
Takeaways and next steps
Marketing funnels help you guide prospects through each stage of the customer journey. There are many ways to approach the traditional marketing funnel, but the key to an effective funnel is understanding your customers.
Combining quantitative and qualitative insights using the tools and tips we cover above will help you build a better funnel that speaks to your customers' unique needs, and increase conversions as a result.