Say Goodbye to the Traditional Marketing Funnel

In recent years, there’s been a growing trend in the advertising world — shoppers pushing back against traditional marketing strategies and radically changing how they shop. That trend is finally exploding.

The first casualty: the traditional funnel. Forget everything you knew about those standard, linear paths to purchase. The modern online shopper journey is, well… all over the place.

And that’s a good thing. Customer intent is finally getting its moment.

What is Intent? Definition and Signals

Intent. It’s the word we’ll keep mentioning in this post, so we should cover the basics.

“Intent” is what you mean to do — the goal you have in mind when setting out on a course of action. For shoppers, this can be, well… anything — from getting their college degree to buying hiking socks that prevent blisters.

When it comes to marketing and advertising, finding intent-rich moments and providing useful information is the central goal.

The intent is signaled by the shopper’s online behavior, the things they do that indicate their interests, and which can be used to predict their next steps and build specialized segments. That means what keywords they use, sites they visit, ads they click on, videos they watch, and more.

Now here’s how intent is driving the death of the traditional funnel:

Dissolving the Traditional Funnel

The traditional funnel: a narrowing, linear path to purchase that moves steadily through the stages from awareness to consideration to purchase.

The standard funnel has been a staple of marketing and advertising strategy, particularly online, for ages. Well, now it’s time to forget about it.

Research from Google has recently revealed how shopper’s journeys widen and narrow unpredictably, moving back and forth, and up and down the traditional funnel stages. This is largely driven by the mass-proliferation of mobile devices.

Once, people had limited access to information about products they wanted or needed to buy, which forced them into more segmented and strict purchasing steps — an information gathering step, a comparison step, and a purchase or decision point.

Now, however, as soon as a question strikes them, shoppers can immediately turn to their mobile device to find the answer. Their purchase process isn’t constrained to the store or even their desktop. The accessibility of information means that people take advantage of it, and the purchase process shifts accordingly — away from the control of advertisers (a challenge we welcome).

This new type of purchase path, one that moves all over the place, and is driven by one thing: the shopper’s desires. Accordingly, they can look very different from one another.

For one, some purchases are research-heavy. Shoppers move back and forth between considering brands to considering categories, exploring every option before they settle on what meets their needs. Others find a brand and product quickly, then find out everything they can about it, from videos to reviews, before they purchase.

Here’s an example of this new flexible path:

Terry is looking for a new hair product to help her flyaways. She’s heard good things about one conditioner, so she goes straight to the hair product page on the brand website. Terry reads all the information about the product and finds that argan oil is the important ingredient for the results she wants. However, the reviews for the conditioner aren’t as positive as she would like, so she decides to widen her search, considering all brands and products.

Now Terry widens her search all the way to argan oil hair care products. After lots of research, she is impressed in particular by one brand. This leads her to watch a series of “before and after” videos from that same hair care brand. She sees an ad for an argan oil hair serum, clicks to the site, then navigates to the “store locator” for the product. Finally, she makes her purchase in a store down the street.

Terry’s path to purchase is FAR from linear and steeped in research. She widens and narrows her interests as needed, considers multiple categories of product, and picks the way she wants to buy.

Each of these moments is characterized not by a standardized funnel and straightforward path, but by her need at that moment: to achieve smoother hair.

People just want information. They want to figure out the details and get what they want, and then. Now, advertising isn’t about carefully shepherding users down a funnel and hoping to get as many to the end as possible. That’s a digital cattle drive. Now the key to digital marketing and advertising is offering value to the shopper — exactly when they’re looking for it.

Mastering Intent-Focused Advertising

With intent-based marketing, you don’t have to create a need. This gives you a serious advantage. No wasted advertising spend on pushing something people don’t want just then. Instead, you supply a solution and market said the solution to people looking for it.

Position your marketing and advertising at key, intent-rich moments in the purchase path. In essence: Be there for your shoppers.

Still, there are some key practices to follow to embrace the new, unpredictable path-to-purchase. We’ve laid them out below:

Focus Your Advertising: Look At What Works

Remember what we mentioned about being there for your shoppers? The first step in your strategy should be to discover how best to accomplish exactly that.

This means focusing on measuring how your customers respond to your various marketing and advertising touchpoints. Where is your advertising best fitting with intent-rich shopper moments? How could it be improved?

Part of this also means re-evaluating the metrics that you use for success. Instead of defaulting to the standards of online advertising, consider what behaviors and actions are driving your business’s sales goals and long-term success? These are likely those same points customers find your content and messaging most relevant and meaningful.

Deliver The Right Message: Be Useful

Getting the right touchpoints is important, but if your message is off, you’ll still slip up. Part of captivating shoppers on their wonky paths to purchase is giving them the exact right answer.

This goes beyond just optimizing your ad copy (though that should absolutely be a part of this). Start with small segments and a thorough understanding of that segment’s particular needs. Ad copy and even media images should directly address those characteristics.

Remember, overall, shoppers want relevant ads, solutions that match their intent. Brands should use media as an opportunity to show they understand the shopper’s needs.

Utilize the Latest Tech: Leverage Machine Learning

Shoppers are now expecting that their needs and interests to be anticipated. They want streamlined, relevant experiences at every moment online. One of the best ways to provide that desired experience is by leveraging the latest in ad technology, machine learning.

Using this tech, we advertisers can look at shopper behavior to understand their intent and predict their next step. This means we can create better-defined customer segments, and more easily discover new trends to take advantage of (check out the example of Hawaiian airlines below).


Intent marketing works best when you’ve aligned your strategies to capitalize on areas of strong user intent. You’ve discovered meaningful points in the highly variable path to purchase for shoppers, and you’ve established the best ways to be there for them. Get those right, and you’re ready to reap the rewards.

What rewards?

Well, for one thing, on the SRP for high-intent commercial search queries, about 2/3rds of all clicks go to the paid ads.

High-intent + relevant ad messaging = conversion. Searchers want the best solution, the most helpful answer, as quickly as possible. If your ad is aligned to their intent and provides that solution for them, they’re likely going to click.

Here’s an example of gauging intent to anticipate needs (and provide solutions):

Hawaiian Airlines analyzed high-intent search signals to predict customers likelihood of booking a trip to Hawaii. Their research also revealed the desire to book direct flights from nearby airports. Using these pieces of information, HA crafted market-specific creative and went to work.

HA took a variety of approaches, utilizing the most effective and meaningful touchpoints to demonstrate their brand value. This included 15 and 30-second TrueView for Action video ads, with the CTA “See Fares” that directed to relevant local flight and pricing options.

Using their previous online ad campaign data, HA served these video ads to their in-market search campaign audience, ensuring the only people seeing the ad had already shown their interest in flights to Hawaii.

This approach had some truly fantastic results: The month-long campaign boosted flight bookings by 185%, and cut cost per acquisition (CPA) by 69% compared to their other campaigns.

Hawaiian Airlines 1024x425


So sure, Hawaiian Airlines is a pretty large company, but that doesn’t mean results like this are out of reach for businesses of all sizes.

Remember our trend: The customer path to purchase isn’t following the traditional linear marketing funnel.

The beauty of this trend is that it’s not about who is bigger (though hundreds of millions for ad spend doesn’t hurt), it’s about who provides the best, most relevant ad for that shopper at that moment. It’s about being there for intent-rich shopping touchpoints. Businesses, companies, and agencies still clinging to the notion of the linear marketing funnel won’t be able to do that.

As is so often the case these days, the businesses who embrace changing shopping behaviors in their online advertising are those that will succeed in the future. Be one of them.


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