Why Linear Funnels Are a Simplified Reality and What to Do About It

You can optimize the path your visitors actually take, or you can optimize the path you think your visitors should take. Which option would you choose? 

If you’re leaning towards the first option, I have something to tell you. Linear funnels are not an accurate representation of reality. The modern funnel is more similar to a tornado. You’ll need to consider this in your conversion optimization strategy if you want to get get a more accurate picture of your users’ journey.

What’s the difference between linear funnels and tornadoes?

The traditional customer lifecycle is most commonly associated with linear funnels. The user starts at the top of the funnel (the awareness phase) and progressively moves down towards the bottom of the funnel (the purchase phase). 

For example:

If you search “car insurance” online, you might come across a PPC ad:

Linear Step 1

Once you click on the ad, you’ll be taken to a landing page; you click the most noticeable call to action.

Linear Step 2

Then you’re taken to a lead capture form, and you fill out your details...

Linear Step 3

At a later stage, you’re contacted by a salesperson, you hear the pitch, and you’re happy with the offer. You then choose the company to be your car insurance provider. Easy, right? 

But in reality, this process is much more complex and often messy. ‘Tornadoes’ may be able to explain this type of user behavior more accurately. Tornadoes are less predictable, less organized, and more complicated.

For example:

Let’s say someone searches for car insurance nearby, and finds hundreds of options. However, they only focus on the top three results first.

Tornado Step 1

The user opens all three pages in different tabs to compare.

Tornado Step 2

 

The user then scans all three landing pages, trying to find out which is the right option for them.

Tornado Step 3

The person then asks themselves a range of questions to help them make their decision:

  • Can I get motorcycle insurance?
  • Are these insurance comparison sites? Or can I purchase a policy directly from them?
  • Are the reviews good?

These questions lead to pages like the following...

Tornado Step 4

These more realistic customer journeys are more complicated than a linear funnel would imply.

After looking at the pages above, a website user might get some advice from friends and family. Alternatively, the user may look to social media, third-party review sites, and more to make a decision.

They may not purchase the product for another 3 days or 3 weeks; after they’ve collected the information they need. 

It’s also important to remember that tornadoes go beyond the purchase phase. The same user may have a negative experience with the car insurance firm, and proceed to tell family and friends about it. 

Here’s a visualization of the tornado in action vs a linear funnel...

Tornado vs. Linear

In this example, the linear funnel progresses as follows: Awareness -> Evaluation -> Purchase -> Usage -> Repurchase -> Advocacy.

However, all of the dots associated with each step of the funnel create the tornado.

Are linear funnels dead?

Harvard Business Review have declared the death of the linear funnel. But can we really dismiss them completely?

Nowadays, more and more factors contribute to the decision-making process in a muddle of activity back and forth throughout a journey. But linear funnels tend to assume that users flow sequentially through  stages. They also assume only one person is involved in the decision-making process (which is rarely the case).

Instead, we need to shift from two-dimensional funnels to three-dimensional funnels, or tornadoes, to reflect this process more accurately.

The customer discovery journey

The customer discovery journey model, developed by McKinsey, offers another depiction of the user journey.

Customer Decision Journey

McKinseys' model focuses on “consumer-driven” experiences. That is, consumers are driving the relationship themselves instead of waiting for marketers to do it for them. 

So, can we say for certain that linear funnels are overly simplified? Yes.

Does this mean that they’re a “thing of the past”? Not necessarily.

We can still use linear funnels to foster interdepartmental understanding and goal-setting.

All we need to remember is that linear funnels are not an accurate representation of reality. Tornadoes may not replace the linear funnel any time soon, but they can help to explain the complex and messy user journey in a better way. And in many cases companies would take leaps forward just to have a solid understanding of the simplified view. 

But we need to understand their shortcomings when using them. A great example is the design of viral loops. Many linear funnels treat referrals as simply another funnel step, but in reality they don’t work that way. Loops encourage interactions that lead to the creation of more loops, and this process repeats itself over time. 

Some of the most successful growth hackers don’t think in terms of funnels, instead they think in terms of viral loops. 

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” - George E. P. Box

Navigating the complexities of ‘tornadoes’

Tornadoes are more difficult to deal with when compared to simple linear funnels. Why? There are two main reasons (amongst others):

  • Growth attribution 
  • Points of optimization 

Growth attribution

Attribution is a real struggle when it comes to the user journey. How can you determine how your last user or customer found you?

In most cases, you’ll need to get all of your customer data in one place. Using different channels can make this process messy and complex.

If linear funnels represented reality well, we could simply infer that if Customer X made it to Point 2, they came from Point 1. But it’s never that simple. 

There are so many different acquisition channels, purchase influences, devices, and more to consider. This makes it hard to attribute growth.

One solution: UTM tagging

Attribution can be tricky, but you can do great things with Google Analytics and proper UTM tagging.

By improving your UTM tagging, you can see a more detailed view of the path that your website visitors are taking to hit milestones in your funnel. 

E.g Multi-Channel Funnel reports in Google Analytics can go from a generic Social > Email > Conversion attribution to something a little more useful, like Facebook-First Touch > Facebook Retargeted > Email – Content > Email – Sales > Conversion.

Points of optimization

With tornadoes comes more optimization points. You can’t just focus on the “engagement.” You need to consider all elements that go into that specific step in the funnel. 

Here’s what you need to keep in mind when optimizing modern funnels:

  1. There are multiple touch points needed for a customer to progress through the funnel. This is why we’ve seen a huge increase in retargeting efforts in the marketing community.
  2. One funnel doesn’t fit all scenarios. In fact, each customer segment may need its own funnel. This means that each funnel will have different friction points, and they may require different UX, UI, sales, and marketing efforts.
  3. Decision-makers are normally a group of people, rather than one singular party. Therefore, you need to think about what the decision-making process involves, and how each person involved can be influenced into making the purchase. 

Conclusion

Linear funnels are useful because they are easy to understand and communicate. But you should always remember that they are over-simplified versions of reality. Tornadoes reflect the user journey in a more realistic way.

  • You can use UTM tagging, multi-channel funnel reports and conversion research to get an informed view of real customer journeys.
  • There are more points of optimization when it comes to tornadoes. This can make prioritization a challenge. Segmentation can help you to optimize paths for your most valuable customers.

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