Learn about the sales funnel and how to optimize it for the best results

Sales funnel optimization

The sales funnel is a model for thinking about the customer journey, from initial awareness to final purchase and beyond. The funnel serves as a kind of map for your company, helping you meet customers where they are, lead them effectively, and scale marketing and sales.

This model is crucial to building your business and understanding customers’ needs and behaviors. However, many companies fail to define their funnels and customer touchpoints. Others have sales funnels but overlook the importance of optimization, using either outdated strategies or little to no strategy at all.

To close deals and bolster sales, you need a game plan — one that is rooted in time-tested practices and data yet adaptable to customers’ needs and the ever-changing digital economy. A good sales funnel is the foundation of an effective sales team, and understanding how to use it can help your representatives save time, energy, and money while establishing loyal customers and growing revenue exponentially.

In this guide, you’ll learn these important things about sales funnels:

What is a sales funnel?

A sales funnel, also known as a marketing or conversion funnel, is a framework that maps out different stages in the customer journey. Marketers and sales representatives typically group these stages into three categories: top of funnel, middle of funnel, and bottom of funnel.

The top of the funnel represents the first phases of a customer’s awareness, and the middle of the funnel concentrates on contacts who have become leads (or prospective customers). The bottom of the funnel symbolizes conversion — when leads take desired actions like completing an information form or making a purchase.

At a basic level, you can think of the traditional sales funnel as an upside-down triangle. The number of people within each funnel category becomes smaller as you approach the point of the triangle at the base — the bottom of the funnel. The top of the funnel represents a broad audience and level of awareness, while the bottom of the funnel illustrates leads who are ready to make a purchase or informed customers familiar with your company’s specialized products and niche.

The customer journey is not usually linear, and some argue that businesses should throw out the sales funnel in favor of other strategies to match our complex digital environment.

But its very simplicity is the source of the sales funnel’s resilience. The universal framework is easy to understand and apply to different customers and situations, helping marketers and sales representatives focus on the best ways to nurture customers along the path to purchase and brand loyalty. The funnel is adaptable to all industries and can be optimized and personalized to meet the demands of the evolving digital marketing space.

Benefits of a good sales funnel

Creating a clearly defined sales funnel is crucial to growing your company and improving your business strategy. This tool will make your job easier, informing interactions with leads and directing resources toward customers efficiently based on their current stage in the buyer’s journey.

The traditional sales funnel dates back to the late 19th century when Elias St. Elmo Lewis proposed a personal selling model that included four customer stages: attention (or awareness), interest, desire (or decision), and action.

You can also leverage a high-quality sales funnel to understand your customers’ behaviors and outcomes better. Tracking metrics and conversion rates throughout different stages will provide valuable insights into what’s working and how you can continue to innovate and grow.

Four sales funnel stages

The traditional sales funnel dates back to the late 19th century when Elias St. Elmo Lewis proposed a personal selling model that included four customer stages: attention (or awareness), interest, desire (or decision), and action. This concept — known as the AIDA model — has withstood the test of time, providing a practical framework for thinking about, measuring, and analyzing a customer’s path to purchase. While the methods of reaching customers have changed over time, the general principles remain useful in the digital world.

Stage 1 — Awareness

The first stage is all about attracting your audience’s attention and building awareness around how your product can alleviate a customer’s pain point or problem. In this funnel stage, your audience is broad and may not have heard about your product or realized how it would benefit them.

In his influential manual Breakthrough Advertising, Eugene Schwartz defines five stages of customer awareness:

Sales funnel stages

To guide your customers through the different levels of awareness, focus on creating digestible, educational content and establishing credibility. In this stage, your goal is to inform your audience, introduce your brand, and pique curiosity.

You can reach potential customers through sources like social media, paid advertisements, blog posts, word of mouth, and attributions or hyperlinks from other brands. Sponsored programs and content syndication can also help generate leads at the top of the funnel.

Stage 2 — Interest

Now that you’ve gained your audience’s attention and increased awareness, the next step centers on keeping their interest and generating enthusiasm. In the interest stage, prioritize engaging potential customers with personalized experiences and helping them see the advantages of taking action.

Content like eBooks, emails, reports, webinars, and customer stories can demonstrate the benefits of your product and motivate leads to consider your offer and enter the decision-making process.

Stage 3 — Decision

In the third stage of the customer journey, aim to build upon your customers’ interest and persuade them to take action. Help them see the costs of inaction and the advantages of changing the status quo while eliminating obstacles or friction.

It’s crucial to continue building loyalty and trust through every interaction. Focus on giving your potential customers a clear call to action and details about frequently asked questions through sources like web pages, webinars, emails, calls, and social media.

Stage 4 — Action

In the final stage, the potential customer converts into a higher quality lead or paying customer by taking a desired action, from submitting their contact details or requesting more information to purchasing your product or service. Even if the prospect chooses not to take the desired action, they might be open to moving forward in the future.

You shouldn’t automatically assume that a customer is or is not ready based on their stage in the funnel, but the AIDA model provides a helpful framework for planning content. Make sure to track your customers’ behavior and adjust your strategy accordingly.

How to create a sales funnel

Adobe Summit sales funnel breakout

Step 1 — Define your audience’s needs

Good sales funnels must have a customer-first approach. The best place to start when creating or optimizing your funnel is researching your prospects’ recurring problems, questions, behaviors, and decision-making processes. Make sure you take the time to understand your audience or audiences. Become an expert in key demographic features, including the most common positions, experience levels, and purchasing authorities, as well as the best mediums to reach potential and returning customers.

As you generate leads and receive more data about your audience, track and update information in customer profiles as you continue to refine your sales funnel and approach.

Once you’ve identified your audience, think about their common pain points. At every stage of the funnel, consider which relevant information they’re looking for online to plan your marketing strategy and demonstrate how your company can make their job or life easier. It’s essential to show how you can meet prospects’ needs and provide value.

Step 2 — Create something valuable to offer

Rather than focusing on pitching a big sale, prioritize engaging and educating prospects at every stage of the funnel. Like building any other relationship, it’s vital to build trust with every exchange and make an individual’s time, interest, or money feel worthwhile.

Provide high-quality “lead magnet” content — free resources like eBooks, reports, or videos that prospects can download in return for sharing their contact information. These gated assets should help address needs and strengthen your audience’s confidence in the value of your business and product or service.

Aim to build excitement and contribute value through all content. While you should include calls to action and keep them coming back for more, avoid bait-and-switch claims or lackluster resources. Your audience should feel like the content has informed them or brought them a step closer to resolving an issue.

Step 3 — Build a landing page

To receive your audience’s contact information before sharing resources, create a landing page with a defined call to action and main message. You should direct prospects to landing pages from calls to action in other resources you’ve used to build awareness and interest, like social media ads or emails.

When designing a landing page, your main objective is to convert visitors to leads, and effective landing pages must be intentional and specific.

Speak directly to your target audience with language that addresses their needs and stage in the customer journey. Communicate a clear offer and highlight a form they can submit to access lead magnet content or other communications like email newsletters.

Step 4 — Establish lead nurturing strategies

Once you’ve received their contact information, you must create a plan to retain and encourage your leads. Lead nurturing involves engaging with leads across channels to continue building interest and awareness while they navigate the decision-making process. Strategies might include email marketing campaigns, follow-up communications, and social media outreach.

As you prioritize which leads to nurture, you can consider using tools for lead scoring to rank leads based on their stage in the sales funnel and likelihood to take a desired action.

As you scale your sales funnel and continue to grow your business, email automation becomes key. Put programs in place to send out personalized nurture email series based on customers’ behavior and grounded in data.

Benefits of automation:

  • 255% higher
    Average sales value when automation is part of a lead nurturing campaign
  • 523% increase
    Campaign efficiency with the same marketing staff
  • 25% increase
    Overall deal velocity

Step 5 — Launch

Finally, publish and get the landing page in front of your audience. Remember to set it up with SEO in mind, using strategic keywords and optimal metadata to drive traffic and appeal to your audience.

But beyond landing pages, there are other channels you can consider. Don’t forget to incorporate strategies across mediums to engage your audience and strengthen brand recognition, trust, and loyalty. You can consider digital channels like SMS messages, social media, your website, and emails or traditional approaches like direct mail and phone calls.

How to manage and optimize your sales funnel

This basic process for creating a sales funnel will provide an excellent foundation for capturing more leads and ensuring business growth. However, even a perfect sales funnel will need upkeep and occasional optimization.

Check for cracks

As you evaluate the top, middle, and bottom of your sales funnel, explore bottlenecks and stages where you lose the most leads. While your content should be more general toward the top of the funnel, streamline the information to become more specific and personalized as you approach the bottom.

Take advantage of multichannel content while prioritizing solid email nurture series, which are generally considered one of the most effective strategies to optimize your funnel and move leads through the customer journey.

Brainstorm ways to fix existing problems and test new strategies that can take your funnel to the next level.

Run A/B tests

A/B testing for the sales funnel

A/B testing is an indispensable way to get real-time feedback about which content performs best among your audience. Test everything you can to get a comprehensive picture of what’s working and needs to be tweaked. Experiment with A/B testing on email subject lines, calls to action, visual designs, and form lengths.

Data-driven strategies will help you boost your conversion rate and understand where to focus your efforts to save your team time, money, and energy.

Support with additional content

Not all content should be gated, and open-access assets will earn more traffic and views. Use this trend to your advantage with on-site content that points readers to gated lead magnets or invitations to take action.

Like gated content, be sure to bring value with informational content that addresses your audience’s pain points and builds your relationship with customers.

Metrics for measuring sales funnel success

Measuring analytics related to the customer journey, engagement activity, and business impact is important to evaluating your sales funnel’s success and attributing revenue to the correct sources.

Almost every stage of the funnel will need different metrics. In the awareness stage toward the top of the funnel, look at metrics like SEO impressions and ad views to assess how you reach your audience.

As you approach the middle of the funnel in the interest stage, data like traffic, clickthrough rates, web page dwell time, email open rates, and form submission numbers will help gauge your company’s lead capturing and nurturing performance.

Finally, in the decision and action stages toward the bottom of the funnel, concentrate on conversion rates, revenue, and ROI to determine how well your sales representatives are closing deals and following up to move leads through the funnel.

Start improving sales performance

Now that you have a solid foundation in establishing and optimizing an effective sales funnel, prepare to watch your sales performance soar. A funnel not only helps you understand your growing audience and contribute greater value but also lays out an actionable strategy that can adapt along with your company as business scales and deals close.

To build on your understanding of your audience, start clarifying your buyer personas today and define which information they need at every funnel stage.

As you hone your sales funnel strategy and optimize each stage in the customer journey, consider investing in analytics and email automation tools to make more informed decisions and elevate your sales performance to new heights.

To learn whether Adobe Analytics or Adobe Marketo Engage could be a good fit for your company’s goals, read about the solution’s full features or request a free product demo.