Is The Sales Funnel Dead?

Stuart Elmes

The "sales funnel" model has dominated the advertising and marketing world for over a century. 

It has been a hugely influential force in how advertising and marketing have evolved.

Everybody in marketing and advertising knows what the sales funnel is, but how much do we know about its origins and functions, or where it fits into the modern world, really? 

Has the advertising world been sticking stubbornly to an antiquated model that is already dead? 

Let's take a look...

The Birth Of The Sales Funnel

The year is 1898.

Elias St. Elmo Lewis, an American advertising advocate and entrepreneur is in the second year of operations with his fledgeling advertising agency, which he has cleverly named “The Advertisers’ Agency”.

Lewis, a prolific writer, thinker, and speaker, invented the marketing model which will come to dominate the marketing world’s collective strategies for more than a century: The AIDA model.

  • Attract Attention
  • Maintain Interest
  • Create Desire
  • Get Action

4 stages from impression to purchase.

Simple. Efficient. Sensible.

The AIDA model (which was to become the “sales funnel” in due time) provided an advertising roadmap to revenue which any brand could understand.


The Sales Funnel Era

As media channels exploded worldwide over the ensuing decades, the sales funnel-based roadmap to advertising success changed very little.

It didn’t need to.

Strictly visual and auditory media, like flyers, billboards, radio/television ads, and posters could only be ingested passively by consumers. Such channels never offered an opportunity to change the paradigm or alter the relationship between advertiser and consumer in any meaningful way.

Generating interest, holding that interest for long enough to make people want what you were selling, and eventually coaxing them into a store to make a purchase was the best option available. That was OK, because it worked.


Digital Struggles

As the new millennium approached, widespread adoption of digital technology (especially the internet) presented advertisers with a golden opportunity of a type not seen since the advent of cable television. Few foresaw the massive shift that was to unfold over the next decade.

Prolific, easily accessible, blazing fast internet access and the global embracing of mobile device technology have coupled to produce a generation of consumers with an entirely different relationship with the advertising channels they access, and indeed with brands themselves.

As advertisers and brands race to catch up with the latest trends and technologies again and again, they find to their dismay that each time they do, the goalposts have moved once more.

A public raised on media saturated with advertising messages, widely mistrustful of marketing in any form is getting harder to reach by the day.

Meanwhile, ad-blockers, digital retail platforms like Amazon and eBay, and emerging digital marketing technologies like shoppable ads are empowering consumers as never before. The digital transformation is in high gear.

The traditional sales funnel has not only been reshaped, it has become all but unrecognisable.

And there’s no telling how far the transformation will go.


The Death of the Sales Funnel

The sales funnel, as it was originally envisioned over a century ago, is dead.

While intelligent arguments have been made that the basic tenets of the sales funnel are, in fact, still relevant in the new digital and technological reality, they fail to account for how important the global digital transformation really is to the way consumers interact with advertising and marketing.

While the basic elements of the AIDA model and the sales funnel may still be present in some form, the entire process now happens so quickly across so many channels that advertising brands can no longer hope to maintain any semblance of control of their role within it.

Consumers are in the driver’s seat. It is they who hold the funnel now.

They know what they want, and they will get it from the brand which can deliver it in the most convenient way and in the highest quality possible.

The sooner brands realise this fact, and adapt their marketing approach to account for it, the better.