Is the Purchase Funnel Still Valid for Content Planning?

In my upcoming book, Global Content Marketing, I create a framework for Global Content Marketing Cycle and share relevant content marketing case studies for enterprises and small businesses. I also address several topics such as the key elements of a content plan, quantity vs. quality of content, original content vs. curated content and more.

Specifically, one of the questions I discuss in my book is “With the rise of social media and fragmented marketing channels, is the purchase funnel still valid for content planning?”  Below are my thoughts, some which are also found in my book.

The Purchase Funnel

In 1898, Elias St. Elmo Lewis created the modern concept of the purchase funnel. He divides consumer interest and behavior into four stages (AIDA)[1]:

You may have seen this as a version that includes sell-up and post sale support:

If you search the Internet for “purchase journey” or “purchase funnel”, you will see various versions of the purchase funnel framework with different stages being added or modified. But the core concept of a purchase cycle stays the same:

  1. Your customer recognizes they have an issue or a need.
  2. You have a product or service to address their issue or satisfy their need, but they don’t know about it, so you market your product or services to make people aware of it.
  3. Because customer issues need to be resolved or their needs have to be fulfilled, they engage in category research, discover your products in the process and become interested in what you have to offer.
  4. They also evaluate other options, if any.
  5. Eventually, they make a purchase decision based on the information available to them at the time they’re ready to buy.

In theory, the purchase funnel is pretty linear and straightforward, but the customer’s purchase journey “looks less like a funnel and more like a flight map” according to Google’s Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) Handbook.[2]

Purchase Behavior

Through constant searching and content consumption using their mobile devices, tablets and PCs, customers bounce back and forth between awareness, consideration, and evaluation stages at any given time with multiple different touch points.

Buying is a process involving starts and stops, resets, reevaluations and adjustments. Looking from the sideline, it’s hard for marketers to make sense of a customer’s journey, but it’s logical through the lenses of consumers.

For instance, a customer may download awareness-oriented content from your website, then immediately consume a product deployment guide that provides an indication that this customer may be ready to make a purchase, but no purchase is made at that time. Then three weeks later they return and consume a couple of product introduction videos and possibly go to product review or competitor sites.

This going back and forth, hopping in and out of the purchase stages, is how we shop now. The purchase funnel is linear, yet our purchasing behavior is not.

Does that mean the purchase funnel is no longer valid for the purpose of content planning?

As part of content creation planning, it still makes sense to create content for the different stages of the purchase funnel. However, it does not make sense to map content to customers’ multiple touch-point purchase behaviors, since everyone’s purchase journey is different.

In a way, mapping content to customers’ purchase behaviors is a content placement and promotion discussion. The truth: We may never know exactly how each customer reaches a decision to buy our products and services, but we should have a basic understanding of where our customers usually go to search and consume our content or any content for similar products and services. Take the content to where customers go.

One more note: Kathy Baughman posted the following comments, when I shared this post on LinkedIn’s B2B Content Marketing Group:

“I agree thatB2B brands need to publish content for each journey point. Discoverability is key in the dynamic buying cycles that we see today. In addition to buyers going back and forth between buying stages, the multiple decision makers involved in purchase decisions each have different content needs. It’s important to follow a process that not only creates content for each buyer persona but understands where each looks for content and be present in multiple places besides your owned channels.”

Well said, Kathy!

[1] Tim Asch, Landing Page Optimization, P. 39
[2]  Jim Lecinski, Google Think Insights,, June, 2012. Referring to a quote by John Ross of Shopper Science.
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