What is the marketing funnel?

The marketing funnel is a concept that identifies stages on the road to customer conversion, including top, middle, and bottom.

The Marketing Funnel Stages and Their Function in SEO

The “marketing funnel” is a concept designed to assign a visual aid to the process businesses follow to gain more customers. The concept identifies the “top,” “middle,” and “bottom” of the funnel as the primary stages prospective customers go through before the marketing results in a conversion. The precursor to this model, AIDA, was conceived by Elias St. Elmo Lewis in 1898, although it only reflects a natural process a business might follow to gain customers and conversions. 

However, the identification of the process and assignment of a visual aid has had the effect of businesses more consciously attempting to optimize their “marketing funnel.” As stated, the marketing funnel is a process employed by any business that requires customers to turn a profit; however, the marketing funnel is of particular interest to businesses in the modern day who are trying to drive conversions through content marketing.

Top-Funnel: Discovery and Awareness 

The top of the funnel is the largest portion of the funnel. This reflects the wide audience that it appeals to. Audiences coming to top-funnel content are largely looking for information out of general or passing interest, rather than out of any immediate intention to buy a product. This begs the question, then, of why companies would bother to produce top-funnel content.

The goal of top-funnel marketing is to generate leads and familiarize a large audience with the brand and its widespread expertise in a given field. In terms of online content, this top-funnel content is usually characterized by general information about a topic of wide interest to members of the public. For example, a company selling college textbooks may publish a “Freshman Survival Guide.” Top-funnel content seeks to tell its audience and Google: “We know what we’re talking about and this is our name.”

Link Building

Another significant function of top-funnel content marketing is how it provides opportunities for link building. Top-funnel content is, generally speaking, the best candidate for linking and getting backlinks because it covers more general topics. As a result, the information can more easily be connected to a variety of other pages in an organic matter. For example, it would be simpler to find ways for web pages on a wide array of subjects to link to an encyclopedic page about koalas than to a page about koala toys sold at a particular zoo in Brisbane. 

Top Funnel Content and Semantic Relations

The objective of familiarizing consumers with the brand is the same across all top-funnel marketing, online and offline. However, online top-funnel marketing takes that a step further, because it must also familiarize Google with the target brand. When a company’s website houses general, informational content related to their product, they demonstrate to the Google algorithm that they have in-depth knowledge of everything relating to their brand, including the many keywords and variations on common queries people use, and therefore are a valuable source of knowledge (and potential search result) for that topic. 

Furthermore, this content expands the field of interrelated keywords with which the company’s website is associated, further strengthening the semantic signals they are sending to Google. Creating a cloud of interrelated keywords strongly related with the target brand’s product indicates to Google that the page is relevant. 

Then, going further, as the brand builds up its website, this creates more content which reinforces those keywords. Internal links between their pages, links to authoritative external content, and backlinks from other associated pages, then go on to strengthen signals for not only the individual pages, but the domain and the brand name as well. Authority is passed between the related and interlinked pages, and Google’s web crawlers learn to recognize the brand and associate it with relevant topics and products. 

Top-Funnel Content and Competition

Trying to compete with generalized content similar to what many other people have written may seem futile, but having that content on the website may boost the ranking of other, more important pages housed on the same domain. An Olympic runner who loses the race is still likely the fastest runner in his city, and similarly, the Google algorithm may boost a business in the SERPs compared to local competitors as a result of the fact that they are also competing with much larger fish. 

Companies may find it a waste to, for example, dedicate content to proper hydration for athletes when they are just trying to sell people some cleats, especially considering that many competitor websites have well-established content on that topic that they likely can never outrank. However, the Google algorithm will recognize that although a particular webpage may land low in the rankings, it is ranking against some high-profile competitors.

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Mid-Funnel: Interest and Consideration

Mid-funnel marketing could be considered the “problem-solving” stage of the funnel. At this point in the funnel, the consumer is actively searching for a solution to a problem, and the company’s product is one potential solution. In the context of online content, the audience is searching for answers to a specific question, rather than researching general information or for the sake of pure interest. Mid-funnel content also might have the potential for linkability, although not nearly as much as top-funnel content does.

Using our previous example, while top-funnel content for a company that sells textbooks may be a freshman survival guide, mid-funnel content may be a piece discussing the rising costs of college textbooks. This is zeroing in on the company’s specialty, and the searcher intent for someone finding the article clearly reflects a problem the company could solve: concern over the cost of college textbooks. In this way, the company is not only further establishing their expertise on the subject, but also shedding further light on the audience’s issue, and creating an opening for suggesting solutions.

Comparison Shopping

Mid-funnel content often begs questions of “How to buy…” and “What are the best…” Mid-funnel content teaches the consumer how to compare products and choose the best, while presenting the target company as a great example of various good qualities. 

For example, in an article about “How to Choose the Best Language Learning Software,” one section may assert that a good language learning software should utilize gamification. A phrase like “Software that utilizes gamification…” may be used as anchor text which links to the brand’s target page about how they have updated the gamification aspects of their language learning software. 

However, it is not usually a great choice to blatantly dub the company “the best” or list it among the best for the audience’s needs. Beyond the obvious ethical gray area, the audience will likely recognize the conflict of interest in a page purporting to give them information and tools, just to flip the script and advertise their company. It is enough to further establish expertise and authority in association with the brand, and to demonstrate some of the good qualities of the brand.

Bottom-Funnel: Action and Conversion

Bottom-funnel content is where businesses earn actual clients and customers. Bottom-funnel marketing is geared toward consumers who are actively shopping for the type of product the company offers and tends to be optimized to earn conversions — turning visitors into customers or qualified leads. In terms of online content, this takes the form of product pages or content which discusses specific solutions to a problem, along with links to conversion pages. 

What Are Conversions?

“Conversions” usually refer to the point at which consumers make it to a company’s target landing page and take the desired action. Normally, this refers to a product page where the consumer can make a purchase. However, that is not always the case. Therefore, while an ecommerce conversion could look like adding an item to a shopping cart, it also could look like signing up for a newsletter, applying for a rewards card, setting up an appointment, and so on. For businesses providing services rather than retail, a conversion might be visitors filling out a webform, signing up for a newsletter, or otherwise opening up future conversations that can lead to a transaction or contract.

For an example of how this would work from a content perspective, take the case of our college textbook company. A bottom-funnel content page would be a piece that describes deals offered by the company, or else it may be a page discussing how online textbook shops often offer better deals on college textbooks. The people visiting these pages have decided that they are buying textbooks, and are considering buying from the given company. Theoretically, the funnel has guided the consumer to the product over time. It is often tempting for companies to build only bottom-funnel content because those are where their conversion links will live. However, utilizing bottom-funnel content without supporting top- and mid-funnel content closes off opportunities to draw in new customers. 

Creating Content, Not Ads

Furthermore, bottom-funnel content provides little opportunity for meaningful, organic links, and links are the lifeblood of SEO. Links can and often should be included in bottom-funnel content, but they will naturally be more sparse. Any topics that are relevant enough to these pages will be primary landing pages, and the inclusion of too many of these will make the page look more like an advertisement than helpful and informative content. 

This is one of many reasons that the various stages of the funnel are both independently and interdependently useful, and failing to utilize one stage will result in under-optimized online marketing.