You’ve probably heard people talk about marketing funnels, the buyer’s journey, and customer journey maps. But are you familiar with what each of these terms mean?

Marketing funnels and customer journeys are similar ideas, and some people new to the business may think the terms are interchangeable. However, they actually mean different things. Here’s everything you need to know about the difference between the marketing funnel and the customer journey.


The Marketing Funnel: What It Is and When You Should Use It

The marketing funnel — also known as the sales funnel — is a model of your marketing and sales process from your company’s point of view. Leads start at the top of the funnel. As they learn more about your business and get closer to making a purchase, they move down toward the bottom of the funnel. This type of model has been in use for more than 100 years, and it’s still one of the most basic concepts in business.

A customer at the top of your marketing funnel knows your business exists, but they haven’t interacted with you much or sought out additional information. In the middle is the research and consideration stage. At the bottom of the funnel, customers have done their research and they’re ready to make a purchase. Since not everyone who takes an interest in a business will end up buying something, most businesses have more prospects at the top of their funnel than the bottom — hence the term.

Some businesses like to break their marketing funnel down into smaller stages. For instance, they may include two subsections, Research and Evaluation, in the Consideration stage of their funnel. Many businesses have also started to view customer retention as an essential part of the bottom of the sales funnel.

Understanding your marketing funnel is useful to you as a business owner or marketer because it gives you a way to categorize your leads and customers based on their relationship with your business: They’ve just discovered your business, they’re interested in your product or service but not sold yet, or they’re ready to buy. Tracking the position of leads in your funnel helps you know how to keep their interest, answer their questions, and address their concerns, all of which can be instrumental in making that sale.

Most marketing funnels focus more on broad categorization than individual touchpoints. That is, the funnel divides leads into several different “baskets” based on how they’ve interacted with your business, but it doesn’t always take into account the actual touchpoints those leads have encountered. For example, one middle-of-the-funnel (MOFU) lead may have signed up for your email newsletter and interacted with your Facebook page, while another filled out your website’s contact form and visited your blog multiple times. They didn’t get to the same point in your funnel by following the same route.

The marketing funnel is presented as linear, and this is one of the main ways it’s different than a customer journey map. Since it is a generalized model, your marketing funnel is simplified out of necessity; it traces the most straightforward path a lead can take from awareness to sale. A customer’s real journey from lead to customer, however, is rarely so simple, which means you shouldn’t rely on your marketing funnel alone for insight.


Understanding the Customer Journey

The customer journey is a map of the route a customer takes from the time they first encounter your brand to the time they make a purchase. Unlike the more rigid, linear marketing funnel, the customer journey can be (and usually is) meandering and circuitous. The longer your sales cycle is, the longer your average customer’s journey will probably be.

Unlike the marketing funnel, which is concerned with a customer’s stage of interest in your business, the customer journey tracks the individual touchpoints a lead encounters before making a purchase. Every interaction — for example, visiting your website or opening a marketing email — is a touchpoint. Many people return to earlier touchpoints as they evaluate a product or service, so the customer journey often loops back on itself instead of progressing in a neat, linear way. In fact, the average lead has to encounter as many as eight touchpoints before they feel ready to make a purchase.

Tracking the customer journey can be tricky. It takes a lot of information to find out exactly what your leads are doing before they buy something from you, and it’s difficult to create a picture that’s 100 per cent accurate. But if you’ve got enough data, studying your customers’ route to purchase can be very helpful. It shows you, with a level of granularity that your marketing funnel doesn’t provide, which of your marketing efforts are connecting with people and which ones, if any, aren’t as effective.

If you have enough data, you can create a customer journey map, which is a touchpoint-based model of how your average lead interacts with your business before making a purchase. You can even create multiple maps based on distinct audience personas. Just keep in mind that different leads approach the buying process in very different ways, so it’s important not to assume that every customer will follow the exact sequence of touchpoints you model.


How to Use Customer Journey Maps and the Marketing Funnel

Customer journey maps and the marketing funnel are similar tools, and they can be used in complementary ways. Here’s what you need to know about putting these tools to work for you as a marketer or business owner.

Since your marketing funnel helps you keep tabs on how leads are interacting with your business, use it to understand what kind of information or assistance a lead likely needs at any given time. For instance, a lead at the top of your funnel (TOFU) is likely to benefit from reading your business’s FAQ or a blog post that explains your product or service. Leads at the bottom of the funnel (BOFU), on the other hand, may be ready to convert if you send them highly personalized marketing emails.

Paying attention to your marketing funnel also helps you ensure that your marketing strategy is strong and effective at every step of a customer’s journey. For instance, maybe your business needs more marketing materials aimed at leads who want to research your product. You’re more likely to notice and correct this issue if you understand what leads need at different stages of the funnel.

Tracking customer journeys, on the other hand, helps you to really get into your leads’ heads. It helps you answer important questions, like:

  • How are they discovering your business?
  • How are they researching your brand?
  • What snags do they run into along the way?

Answering questions like these can help you design a more efficient lead nurturing process and a better customer experience.

Customer journey maps are also a good reality check for your marketing funnel. Try comparing your average customer’s journey to the model you use for your marketing funnel. Do they look similar? Does your marketing funnel’s progression make sense based on what you’ve observed real-life customers doing? If your marketing funnel needs some tweaks, use your customer journey maps to find out where the problem is.


Wrapping Up

The marketing funnel and customer journey maps are two buzzwords you likely hear a lot in the world of business and marketing. These concepts are closely linked, although they aren’t equivalent to each other. The customer journey is a detailed outline of every step a lead takes to become a paying customer, while the marketing funnel is a model that businesses use to market appropriately to leads at different stages of the buying cycle.

Even though they aren’t the same thing, your marketing funnel and your customer journey maps should tell the same story. Collect data on the touchpoints your leads encounter and use it to inform your marketing funnel. Using these tools in tandem with each other is a powerful way to target your marketing materials to the right leads while creating a smoother and more user-friendly path to purchase.


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