Useful things funnels. In the real world they allow you to pour accurately into narrow containers and in the marketing world we use them as a way to describe the channelling of customers towards a sale. Except, bizarrely, that is not what marketers now use the term funnel to describe.

Instead of neatly moving all customers towards the sale, in the same way that in the real world you would use a funnel to pour petrol carefully into a lawnmower, we use the term ‘funnel’ as a way of describing the process of achieving a sale from a percentage of prospective customers that we poured into the top of the funnel. If I had bought a funnel from a shop that lost as much petrol as our marketing funnels lose customers, I would be surprised and incredibly annoyed.

Regardless of whether ‘funnel’ is the right word or not to describe the process, the worrying thing is that has become acceptable to think that it is ok for us to lose our customers, prospects and audience along the way and that is a natural part of the marketing process. That somehow it is fine to start with a very wide a large selection of people that we think might be interested in us and that we are prepared to lose some along the way provided that the number at the bottom of the funnel is the one we want.

Of course techniques exist to try to prevent this such as targeting, segmenting and filtering who we select in the first place so that we feel like we have more success by losing less people along the way and therefore that marketing is more efficient. But then business pressures rise and the product manager wants more people in his “pot” so he instructs the campaign manager to take the filters off in order to achieve his sales targets. The problem is that this does work and you will get more sales if you select more people in the first place. However, the crucial point that is ignored is that you will also lose more people and perhaps create a bad experience that stops that person from even looking at what you send ever again. You are “burning” your prospects.

With marketing being so relatively cheap thanks to digital, it is a hard sell to tell the product managers that this not a good long-term strategy. This is because the evidence that you are burning your prospects is hard to produce versus the sales results that they are getting. But what is clear is that you are not putting the needs of the customer first and could not be less customer-centric if you tried.

One of the challenges with mass campaigning is that it only works for those customers who want or need your product now. It does not take into account those who may want it in the future or who need to go on a journey to understand that they should want it. Campaigns by their very nature are at a moment in time. If you catch your audience at the right time then you can make the sale. For example, on average we decorate our homes once every 5 to 10 years. Sometimes this might just be one room, sometimes it might be the whole house. If I am selling paint, wallpaper, DIY equipment or home furnishings I need to find the people that are in that state at the moment that I run the campaign. I might even want to target a specific room and therefore I may create a much more narrow focus. I therefore target as many people as I can and run the same or similar campaign every month in the hope that this month there will be some new people now thinking of making a change in their home. As a long term approach it has diminishing returns as even if I am starting a home project you have taught me just to delete your email or throw your letters in the bin. I will research elsewhere when I want decorating ideas.

But what if your marketing efforts did not lose anyone?

What if you could keep people engaged and therefore be ready for them when they chose to buy?

Thinking of the above example, imagine as a brand that I am “publishing” content on all things related to the home in a regular editorial magazine style. I can then start to build an audience that I can then “keep”.I can support them once they are ready to research the latest ideas and fashions in interior design and that will indicate to me when the time is right for a sale. For those that the time is not right I can keep them engaged and entertained and not lose them from my funnel. This is not such an odd idea, after all the home lifestyle magazine live and breathe this sort of content month in month out to the same loyal readership regardless of whether they are actively about to make changes in their home.

Of course, this takes the idea that brands are the new publishers to a new level. At the moment, content marketing efforts are still campaign-based – still a moment in time even if that moment is somewhat more extended than it used to be – and to be honest, far too advertising based as well. Instead, to plug the leaks in the funnel, brands need to publish with the purpose of creating sustained engagement and not merely engagement at a moment in time. This requires that there is more focus on the editorial discipline.

Being “Editorial” means that you have a “cadence” to your publishing efforts. In short, that means a rhythm and regularity that your audience then starts to expect. This might then feel like we are just creating a volume of content to satisfy the content beast, but with the right content strategy in place we can design, produce and editorialise our content so that is about satisfying our audiences’ needs prior to any decision-making and through the whole decision making process – keeping them engaged.

It also means that you have your audience firmly in mind at all times. How can we help them based on where they are in their journey today? What is the right sort of content we can provide that they will value? At the right time, this will still be promotional content about our product or service. However, at other times it might simply be helpful to the audience and form a step on their journey towards a purchase with us.

With the right Editorial processes in place you can create sustained engagement and build an audience. This sustained engagement then plugs the leaks at the top of your funnel. You will not stop all the leaks, that would be impossible, but perhaps we can all start to reconsider how narrow the bottom of our funnel is compared to the top and not take it for granted that we lose so many people along the way.