Understanding the Funnel: Intent and Why Message Matters

All too often, we see conversion rates as a straightforward 1-2-3 click journey- a simple, easily-charted process that takes users from a landing page to conversion smoothly and efficiently, like a production line. It’s an attractive idea, using simple metrics, easily visualised and represented in flow charts. The term ‘funnel’ itself is seductively easy: pure primary school mechanics. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the sales process than this image suggests.

As digital people, we love the way the funnel’s data displays. But as marketers, we should understand that at the heart of all the data we use to measure success are needs, narratives, questions, and people. Too often, we judge the users at the start of the conversion process by the standards we expect of the users at the end of the funnel. In this post, we’ll explore why a deeper perspective is needed.

Whether you’re guiding people from Google, social, PPC or referral, there are always new visitors coming to your site- and good news! They’re interested in you. The super power at the heart of inbound marketing comes from bringing interested people straight to your door, but what happens then? Research suggests only 22% of business owners are happy with their conversion rates, and the average industry conversion rate is around 4%– with 25% of sites languishing with a <1% conversion rate. This means we’re failing to persuade on average 96% of users to convert.

Now, this data is misleading. The average conversion rate varies enormously between industries. 2019’s data, just released, shows that while the professional financial services sector enjoys an average CR of 10%, travel and hospitality struggles along at 4%. Additionally, what constitutes a conversion is not consistent- some sites seek leads, others sales, others still form submissions. Further, the curve is shallow then suddenly extremely steep- making arriving at a reliable average harder. What’s agreed is only a very small proportion of sites (below 25%) get 5% conversions or more. The top 10% of sites buck the curve, with CR suddenly hitting over 10-11%- often because of the industry (as mentioned above) or the nature of the offer.

The takeaway from this, though, is that for every conversion you get, you will have an average of 24 people visiting but not converting. There are two questions that arise from this:

“How do I maximise my conversion rate?”

And a second, less talked-about question:

“What do I do with all this non-converting traffic?”

The first question has been done to death- there are million articles, of wildly varying quality, on improving CR. Some fundamental truths remain, though- for best results, use SEO and PPC to draw high-intent users to your site, offer the very best deal you possibly can, use compelling content and quality UX to help users navigate the funnel- and of course follow up, using email marketing, mailing lists, special offers and social media to reach back out to users post-exit.

The second question is more rarely asked, if at all. After all, you’re a business owner- conversions pay the bills. That’s why you have marketing, SEO, PPC, CRO, UX and everything else. Why would non-converting traffic even be on your radar? This is what we’re going to discuss here.

Content is a journey – so is converting

Lost conversions are ultimately an opportunity, ideally to recover that conversion later on through an email or targeted ad, but more subtly, they are a crucial chance to leave a positive impression on that user- to build trust, awareness and receptiveness to your brand and your message. The way to do this is to look past the nuts and bolts of your offer, and instead to get on your users’ level- speaking to them one to one.

David Ogilvy stresses over and over again the importance of building a personal bond with the consumer- talking to them “not as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone”. Very often we make this mistake, failing to recognise that the more personal the appeal, the more chance there is of having a lasting impact.

On one level Ogilvy means avoiding grandiose declarations or broad statements in favour of simple, personal messages. Yet for us, as digital marketers, it’s about leaving a residual impression. This means tailoring your content to inform and guide the user, until they reach a point of trust. If you’re still telling your customers how much sense your offer makes at the end of the funnel, you may be labouring the point- chances are they’ve already absorbed this message. Consider instead addressing their likely questions about why they should believe in you- your vision, your ethos, your core values that make you unique, not just the bottom line.


Two observations:

Conversions do not (and should not) rise forever

It may sound controversial, but it’s been convincingly argued that there is a ‘sweet spot’ to conversion rates. Balancing your marketing with ROI, finding the right kind of customer, making your offer sustainable, targeting repeat business- these can all be factors encouraging you to find your ideal conversion rate.


Not all pages are created equal

As you might expect, research shows not all landing pages have equal CR. Doubling-down on the highest-converting pages seems on the surface like a sensible strategy for improving conversions, but it ignores the value those other pages might offer a user outside the pursuit of conversions. An ‘about us’ page may seem only tangentially related to the product you offer- but think about the value that offers in terms of building trust, giving your users a chance to see the team behind the brand, the mission statement and to buy into your vision- even if they don’t buy your product.


What does this mean?

Ultimately what the two points above mean is that however good your product is, however checkout-focused you are, your site is never just about conversions. The best sites in the best industries for CR achieve roughly 11% conversions. It’s unlikely most sites will ever approach this. But even these one-in-a-million, unicorn sites have 89% of their traffic leaving the site without converting. This 89% is a resource, a chance to leave a mark on a huge proportion of users compared to the ones who eventually convert. Whether they come back later, tell their friends, post about you, bear you in mind for another service in future or simply going away with a positive impression of your brand, it’s worth accommodating this.

Second, not only do you have a volume of traffic to impress your message onto, you have the means to do this! Every site has it’s high-CR and low-CR pages. Every page is a chance to build brand awareness. So to fully exploit the possibilities of 100% of your user base you need to exploit 100% of your website with positive, on-brand content to reinforce your message.


Google will thank you

If this post could be summarised into a single phrase, it’s a simple one: put all your users first- not just the ones that convert. Recognise that converting is rarely a one-visit process, rarely a straightforward journey. The user with the highest intent-to-buy in the world will at least have some questions that make them hesitate before they convert. There will always be some opportunity to better relate to your users. Don’t just disregard non-converters: it’s never a bad time to leave a positive impression. Never forget what Ogilvy said- it’s ultimately a relationship between your brand and the individual. From an organic SEO perspective, this is ultimately what Google wants- they exist to fulfil a role, and what they want is to find their users the best possible answers to a query. Be that answer, and you can’t go far wrong. If we trust that Google’s algorithms can effectively rank on quality, then everything breaks down into a straightforward proposition- be the best answer to a query, and you’ll rank first. It’s about putting the user at the heart of what you do.

So to conclude, what do you do with that >90% non-converting traffic? Relate to it and engage with it. Those users are interested in your service, and if they’re not ready to convert just yet, it doesn’t mean that they should just be forgotten. Build a relationship with them, get on their level and speak to their needs- and even if they don’t ever convert, you’ve built awareness and trust in your brand and your message- which is itself an immensely valuable thing.


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