The Marketing Funnel: What It Is & How It Works

Rachel Handley

Mar 03, 202314 min read
marketing funnel

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Every marketer should know what the marketing funnel is. And how it helps you generate more sales. 

In this article, you’ll learn about every stage of the marketing funnel. From top to bottom. Plus, get actionable tips on making it work more efficiently.

What Is a Marketing Funnel?

A marketing funnel is a model of the customer journey. It represents the buying stages people go through after becoming aware of a business, service, or product.

Marketing funnel with "Awareness," "Consideration," "Conversion," and "Loyalty" stages

The funnel shape illustrates the audience narrowing as the journey progresses toward purchase. While you want to minimize dropouts, it’s natural for some people to exit at each stage.

Your highest-quality leads will make it to the end.

Marketing funnel that shows people dropping out at each stage

In reality, customer journeys are varied and complex. But the marketing funnel provides a simplified framework for marketers. 

You can use it to:

  • Understand your audience and tailor your approach accordingly
  • Identify and address weaknesses in the customer journey
  • Contextualize your marketing results

All this helps you create a more effective marketing strategy. And ultimately get more sales.

Note: The marketing funnel is also known as the purchase funnel, buyer funnel, customer funnel, conversion funnel, or sales funnel.

Marketing Funnel Stages

The marketing funnel stages differ by model because businesses create funnels to suit their needs. For example, business-to-business and business-to-consumer customer journeys tend to work differently.

One of the most commonly used models is AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action.

AIDA marketing funnel with "Awareness," "Interest," "Desire," and "Action" stages

More granular funnels look something like this:

Granular marketing funnel with "Discovery," "Desire," "Evaluation," "Purchase," "Loyalty," and "Advocacy" stages

However, you can simplify any marketing funnel into three stages:

  1. Top of the funnel (ToFu): People become aware of the problem you can solve
  2. Middle of the funnel (MoFu): Prospects want a solution and consider their options
  3. Bottom of the funnel (BoFu): Prospects decide on a solution and become customers
Marketing funnel with "Top of the Funnel (ToFu)," "Middle of the Funnel (MoFu)," and "Bottom of the Funnel (BoFu)" stages

Here’s an example of the marketing funnel in action:

  1. ToFu: Someone reads a blog post about improving their fitness
  2. MoFu: They’re interested in getting an activity tracker so they start comparing models
  3. BoFu: They decide they want a Fitbit and purchase on Amazon

Look at these stages in more detail and learn how to optimize them.

Top of the Funnel Marketing

The top of the funnel (ToFu) is where you introduce people to your business, service, or product. And the problem it can solve for them. 

Some marketers call this the awareness, attention, discovery, or engagement stage.

In theory, you want as many people as possible to enter your funnel. The more people you reach, the more people you can convert into customers.

However, it’s crucial to focus on the quality of your audience. Not just the quantity. You need to be highly targeted. Otherwise, you’ll waste time and money reaching people who’ll never buy.

To do this, define your target customers.

Define Your Target Customers

Start by analyzing your existing customers. What kinds of people have already purchased your product or service?

Find out in Google Analytics. The “Demographics” report covers age ranges, genders, countries, cities, genders, age ranges, languages, and interests.

Here’s an example:

Example Demographics report in Google Analytics

See which audiences are most likely to engage and convert by comparing segments:

Example of "All Users" versus "Conversions" segments in Google Analytics

In this example, 25- to 35-year-olds are the most likely to visit the website and make a purchase.

Market and competitor research allow you to gather more information. 

With Semrush’s One2Target tool, you can look at the following audience data for any competitor. Or analyze up to 20 competitors simultaneously.

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Household size
  • Income level
  • Employment status
  • Education level
  • Social media usage
  • Interests
  • Device usage

In this example, you can see that Gucci is most popular among 35- to 44-year-olds. Whereas Zara, Fendi, Prada, and Dior skew toward a slightly younger audience.

One2Target bar chart showing age breakdown of Zara, Gucci, Fendi, Prada, and Dior audiences

All this information helps you create buyer personas—profiles that describe your quintessential customers. So you can target marketing campaigns more effectively.

Give it a try with our free buyer persona templates. Which end up looking something like this:

Example buyer persona template with demographic info, bio, and pain points

Increase Brand Awareness

Many brands use advertising to increase brand awareness.

However, inbound marketing can deliver a better return on investment at this stage because it earns your audience’s attention. It’s less promotional.

Let’s look at the mattress brand Casper. It has a blog post about how to fall asleep fast. 

Casper blog post

Its main goal isn’t to generate sales immediately. It’s to raise brand awareness among the target audience (people who want to improve their sleep). And establish itself as an authority in its market.

The article gets around 11,700 U.S. visits per month from Google alone. (It should get traffic from social media, external links, and other sources, as well.)

traffic in organic research tool

People at the top of the marketing funnel are usually searching for somewhat general information. If you provide that information (and it’s tangentially related to the products or services you offer), you can raise awareness of your brand. 

Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool helps you find what prospects are searching in Google.

Enter a keyword to base your search around. A topic related to your product or service.

Keyword Magic Tool

At the top of the funnel, people are usually looking for general information. So use the “Intent” filter to focus on keywords with “Informationalsearch intent

Informational search intent in Keyword Magic Tool

Many informational keywords include question terms like “how,” what,” and “why.” Use the “Questions” filter to focus on them.

Questions filter

For example, Casper could write a blog post around the keyword “what is sleep apnea” to get more people into their marketing funnel.

It’s also helpful to look at your competitors’ top pages. Seeing the keywords they target or rank for in Google can give you your own ideas. You can evaluate your competitors’ pages with Semrush’s Organic Research tool.

Start by entering a rival’s domain, choosing your country, and clicking “Search.”

Organic Research Tool

Then, go to the “Pages” tab and filter for “Informational” intent again. 

You’ll see pages that rank for informational keywords. Sorted by estimated organic search traffic, from highest to lowest.

organic pages with informational intent

These pages should inspire top-of-funnel content ideas. 

The next step is writing search-friendly content that’s the best of its kind. This helps you secure high search rankings and get more people into your marketing funnel.

You can use a similar approach to attract audiences on YouTube. Use YouTube keyword research to find out what videos prospects search for at the top of the funnel. Then create videos that rank.

However, search isn’t the only important channel for brand awareness. There’s also:

  • Digital PR: Earn media coverage on the sites your prospects visit
  • Social media marketing: Create engaging and shareable social media content
  • Online communities: Answer relevant questions on sites such as Reddit and Quora
  • Guest blogging: Write helpful articles on sites your audience visits
  • Events: Speak at or run events that your target audience attends
  • Newsletters: Keep in touch with prospects who’ve signed up

Just be careful not to spread yourself too thin. It can be more effective to focus on one or two tactics. Especially when you’re starting out.

The best strategy depends on your buyer personas. And the resources available to you. Testing and measuring will help you spend time and money in the most efficient way possible.

Pro tip: Tell your readers what to do next by using CTAs (calls to action). For example, encourage blog readers to sign up for your newsletter or follow you on social media. That way, your brand stays on their radar. 

Middle of the Funnel Marketing

The middle of the funnel (MoFu) is where people identify a problem and research solutions. In this stage, they want to know which product or service is right for them.

For example, someone thinks they could benefit from a new mattress. But they don’t know what size or type they need.

Some marketers break this down into interest and consideration stages. Or something similar, like desire and evaluation.

Educate Your Prospects

At this marketing funnel stage, educate your prospects. Guide them toward a buying decision. Explain what makes you different from competitors.

Your support team should be available to answer questions directly. Live chat is often the most convenient option for your prospects. But phone, email, and social media are good options. 

Provide self-serve resources, too.

Many marketers believe that how-to guides, product overviews, and case studies are best at generating new leads. While success stories often help nurture those leads through the funnel.

img-semblog

For example, Casper has a mattress size comparison guide. 

Casper mattress size comparison guide

In addition to helping visitors already on the site, it attracts potential customers through various channels. 

The article gets more than 238,000 unpaid visits per month from Google. And 21 backlinks may drive traffic from other sites (while also being helpful for SEO). 

article traffic and backlinks

Casper also has a Mattress Quiz and other resources to nurture leads at this stage of the funnel.

Identify your audience’s main questions and concerns through keyword research. 

In Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool, enter a keyword to base your search around. Like before.

Keyword Magic Tool search

But this time, filter for “Commercial” intent. 

People use commercial keywords to research products or services. They often contain terms like “compare,” “vs.,” “which,” “alternatives,” or “best.”

Commercial intent filter

To check out a competitor’s commercial content, you can enter their domain into Organic Research tool.

Organic Research Tool

Then go to the “Pages” tab and filter for “Commercial” intent. This shows URLs that rank for commercial keywords.

Here, one of the top-performing MoFu pages is a “king vs california king” guide.

organic pages with commercial intent

Casper marketers could take some of Amerisleep’s traffic by creating a better version of this guide.

In fact, they should try to ensure it’s the best version out there. They should look at the top three (or more) results on the SERP (search engine results page) to get a good indication of what prospects want.

analyzing SERP to understand what prospects want

Tip: Save time with Semrush’s SEO Content Template. It gives writing suggestions based on the top 10 results for your target keywords.

SEO Content Template by Semrush

Manage Your Reputation Online

Prospects won’t always come to you for advice. They will also seek information from their peers, influencers, and industry experts.

This is why online reputation management is so important. It means getting more positive reviews and media coverage. And taking action against anything negative.

That way, you build trust and secure more sales.

For example, if you search “best mattress brands,” you see reviews and recommendations right away. 

best mattress brands google search

Casper marketers want to ensure their brand features prominently—and positively.

They can do this by collecting reviews on:

  • Their website
  • Their Google Business Profile
  • Third-party review platforms, like Trustpilot

And by collaborating with relevant publishers. 

For example, Casper has received write-ups on CNET, Slumber Yard, and Mattress Clarity. Potentially as a result of digital PR activity.

Casper ratings

To learn about your reputation, search your brand name in Google. Look at the reviews and third-party results that come up. Are they positive?

Next, search for commercial keywords like “best [product]” or “[service] reviews.”

  • Is your brand mentioned in the top-ranking pages?
  • If so, is it being referenced positively?
  • If not, what can you do to fix it?

It can be helpful to have the Media Monitoring app in your toolkit. This allows you to track brand mentions across the web. And quickly check whether they have positive or negative sentiment.

Media Monitoring app

If you have a local business, you can use Semrush’s Review Management tool to monitor reviews and improve business listings.

Review Management tool

Bottom of the Funnel Marketing

The bottom of the funnel (BoFu) is where prospects become customers. It’s also known as the purchase, decision, conversion, or action stage.

At this point, prospects have done their research. They’re ready to buy. 

If they haven’t yet chosen a provider, they will likely head to Google. To search a transactional keyword like:

  • “Buy mattress”
  • “Mattress store near me”
  • “King size memory foam mattress topper”

If they have already chosen a provider, they might go straight to your website. Or search a navigational keyword like “Casper mattress.” 

You want to appear in these SERPs. And get clicks.

  • SEO is how you appear higher in unpaid (organic) search results. It’s a long-term strategy that can attract people at all stages of the funnel.
  • PPC is how you appear higher in paid search results. It can deliver near-immediate results. Many marketers use it to attract prospects in the bottom of the funnel.

Generally, a combination of both gives the best results. This SEO vs. PPC guide can help you find the right balance.

Either way, you need to build awesome landing pages.

Build Awesome Landing Pages

Landing pages are the pages that finally convince (and enable) visitors to buy. 

The quality of a landing page affects its organic and paid rankings. In addition to the conversion rate (the percentage of visitors that move forward with the purchase).

You need to get it right. Optimize for target keywords. Reduce the barriers to purchase. And reassure customers they’re making the right decision.

Here’s one of Casper’s product pages. And some of the CRO (conversion rate optimization) techniques the brand uses to maximize sales.

img-semblog

Get suggestions for your landing pages with Semrush’s On Page SEO Checker. It gives ideas on improving content, user experience, and more.

On Page SEO Checker

Pro Tip: Customers who drop out of the funnel here are good candidates for retargeting. This means advertising your products and services to people who looked at them but didn’t buy.

Turn Customers into Loyal Customers

The customer’s journey shouldn’t end after they make a purchase. The bottom of the funnel should also include loyalty and advocacy stages.

A continued relationship with your customers makes them more likely to buy again. And to recommend your brand to others.

This feeds more people into your marketing funnel. Creating an ongoing cycle of sales.

Turn Customers into Loyal Customers infographic

Loyalty and referral programs can play an important role here. They incentivize customers to make repeat purchases and recommend your brand. 

Loyalty and referral program example

But loyalty programs don’t work for every business.

What you can always provide is great aftercare. Both in the form of customer support and post-purchase content.

Casper’s mattress maintenance guide is a great example. It helps customers get the most out of their purchase. In addition to improving customer satisfaction, it builds trust. 

post-purchase content by Casper

Keep previous customers engaged by sharing post-purchase content through social media, email marketing, and other channels. This keeps your brand on customers’ minds long after they’ve made a purchase.

Marketing Funnel Metrics

When creating your marketing funnel, set goals for each stage. This helps you identify weaknesses and measure growth.

The best approach depends on your strategy. However, these are some of the main marketing funnel metrics:

 

Metric

Description

 

Top of funnel

Page views

How many views your webpages get

Impressions

How many times your SERP listings or social media posts appear to users

Click-through rate (CTR)

The percentage of impressions that result in clicks

Engagement

The number of interactions with your content

Middle of the funnel

Time on page

How long visitors spend with your content

Bounce rate

The percentage of people who land on and leave a page and leave without performing a specified action

Google star rating

Your average rating on your Google Business Profile

Bottom of the funnel

Conversion rate

The percentage of landing page visits that result in a sale

Return on ad spend (ROAS)

Ad campaign revenue minus ad campaign costs equals ROAS

You can monitor most marketing funnel metrics through Google Analytics. Check out our Google Analytics guide to learn how.

Different Types of Marketing Funnels

Different types of marketing funnels focus on specific tactics or goals.

For example:

Digital marketing funnels focus on online activity. They don’t include offline tactics or goals.

Content marketing funnels focus on content that people engage with throughout the customer journey. They can help you create a more cohesive and effective content strategy.

Other types of funnels can help your business, too:

  • Conversion funnels outline the route to a specific user action. Such as a newsletter signup or demo request. 
  • Purchase/buying/customer funnels outline the steps from awareness to purchase. But they don’t necessarily focus on marketing tactics and goals.
  • Sales funnels or lead generation funnels also outline the steps from awareness to purchase. But they’re centered around sales procedures and goals.

Sometimes, people use these terms (and others) interchangeably. But if you use multiple funnels within your business, it’s helpful to define them individually.

The Marketing Funnel vs. the Marketing Flywheel

Customer journeys aren’t as linear as the marketing funnel suggests. Some marketers have attempted to create more accurate models. 

One of the most popular alternatives is the marketing flywheel

marketing flywheel infographic

Its circular shape emphasizes how every stage impacts the others. Improvements in one area make the whole flywheel spin faster. That builds momentum and boosts business growth.

Equally, friction in one section can slow down the entire wheel.

The number and names of sections vary. But the “Attract, Engage, Delight” flywheel is popular. Here’s what happens at each stage:

  • Attract: Businesses earn attention using inbound marketing. (Rather than reaching out to people through outbound marketing channels, such as advertising.)
  • Engage: Prospects engage in their way and at their pace. Marketers provide all the resources they need, wherever they might want them.
  • Delight: Businesses deliver excellent support and help customers make the most of their purchases. They build and maintain strong relationships.

Unlike the marketing funnel, which puts customers at the end, the flywheel puts customers at the center. Because customers are more than a result. Through loyalty and advocacy, they’re a driving force for business growth.

Some marketers consider the flywheel to be the modern approach. But many businesses still use—and benefit from—the funnel.

Create Your Marketing Funnel

Creating a marketing funnel involves more than drawing out a few stages.

You need to think carefully about your target customers—how their needs change as they progress toward purchase and beyond. And how you can cater to them.

But a marketing strategy without data is guesswork. That’s why many marketers use Semrush. 

Semrush’s digital marketing toolkit provides the insights you need to understand your audience and tailor your strategy. Every step of the way.

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Rachel has over 11 years of content writing experience. She built her SEO knowledge at digital marketing agencies before working as a content strategist for an AI startup. At Semrush, she performs in-depth research and collaborates with our talented team to give fellow marketers advice they can trust.