Why we hate marketing funnels

Author Joel Sanders

TELL ME MORE® hates funnels.

Not only do we find the concept of a “marketing funnel” demeaning to the people we serve, we find that thinking about marketing that way is banal.

If you want your marketing to be mediocre, look exactly like your competitors, and miss the greatest opportunity for impact (and profits!), think in terms of funnels and build a lot of them.

You can’t fault marketers for their fascination with funnels. This is the age of manipulating algorithms for search engines or social media platforms. But as marketers manipulate funnels in the name of profits, it’s easy to lose sight of who else is manipulated and who we’re accountable to: those curious creatures known as humans.

In funnel thinking, the concept of a human is rarely acknowledged. Conversations instead center around traffic, leads, lists, conversions, clicks, views, and other abstractions.

But if TELL ME MORE doesn’t think in terms of funnels, how do we think about marketing?

It’s not that we ignore traffic, leads, and other numbers. Our client SEO results speak for themselves. We understand how the platforms work, and we use them as tools. But our frame of thinking is human-centered, not funnel-centered.

Real humans in the real world take real human actions that are far more complex and nuanced than funnel thinkers understand. Humans don’t get sucked into funnels, nor do they like the idea that the companies they purchase from think of them that way (we know, because we’ve asked!).

We believe that the words we use to describe life and our interactions with others matter. And what we see aren’t people helplessly trapped inside of funnels. What we see are fascinating stories… everywhere.

Human-Centered Marketing

Human-centered marketing begins with ourselves and our most existential philosophical questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do?

Consider the word ourselves. What exactly does it mean to be (or have) a “self”? The answers to such questions are nowhere near obvious to anyone who has thought about them deeper than just a cursory level.

In the preface to his book How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (1999) Paul John Eakin explores the concept of self-narration:

Who is the ‘I’ who speaks in self-narrations? And who is the ‘I’ spoken about? Are the answers to these questions self-evident? I once thought so…now I don’t.

You might think that such questions are best discussed on verdant college campuses with elderly professors in tweed jackets, and that they have little to no practical application to marketing.

But TELL ME MORE discusses these kinds of questions all the time (see, for example, our Deep Work Meetup), and we find that asking them leads to the kind of creative, breakthrough thinking that funnel marketers can only envy.

Why ask questions to which there are no answers? Because the questions align with human nature, i.e., the concept of the self as a process.

More from Eakin:

I prefer to think of the ‘self’ less as an entity and more as a kind of awareness in process.

Marketing, too, is a kind of “awareness in process,” which is precisely why asking the most-difficult questions about humanity is so crucial. “Selves” are always in the process of emerging; becoming a new self through experience and interaction: with people, places, cultures—and brands.

Marketing and Narrative Identity

This process of self-awareness unfolds primarily through narrating a kind of story, or what psychologists call a narrative identity.

The short scoop on narrative identity is that it’s the way we describe ourselves to ourselves and to others.

Whether they know it or not, brands live and die by their ability to merge into and become a part of their customer’s stories.

Our view is that narratives can and should be nudged in the direction of what is “good” (another existential question). Brand messaging just happens to be the tool we use to achieve that outcome.

We believe that what people are telling themselves about themselves and the world around them is far more important to marketing (and to life!) than a brand’s narrative about itself.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be elaborating on our ideas about human-centered marketing as we explore these questions. And as I mentioned earlier, by no means do we claim to have any ultimate answers: we, too, are emerging selves, a kind of “awareness in process.”

Writing is just a more sophisticated form of narration. It’s a tool for discovery through the synthesis of ideas. In fact, the purpose of sharing these ideas here is to find interesting threads to follow that will help us in our creative work with our clients.

With apologies to ChatGPT hackers, writing (by humans) is not only more important than it’s ever been, I predict that it will become more so in the decades to come. After all, only humans can ask the hardest questions, and only we (whatever that means!) can do truly creative work.

This is why thinking in funnels is so limiting: it’s a constrictive framework that gets narrower and narrower, looks for shortcuts and hacks, and reduces humanity to a numbers game.

Truly creative work is expansive. It asks the most-difficult questions and requires the hard work of pursuing answers, even when we know there are none. The best we can hope for is a new human-centered awareness that emerges into the next awareness and then another, without end.

And yet, we also find something in this emergence that is comforting: the realization that awareness is shared.

We’re all in this together.

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