How to Build a Sales Funnel That Actually Works

For this blog, I’m skipping the typical simile or anecdote I usually open with. Although it’s often my favorite part of crafting these articles for you, dear reader, today’s message is too important to risk losing in creative metaphors.

Your business needs a sales funnel.

Not just any sales funnel. One that actually works. They’re an integral part of any sales process. Funnels help you attract leads, guide them through the buyer’s journey, qualify them along the way and build a relationship with them so they trust your brand. 

To help explain this integral process, I spoke with our Sales Manager, Ashley Lesperance. She helps us walk through the steps to building a great sales funnel, plus offers some bonus advice.

What We’ll Cover:

What Is a Sales Funnel?
How to Build a Sales Funnel
Important Considerations
Measuring Success
Benefits of a Great Sales Funnel

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Chapter 01

What Is a Sales Funnel?

For anyone new to the class, let’s do a quick review of what we know about sales funnels.

The official definition of a sales funnel is “an organized tool that helps you track leads as they take steps toward becoming a customer.” In other words, it’s how you keep track of potential customers and ensure they’re moving toward making a purchase.

As you can see, there are three stages of the sales funnel:

  • Top of the funnel (TOFU): This area encompasses awareness stage leads. “It’s your job to inform these potential buyers and start the work of qualifying and disqualifying leads at this stage,” Ashley explains. She adds that at this point, leads are just trying to educate themselves about a topic, so you should focus on building trust through helpful content.
  • Middle of the funnel (MOFU): This is where your consideration stage leads will be. These people know they have a problem, but might still be defining it. They’re exploring different solutions, so it’s your job to provide valuable information and help them continue engaging with your brand. Ashley reminds us that you should still be qualifying leads in this section of your funnel.
  • Bottom of the funnel (BOFU): These leads are ready to make a decision. They should be highly qualified, have a fully defined problem and know who you are and what you do. “Your job is to make sure they have no excuse not to talk to you,” Ashley says with a chuckle. “Take a consultative approach to helping your leads to come to a decision. Be the guide that helps them find the perfect solution, which should be you.”

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s move on to why you’re really here. In the next section, Ashley teaches us step by step how to build each stage of the funnel so it effectively captures, nurtures and converts prospective customers.

Chapter 02

How to Build a Sales Funnel

There are six major steps to building a successful sales funnel, starting with careful preparation.

Step 1: Understand Your Audience

Your sales funnel is all about your audience, so it’s no surprise that’s where you start building one. The first step is to do some research to ensure you really know who you’re selling to.

“You cannot skip knowing, defining and fully understanding your ideal clients,” Ashley says. “If you don't know what those people look like and what their needs are, then your sales funnel will never work.”

There are two techniques you can use to dive into your target audience:

  • ICPs or Buyer Personas: ICP stands for “ideal customer profile,” and it outlines your business’s perfect customer or client. It’s a bit of a higher level view than a buyer persona, which focuses on things like preferences, demographics, motivators and challenges. (Check out HubSpot’s comparison of the two.) These two tools give you a deeper understanding of who you’re selling to and what problems they’re facing.
  • Customer journey maps: Once you have your ICP or persona figured out, you can map out exactly what steps they have to take on the journey to becoming a customer (and beyond). This map provides a visual representation of a potential client’s needs as they get to know your brand and develop their relationship with you. “These are invaluable in sales funnel design because it helps you determine exactly what information a potential client needs at each step in their journey,” Ashley notes.

Step 2: Build a Landing Page

Now that you know who your customers are, you need to give them somewhere to go. That’s where your landing page comes in. This is the page that hosts your top of funnel content. It piques their interest, gets their attention and encourages them to engage with your brand.

“Think of the landing page like the starting line of your sales funnel,” Ashley says. “Except the customer is the one who has to kick off the race.”

If you’re struggling with conversion rates, getting people to take action on a landing page might seem impossible. But Ashley recommends three ways to improve your page design so it’s easy for people to enter your funnel.

  1. Include only one call to action (CTA). This doesn’t necessarily mean only one place to click, but it does mean only one message. More than one CTA on a landing page is confusing for users and instead of figuring out what you want them to do, they’ll probably just leave. Distill your request into a single directive and use only that phrase on the page.
  2. For example: “Download the guide,” “Enroll in the eCourse,” “Register for the webinar.”
  3. Make the page short, simple and exciting. “Too many businesses think their landing page has to be full of information. In reality, you want to keep it very simple so the person’s focus goes straight to that top of funnel content,” Ashley says. Always use active language and focus on a single concise message.
  4. Most importantly, you need to provide value on your landing page. People arrive at this page expecting something from your business, so it’s imperative that you deliver. “Keep in mind that your role at this stage is to provide helpful information,” Ashley reminds us. “Make your lead generator something that your ICP truly values and can actually help them define their problem.”

With a quality landing page set up, you should start seeing leads roll in. This leads us to the next step: qualifying leads and helping them determine if you’re a good fit.

Step 3: Develop a Relationship

Now we turn our attention to the first stage of your sales funnel. The main goal is to bring people to the landing page you just built and get them to opt into your lead magnet by providing their contact information. This will start producing your TOFU leads.

Before you get excited about the prospect of leads pouring in, consider this advice from Ashley:

“At this stage, you’ll likely have a significant amount of leads and a majority of them won’t buy from you. Learn to be okay with that. You don’t need to get too serious too quickly with leads at the top of your funnel. You want to woo them, not propose.”

She adds that wooing is particularly important because leads at this stage are still in research mode. They don’t even know exactly what their problem is yet, so they definitely aren’t sure what solution they need. That’s why it’s more important to spend this time building a relationship.

You create that relationship with quality content. Become a trusted advisor by offering informational blog posts, research reports, eBooks and even white papers that help potential clients better understand their problem and start thinking about how it impacts their life.

Ashley adds that while all this is happening, your sales team should be qualifying leads in the background. (Hint: Automation can make this a whole lot easier.) You’ll have to work quickly due to the number of incoming leads, but it’s important to know who matches your ICP and who is most likely to move to the next stage of your funnel.

Step 4: Be the Guide

By this point, your leads should be in the middle of your funnel. You should have already disqualified some leads from TOFU and are now working with people who have defined their problems and are exploring solutions.

“These leads want to know how you can solve their problem,” Ashley explains. “Be their guide, their problem solver. And remember: they’re still working on building trust, so don’t sell to them just yet. Instead, show empathy and offer knowledge.”

You can do this by nurturing leads with valuable information. Email marketing is perhaps the most common method of nurturing, particularly email nurture campaigns — a series of emails that provides information and moves leads closer to the decision stage. This is a powerful method, and easy to implement with automation, but it’s not the only way to nurture MOFU leads.

Ashley recommends taking a dynamic approach to this phase of your sales funnel. Supply it with diverse types of content, such as comparison guides (of services, not vendors), video, webinars or podcasts. Anything that helps people make sense of their options and start forming an opinion about what they need.

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Step 5: Ask for the Sale

A lead has reached the bottom of your funnel, and it’s time for all of your marketing efforts to come to fruition. Your leads should know what their problem is, what solutions are available and who is in the market to help them. With all this information, they should be ready to talk to you about your product or service.

That being said, it’s still not time for a hard sell. “Selling like that simply doesn’t work in this world anymore,” Ashley says. “Take a consultative approach, instead. Show them you can help them solve their problem and guide them to that solution (your business).”

Just because people are ready to talk to you and have made it to that decision stage, doesn’t mean they’ll purchase right away. These leads still need a little help getting over the finish line, which you can provide with the right resource at the right time. Things like case studies, vendor comparisons, live demos, trial periods or even consultation sessions work well to answer someone’s final questions and convince them to purchase.

Ashley also recommends using 1:1 videos to help provide specific pieces of information. “You can share strategy recommendations or show potential clients what’s worked for similar companies facing their same problems. This helps build trust in your business because you’re positioning yourself as an expert with a proven track record.”

Step 6: Stay Engaged

If your sales funnel did its job, you now have a new customer! Congratulations! Do a little dance, file it in the “wins” category, but don’t put that new client on the back burner. It’s easy for salespeople to transition clients over to the client services team and forget about them. However, maintaining that relationship is key to customer retention.

“The sales team just spent a lot of time becoming this person’s trusted advisor,” Ashley explains, “so they need to continue that relationship. It reinforces the trust between a current customer and the sales team, which builds more potential for referrals and future business.”

She recommends setting reminders for yourself every few months to follow up with new clients and see how things are going. You can ask if they’re seeing the results they wanted or send over some helpful information that relates to their business or situation.

This gives you an opportunity to evaluate if there are any other issues you can help with or ask for referrals. There is one thing Ashely stresses in this stage of the funnel: Always add value before making an ask.

“You don’t want to pop out every few months and ask for something from your clients. Build reciprocity by offering value first, showing you care, then asking for a little something in return.”

Chapter 03

Important Considerations

As you move through creating your content funnel, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind. The first is what we call content-user match — the type of content you present to your audience needs to match their place in the funnel and information needs at that point in the buying process.

Ashley mentioned some of these content types in previous sections, and we compiled them into the graphic below for quick reference.

It’s worth mentioning that the more you can optimize this content for SEO, the more organic traffic you can capture in your sales funnel. You’ll likely rely on a mix of traffic sources in your marketing strategy, but the value of an organic Google search can’t be underestimated.

Ashley notes that the key to an effective sales funnel is ensuring you have the three rights: the right content for the right audience at the right time. This is how you target their specific needs at different stages of the funnel and encourage them to continue getting to know your brand.

Lastly, she notes that building a sales funnel requires patience. “A sales funnel is a long-term strategy. It takes time to build each component correctly. You need to have the patience to do it right the first time so you get the maximum ROI from your efforts.”

A common mistake she’s noticed in other businesses is that they go really heavy creating content for a single stage of the sales funnel and neglect the other areas. This leaves your funnel unbalanced and unlikely to create the results you want.

Instead, Ashley says it helps to focus on building stages one at a time. She recommends a top to bottom approach, making TOFU and MOFU content “meatier” than your BOFU content.

That’s because your lead generation tactics at TOFU and MOFU will bring in significantly more people than make it to the end of your funnel, so you need more content to cater to their needs. Plus, it takes time to move people through your funnel, so you’re not on a tight deadline for creating BOFU content.

Chapter 04

Measuring Success

Nothing spells success like metrics, but you have to know which ones matter to really understand if your sales funnel is working. Ashley breaks down KPIs by funnel stage.

Top of Funnel

Focus on:

  • Website traffic and its sources
  • Unique website visitors
  • Where people are spending the most time on your site
  • What buttons/CTAs they’re clicking on

“What’s really key in this stage is to know your top blog performers and why they’re the most popular so you can use those tactics on other web pages,” Ashley notes.

Middle of Funnel

Focus on:

  • Gated content downloads
  • Landing page conversions
  • Webinar registrants (live vs. on-demand)
  • Video views

You want to see how many people are engaging with your content and moving out of that awareness stage, into consideration.

Bottom of Funnel

Focus on:

  • Demo requests
  • Contact form submissions
  • Case study views
  • Free trial requests
  • Vendor comparison guide views/downloads

Each of these metrics indicate that a lead is nearing the end of their customer journey and almost ready to make a purchase decision. This is when you can reach out and offer guidance to get them over the finish line.

Overarching Metrics to Watch

As you follow leads through your funnel, Ashley says there are two things in particular to watch overall:

  1. The customer journey
  2. Marketing attribution

I know what you’re thinking, but the customer journey map isn’t just a planning tool. It’s also a way for you to track how potential clients move through the stages of your funnel — how long it takes them to transition from one stage to the next, how many pages they're viewing in each stage, what type of content they’re gravitating toward, etc.

HubSpot is working on some powerful tools to help you track analytics throughout the customer journey.

Next is your marketing attribution. “If you aren’t watching your attributions, you won’t know what’s working and what’s not,” Ashley says. “It’s key to have quality reporting set up so you know exactly how your funnel is performing and can make adjustments as necessary.”

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Chapter 05

Benefits of a Great Sales Funnel

Feel like you got hit with the sales funnel fire hose? That’s understandable. Let’s take a minute for a seventh inning stretch and a quick recap. We’ve discussed:

  1. The purpose and function of a sales funnel
  2. The six steps to build a sales funnel that actually works
  3. Important considerations for your funnel’s content
  4. KPIs for each stage of the funnel

All of this is well and good, but you’ve probably noticed that it also takes a lot of work. You need a deep understanding of your audience, a map of the customer journey and an expansive bank of content to make a sales funnel work.

Why not go with something simpler? Why not throw all your money at paid ads and be done with it? I’ll make the answer simple:

You cannot reliably turn interested viewers into paying customers without a sales funnel.

“Sales funnels are crucial for sales and marketing because our buyers are more informed than ever and they expect information before they buy,” Ashley explains. “As a business, it’s important to recognize your responsibility in providing that information.”

She adds that businesses are no longer gatekeepers to information, only to their solutions. Building an effective sales funnel is about knowing your buyers and the type of information they need throughout every stage of their journey.

“It’s not a matter of creating customers. It’s about educating people and providing the knowledge they seek. If you take the time to provide the right information and set yourself up as that trusted advisor, you can harness the full power of inbound marketing.”

What does harnessing this power look like? These four distinct benefits of a well-designed sales funnel:

  1. Generating a lot of leads. Like…a lot. Especially with a solid top of funnel strategy, you’ll be pulling in high-quality leads that are more likely to convert.
  2. An opportunity to automatically qualify TOFU leads on the back end as they move into the middle of your funnel, saving your sales team time and energy to focus on closing deals.
  3. Leads will naturally make it to the bottom of your funnel already highly qualified and pretty much ready to purchase.
  4. You’ve created an organic, repeatable, often-automated way to not only generate leads, but also inform and qualify them so that when they do meet with your sales team, they know exactly what they need from you and are ready to make a decision.

Are You Ready for Growth?

Ashley puts it simply for us: “You can’t see ROI on sales and marketing efforts without a well-designed sales funnel.” The funnel is the key to reaching your revenue goals, but so many businesses are missing out on the benefits.

Use these tips to review your sales funnel and determine where it might be falling short. If you want to learn more about the customer journey and how it affects your sales funnel, check out our article about the marketing flywheel. Ashley calls it “the fuel that spurs on your sales process.”

Become Irreplaceable

Your business is either a replaceable commodity or an irreplaceable brand. The one you become is determined by your marketing — and we can help with that.