Art & Commerce: Funnel Clouding

Marketing’s New Key Metric: Engagement,” a recent report from Forrester Research, caught my eye and got me thinking yet again about the changes confronting our industry.

According to the report, “The marketing funnel is a broken metaphor that overlooks the complexity social media introduce into the buying process. As consumers’ trust in traditional media diminishes, marketers need a new approach.” The report goes on to define a new metric—engagement—which is composed of four elements, the “involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence an individual has with a brand over time.”

The gist of the report is that the middle of the marketing funnel—the space between initial awareness of a product or service and the end point of a transaction—has become muddled in the present era of technologically empowered consumers. “Rather than a clean, linear path, the real process looks more like a complex network of detours, back alleys, alternate entry and exit points, external influences and alternative resources.”

One of the more interesting conclusions of Forrester’s report is that a brand’s best customers can no longer be defined as the ones who purchase the most. Instead, they might also be identified as “individuals who influence others to buy. For example, the customer who purchases little from you but always rates and reviews what she buys can be just as valuable as someone who buys a lot. Her review might influence 100 other people to buy your product.”

If Forrester is right—and I believe it is—then clients and agencies need to rethink the metrics of success as well as the very work products we create to move customers through the funnel and out the other side as customers and brand evangelists.

The fact is, the role of traditional media is more limited than ever before. Our ad messages co-exist alongside thousands of other voices that consumers trust more, like their peers. In the past, marketing went deeper into the funnel, beginning with awareness and continuing into consideration and preference. But now the drivers of consideration and preference have shifted in droves to the Web and social media, confining traditional media to mere awareness drivers. This is a shift as dramatic as anything in our industry, with ramifications far and wide.

When a single TV spot or print ad used to be able to simultaneously drive awareness, consideration and preference, marketers got a lot of value out of this ad. But now the best ads can do is start the consideration process, which more often than not is happening online. And although a punchy line might trigger awareness, it plays almost no role during consideration. Here, the “rational” experience of brands trumps the “emotional” delivery of a clever tagline or visual. Yet ad agencies have almost no experience in the former and way too much comfort in the latter. Even when they develop online campaigns, traditional agencies tend to approach the Web as just another place to deliver a metaphor. So instead of creating useful tools, applications, demos, customer support communities or streamlined ways to complete a transaction, they fall back on familiar stunts and gags, such as viral videos.

I suspect the reason agencies haven’t tackled consideration and preference is because they are far beyond their capabilities rather than simply outside their comfort zone. Real engagement requires entirely new teams of people—like information architects, data analysts and an army of technologists of various stripes. The traditional teams found at agencies simply do not possess the skill sets needed to tackle areas that are deeper inside the funnel, where purchase decisions increasingly take place.

And so we arrive full circle at the single largest problem confronting our industry: talent. In my previous column (“The Education Gap,” Adweek, July 25, 2007), I wrote about the dearth of talent with 21st-century marketing skills and the need for agency management to get involved at the university level to make our industry desirable to the next generation of professionals. But if Forrester is right, the problem is perhaps even greater than we think.

Right now, the media expenditure on traditional marketing is completely out of whack with its diminishing role in the marketing funnel. But even if the industry tried to rebalance itself along the lines that Forrester describes, it would fall right into the talent hole. In cities like New York and London, the lack of talent with accomplished digital skills is exceeded only by the lack of free parking spaces. Many of the hottest interactive agencies in the world have the equivalent of “Sold Out” signs on their front doors. I guess I can’t blame the traditional agencies for trying to sell more TV spots and print ads when they can’t find the digital talent to support anything else.

Meanwhile, consumers are turning to Google, Facebook or Amazon for help grappling with the 21st-century marketing funnel. Ultimately, brands must try to reclaim some of this turf. That’s where the next wave of marketing investment is likely headed.