If you’ve been in B2B marketing or demand generation long enough, you’ve likely encountered the standard B2B marketing funnel—the dominant framework for B2B marketing.
The traditional funnel has merit, and it’s a good starting point for anyone looking to increase demand and grow a B2B SaaS business.
But here’s the problem: The traditional funnel no longer reflects the way modern B2B buyers engage with brands and make buying decisions. To keep pace, it’s time to move past the traditional B2B marketing funnel. Now more than ever, we have to rethink “best practices” for engaging and converting audiences.
In this article, we will:
- Expose common B2B marketing funnels that have worked for the past decade
- Show you where these strategies fall short in 2023 (and beyond)
- Discuss how you can adapt your B2B marketing funnel for modern buyers
What is a B2B Marketing Funnel?
A B2B marketing funnel is the predictable pattern or journey that buyers follow when making a purchase. The funnel captures future customers at every stage—awareness, consideration, and sales. At the top of the funnel, there are more prospects and leads. This number gets more narrow as customers consider, engage with sales, and then make an eventual decision.
Are Marketing Funnels Necessary for B2B Businesses?
The generally accepted answer to this question is yes, but it’s not always cut and dry.
Remember—buyers don't buy linearly, and they’re not intrinsically interested in where they are in a particular company’s funnel. So while the image is a good starting point, it doesn't lead to compounding and sustainable growth.
The funnel approach requires a snowballing number of resources to continually build and grow an effective “top of funnel” strategy. This is where Elevate Demand is different. We’re not simply fixing a portion of your broken funnel—we’re giving you actionable strategies you need for continued, sustainable revenue growth.
The Most Common B2B Marketing Funnels
Before we can discuss the ways the B2B marketing funnel has changed, it’s important we understand what many in the B2B world consider to be the fundamental funnels.
The Traditional B2B Marketing Funnel
The “traditional” B2B Marketing Funnel consists of five different stages of the customer buying journey.
Many marketers use these points on the journey as a roadmap for customers and content. Diverse marketing channels are designed to engage customers and (ideally) push them down the funnel.
For now, let’s look at the stages of this funnel and the marketing tactics and KPIs people typically put in place when using this structure.
B2B Marketing Funnel
|Common Marketing Tactics
|AwarenessAt the very top of the funnel, B2B customers are hunting for answers and solutions. The goal is to provide answers and education and to increase awareness of your brand’s products/services.
SEO to capture organic search traffic Long-form and video content to educatePodcastsEducational webinars/ interactive content
Organic traffic growthLanding page engagement Brand mentions on social & elsewhere on the web
|InterestAs awareness of the brand grows, more people will show deeper interest in your specific approach, products, and services.
|Gated eBooks and whitepapers Product-led content (like landing pages, feature exploration, etc.)Email marketingSocial media (organic & paid)Product-based webinars & interactive content
|Organic & referral site trafficContent downloads/engagement Email signups Number of inquiries
|Action/EvaluationYour potential customers are aware of the solutions you offer, and are considering their next course of action, weighing their options.
|TestimonialsCase studiesVideo/live demos Email marketingRemarketing & paid socialFree trials & samples
|Number of inbound leadsNumber of inquiriesConversion actions (like requesting a quote/demo) Qualified inbound leads
|EngageIn this stage, customers are approaching the conversion stage, and need nurturing to get across the line.
|Direct sales pitches1:1 calls and consultationsDiscounts and giveawaysRetargeting through email and social media
|Conversion actions (like requesting a quote/demo) Qualified inbound leadsTrials/downloads
|ConvertThis is the ultimate goal of your sales funnel, when qualified leads convert into paying customers.
|Conversion nurturingOnboarding and trainingTestimonials and case studiesUser-exclusive content
|Conversions (sign-ups, purchases, etc.) New customer feedback Abandoned carts
For years, this particular B2B marketing funnel has been the gold standard.
These stages and tactics have worked for over a decade.
But for nearly as long as this funnel has been around, there have been critics who say it doesn’t go far enough.
Keep reading to discover how this simple marketing funnel is flawed for the modern buyer. The good news? You can adapt some of these principles to enhance demand generation for 2023 and beyond.
The SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall
The SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall is another format of the B2B marketing funnel, introduced nearly 20 years ago. The waterfall was created to bring order and structure to the customer journey and to provide marketers with clear guidance and methodology during demand creation.
When it was originally introduced, the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall consisted of five core stages, with a focus on qualifying leads. Using this system, sales-qualified leads are passed directly to the sales team, freeing up the marketing team to focus on bringing in more leads.
Since then, the SiriusDecisions Waterfall funnel has gone through two new iterations.
- The first, in 2012, emphasized the roles of teleprospecting and inbound marketing, and provided granular advice on how businesses attract, segment, and convert marketing-qualified leads.
- The second update, in 2017, took a different approach to who is considered a “buyer” in B2B. Rather than focusing on converting a single individual, the updated Demand Unit Waterfall argues that buying decisions are made by multiple individuals.
The latest framework divides these buyers into groups, and addresses the needs and strategies to best convert each segment into paying customers.
Each version of the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall has shown improvement. Like the traditional B2B marketing funnel, it contains excellent guidance for businesses looking to efficiently create demand and convert customers.
Although the latest update was only six years ago, so much has changed in B2B selling and customer acquisition since the Demand Unit Waterfall was unveiled. These cultural and marketplace changes have massively affected the Demand Waterfall framework, and we’d be remiss to ignore such impacts.
The Hubspot Flywheel
This funnel was created to address flaws in the original funnel that ignored the power of customer retention and upsell to fuel new business. Hubspot’s B2B funnel stages include three main points:
- Attract. This phase uses useful, informative, and engaging content to get the attention of a target audience, including long-form SEO content and social media marketing.
- Engage. During the engagement phase, focus on building relationships and removing friction points for prospects and newer customers. Use things like segmented audiences, enhanced customer service, and lead nurturing.
- Delight. This stage turns its attention to existing customers. With tactics like top-notch customer service, surprise perks, and smooth onboarding, businesses retain more customers and turn them into brand evangelists.
The more tactics you employ to each stage of the Hubspot Flywheel, the faster your wheel will “spin.” You gain more customers—who become brand advocates and bring more leads—and the cycle continues.
The Terminus “Flip the Funnel” method
If you’re at all familiar with account-based marketing (ABM), you may have already heard of the Terminus Flip the Funnel perspective.
This funnel was created to address a flaw in the traditional marketing funnel: Broad, scattershot marketing approaches to target large groups aren’t effective (or so they claim); instead, marketers should tailor their strategy for specific targets (referred to as accounts in ABM).
The ABM Flipped Funnel has four stages:
- Identify. Marketing and sales teams work together to compile target accounts. This can only be done if you have already done the legwork to define what your ideal customers look like.
- Expand. Once you have a list of targets, you expand each account by adding more information about each company and listing the individuals or job roles you want to connect with.
- Engage. Post-targeting, you can create engaging content for key individuals or groups. Customized content, direct social media connections, and live events or webinars play a role.
- Advocate. Similar to the Hubspot Flywheel, the final stage of the funnel focuses on client retention and turning your existing customers into advocates.
Ideally, when you create a more targeted funnel like this, you’ll be able to allocate your marketing resources on higher-value prospects. This is in contrast to spending your budget trying to cast an overly wide net at the top of the funnel.
Splitting the B2B Marketing Funnel
In recent years, marketers have introduced the concept of “splitting the funnel” as a response to realizing that:
High lead quantity = misaligned revenue generation goals of the business
Splitting the funnel is a method for prioritizing activities and better aligning marketing metrics to business results. Proponents of this concept suggest that new prospects get sorted into two specific groups:
- High-intent buyers – Those who show clear and serious interest in a product or service. They may have requested a demo, started a free trial, contacted the sales team, or demonstrated intent to convert, based on a future sale.
- Low-intent buyers – Those who don’t demonstrate a strong intention to convert. They might engage with website content, but they may be motivated out of curiosity, rather than intent to purchase.
This B2B marketing technique splits leads into these buckets and aligns marketing goals on the quantity of high-intent buyers. The resulting tactic focuses on capturing more high-intent, in-market buyers by driving them to a demo or trial conversion. At these points, they close at substantially higher win rates.
There’s an important caveat here. The split funnel model may put too much value on “high-intent” actions. A demo or download is not guaranteed to result in revenue, especially if you aren’t putting in the work to engage and excite your audience before and after those high-intent moments.
Rethinking the B2B Marketing Funnel for 2023
Now that we understand what marketing history has taught us about the fundamentals of B2B marketing, it’s time to consider how the current landscape is different.
Here are some of the biggest shifts and trends we’ve seen recently and what these changes mean for how you structure and maintain your funnel.
The buyer funnel is no longer linear
The concept of the traditional B2B marketing funnel has always been rooted in a marketer’s ideal fantasy.
In the perfect marketing scenario, potential customers would all start their journey at the very top of a funnel, fall in love with your content and marketing tactics, and travel smoothly down the funnel through lead qualification and conversion.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how things work in reality. We know that customers often jump from one part of the funnel to another, causing blurred lines between different segments of the traditional funnel.
Here’s an example—you’re working to build out the portion of your sales funnel that deals with “engaged leads.” These are prospects who already know about your business and are considering a purchase. At this stage, you deliver solid customer testimonials and a few case studies to help them feel confident in a decision.
As they read the case study, they come across a term they don’t know. This sends them to Google, where they start looking for more information—in other words, now they need educational content prior to a decision.
If you follow the traditional B2B marketing funnel, all of your education content is targeted at people at the top of your funnel. This particular buyer gets lost, because the content they need to move toward conversion doesn’t speak to their tangible need. (You can bet that one of your competitors has a content piece that does resonate).
In 2023, where access to educational material is rampant, this flawed funnel gap is more apparent than ever.
The rise of “dark social” has altered the game
Every single popular social media platform offers a private chat function. And newer social media services like Slack, Discord, and WhatsApp are entirely based on one-to-one interactions.
These “invisible” channels (often called “dark social”) are where a lot of buying decisions are happening in 2023. Buyers use these channels to share feedback and experiences, give advice, and voice emotional responses.
Even if you have a presence on these channels, the odds are high that you won’t be present when these conversations are happening. This is why it’s so important to invest in creating a frictionless user experience and content that delights and engages your audience.
If your audience is genuinely pleased with the value you provide through the solution you offer, dark social media conversation will work in your favor.
Buyers have more power and less trust
In 2023, 79% of companies use a content strategy to generate incoming quality leads, according to SEMRush. That’s a lot of B2B content, and most of it is trying to nurture customers and move them down the funnel.
Customers are spoiled for choice when it comes to content consumption.
Tolerance for subpar content is at an all-time low—why would people engage with something that is low quality where there are many other options just a Google search away?
Today’s customers are savvier, too. They’ve seen it all—every call to action, marketing email, and sales pitch—and they have no tolerance for irrelevant or pandering marketing tactics.
The case studies and testimonials you previously relied on in the past to move people down your funnel are no longer persuasive. Consumers have been burned by exaggerated content in the past, and they will fact-check claims through their own research.
Customers also have very little patience for friction in the marketing funnel. With so many options to choose from, roadblocks like a slow website to off-target messaging can drive away potential leads.
To overcome this, rigorously analyze your marketing funnel to root out points of friction. Ask existing customers about their purchasing and onboarding experience, and run regular market testing on the conversion processes within your business. When you build deeper forms of trust, coupled with a continually refined conversion process, you’ll have an easier time moving prospects through the funnel.
Introducing the Updated Buyer-Led Marketing Funnel
The best B2B marketing focuses on changing a buyer’s mind, not naming their pain points
To convert your customers, you must address pain points throughout the entire B2B marketing funnel.
You’ve probably heard a similar adage, but this common belief is fundamentally flawed.
Although acknowledging customer pain points is an important part of the middle and bottom funnel, customers at the top are far less likely to respond to this messaging.
Customers who are unfamiliar with your product or services may be unaware that they have a pain point at all. The primary purpose of top-of-funnel marketing should be to raise awareness that this pain point exists. Only then can buyers begin to visualize your business as the solution to problems.
Segment 1: Cold Audience
Segment 1: Cold audience don’t know about you or your product. They need you to meet them where they are in the present moment.
Strategy – Create demand: To connect with them, messaging must center on existing beliefs, not on funnel assumptions. From there, use content to illustrate the pain points they’re unaware of, building a powerful narrative that will eventually position your product or service as the perfect solution.
Result – Shifted beliefs: As buyers start to believe the narrative, their beliefs change over time, resulting in a realization of tangible pain points.
Segment 2: Warm Audience
Segment 2: Warm audiences have begun the necessary mindshift to recognize the issues you’ve illustrated through your content.
Strategy – Capture demand. Now, you’ll need to encourage them to change their behavior, so they can get into the right position to engage on a deeper level with your business.
Result – Changed behavior: Buyers in this segment recognize pain points, are familiar with your brand narrative, and have started educate themselves on benefits and value.
Segment 3: Hot Audience
Segment 3: Hot audiences, who are fully aware of the issues they have and how you can solve them, need conversion-oriented content to bring them through the rest of your pipeline.
Strategy – Product marketing: Similar to the traditional B2B marketing funnel, this is where you bring customer success stories, case studies, and testimonials to encourage the final stage of conversion. This is also the segment of customers your product marketing content will help as they seek to understand how your product actually works to solve problems.
Result – Create wins: This segment continues past the point of purchase and extends to your existing customer base. Content for this segment can include new ways of using your product (use cases) and tutorials to deepen knowledge and turn your best customers into advocates for life.
Using this structure, you’ll reach buyers at a much higher point in the funnel. Despite what traditional B2B funnels would have us believe, the top of the funnel is where many buying decisions truly take place.
Grow Your Business Exponentially in 2023
Generating demand has never been simple. To keep your B2B marketing funnel healthy, you must adapt your approach and tactics as your target audience adapts to modern expectations. Once you achieve this, your business is destined to boom in 2023.
If it’s time to rethink your B2B marketing funnel, you need a trusted partner with a track record of growth and brand revitalization.