How Do You Replace the Funnel?

How Do You Replace the Funnel?


Credit to Jill Rowley for conversations inspiring this post. More to come.

The customer journey depicted as a funnel is dead.


I mean, all the cool kids are talking about flywheels and ecosystems and networks and loops.

Customers don’t live in funnels, they don’t want to be crammed down yours, and the funnel metaphor closes you off to the world your customers inhabit and the ability to meet them there. It’s not accurate.

That old stodgy company-centric funnel model is out the door. I hear CEOs, CMOs, and Partner Leaders say it every day.

So it’s a goner.


Also, don’t tell the sales team.

The search for something better

The funnel goes something like this:

Hey, it’s shaped like a funnel! I get it!

Sometimes, it’s radically changed into something totally different (/sarcasm), like a ’waterfall’:

Wait a minute, isn’t that just a funnel with different colors?

Whatever spin is put on it, the funnel has the same basic structure.

In a recent newsletter, Alex shared his appreciation for the flywheel metaphor in place of the funnel.

He included this image:

The flywheel seems better, yet somehow we can’t quite abandon the funnel metaphor.

Readers may have been surprised to note that partnerships are not a part of the flywheel (some told us as much).

I started wondering, where would partnerships fit in the above?

It’s sometimes a department, so maybe it goes in there with sales, marketing, and service. Then again, as a function, it is a part of all of those (not to mention the product).

So this flywheel doesn’t quite seem to cut it.

First published in 2016, here’s Jill Rowley’s attempt at visualizing a customer-centric model:

It’s simple, it works, yet it still hasn’t taken over.

The limitation of this one is that it’s focused on marketing. Sales, success, and product could be added as bullets, but it doesn’t quite do the job of orienting the entire company around a metaphor for the customer journey.

Allan Adler presented a new model in his recent column. It takes a much broader look at the role of influences inside and outside of the company:

This is a welcome development and much-needed. Allan has been leading this conversation for over a year now and has captured the necessity of ecosystem thinking in place of the old GTM model. It is a better reflection of the reality of the customer journey.

A challenge with this model internally is that it requires a high commitment to and belief in the ROI of an ecosystem approach, which can be indirect and hard to measure compared to the old funnel. Ecosystem-created influence, for example, is a very real and important phenomenon, but it’s difficult to translate that quadrant into action, duties, and roles, at least for those stuck in the old mode of thinking.

Just for fun, I went to LinkedIn and asked for some other visualizations of the customer journey:

Thanks to Justin Zimmerman, Jason Breed, Shawn Li, and Will Taylor for the examples.

Clearly, there are plenty of options to replace the funnel. Some are quite useful.

Yet if you’ve been paying any attention at all at work, you’ve noticed the word "funnel" (or analogs like "pipeline") is still used frequently, and the old wedge-shaped unidirectional funnel image still pops up - if not explicitly, in your imagination.

What gives?

Why hasn’t the funnel died?

One of the reasons the funnel metaphor has persisted despite its lack of accuracy is because of its usefulness – especially to managers.

It’s easy to map company departments and processes onto the linear stages of the funnel. Everyone knows where everything’s supposed to go. It’s clean and neat as far as helping to navigate internal operations.

It’s what anthropologist James Scott calls, "Legible". Everything can quickly be seen and understood. A planner’s (or tyrant’s) dream!

The danger is in thinking from the perspective of the company instead of the customer. What makes management easier doesn’t always make customers better off, and can therefore harm long-term revenue growth and sustainability.

The desire to make things legible has led many power-seeking and concentrating governments throughout history to destroy more natural, diverse, sustainable ecosystems and economies by trying to make them easier to navigate and control.

If your duty is to assign jobs and gather data, the forest on the right would make your life easier. It’s been stripped of everything but nice straight logging timbers.

On the other hand, if your goal is to have a vibrant, sustainable ecosystem, the left is better.

Attempts at overly legible forestry led to the decimation of vast woodlands across Europe. Little by little, the "scientific" forest managers were forced to re-introduce all of the elements they had stripped out one by one until they ended up with something much like the original "chaotic" ecosystem they started with.

Reality doesn’t always match our perceptions. We have to check ourselves. When we try too hard to make things legible, we might kill them.

What looks neat and tidy is in fact already dead; what looks varied and messy is a sustainable system with consistent causal relationships.

Funnels are maps

We can wax philosophic about emergent orders vs. stifling legibility all we want, but the fact remains, we can’t just explain the world, we have to navigate it.

We need some shortcuts to help us visualize the territory, measure, and make sense. We need some level of legibility without going too far and killing the whole damn company.

We need a map.

A map is just a mental model or tool that presents some aspect of reality in a way that helps us deal with it. If the map is too focused on ease of use, it becomes detached from an accurate reflection of the world. It can lose all meaning. If it becomes too focused on an accurate reflection, it can become too hard to use.

How can we discover the line? It starts by understanding the job to be done.

Reflecting reality vs. navigating it

Maps serve multiple purposes.

These are the three main things a map can be:

  1. Useful - as a tool to navigate
  2. Beautiful - as art to inspire
  3. Accurate - as science to gain insight

It’s exceedingly rare that any map does a good job at all three. There are trade-offs.

Beauty is a bit more subjective, so I’ll focus on the tradeoff between accuracy and usefulness. There is a classic analyzer vs. action-taker divergence when it comes to opinions about these tradeoffs.

The Fahrenheit versus Celsius debate is a great example of how personality types favor different mental maps. The more left-brained, analytical types tend to prefer the consistency, logic, and laboratory usefulness of Celsius, while the more experience-oriented and expressive right-brained types tend to prefer the more context-specific "How your body feels in real life" Fahrenheit.

Here’s an example of an accurate but not very useful subway map:

Some left-brained people’s eyes are still twitching over the unrealistic thickness of the lines.

The distances and proportions match the reality of the city. It’s all very logical, and you could overlay it onto an aerial photo just fine.

But if you’re new to the city, this map is not very helpful. The accuracy of the scale and distances means the whole thing takes up too much space and is zoomed out too far. You can barely read it, and it’s not intuitive which lines connect to the others and where.

Contrast that to a useful but not very accurate subway map:

Sure, it looks like a kid drew it, but it’s not hard to use!

The proportions are wildly off-base here. The distances between these points barely attempt to reflect reality, and the map has been stripped of nearly every detail. No roads and only a few major monuments are depicted or labeled.

Yet if you’re inside the crowded Metro tunnel trying to find the next train before it leaves, a quick glance at this map is all it takes.

Just for fun, I did a search for "Beautiful fun subway maps":


Begging your pardon guv’na, might you direct me to the large blue tree?"

This is neither accurate nor useful in navigating the city. Then again, you might enjoy looking at it enough to not care that you’re lost.

Back to funnels

So now that we know the jobs to be done, what do we optimize for?

Whatever helps accomplish that job.

The most accurate customer journey maps don’t look like funnels.

Yet the most useful maps probably need some funnel-like features for ease of use.

Perhaps conference presenters, office decorators, or content teams are interested in the most beautiful maps.

It’s important to ask who will be using the map, when, why, how, and for what.

The conversations around partner ecosystems here at PartnerHacker and elsewhere are much needed. The highly legible, not very accurate, fairly stifling funnel-focused GTM conversation needs to be disrupted. It’s running up against reality.

This is where more accurate maps come into play. Find them, create them, and use them. See what hits and double down, just like with early product development. Use these maps in your writing, presentations, and high-level vision and mission setting.

But don’t be surprised if your brilliant visualization of a pond with a beaver dam fails to translate into meaningful action on your sales team.

You probably need a simpler map when the rubber meets the road.

Multiple resolutions

Humans have a hard time being in the weeds and taking a 30,000-foot view at the same time. (In fact, it’s possible that doing so makes you a little crazy, which might also explain why many founders are a little crazy).

This is where the zoom feature comes in.

A map that can serve as both an accurate insight generator of high-level reality and a useful simplification for tactical action requires multiple resolutions.

Can you create a map that lets you zoom in, or flip the switch to "simple mode" when needed?

Imagine the subway maps above but as a single entity with a simple realistic/useful toggle.

I haven’t found THE ONE yet, but at least we can start to think clearly about what’s required of a good map.

Hopefully, someone will create the definitive map for the era of ecosystems. Until then, I’ll carry several in my toolkit.


How Do You Replace the Funnel?

Customers don't live in funnels, they don't want to be crammed down yours, and the funnel metaphor closes you off to the world your customers inhabit and the ability to meet them there. Here's how to replace it.

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