Forget the Marketing Funnel. Startups Need to Embrace the Marketing Tunnel

In a content team check-in meeting earlier this summer, Julia was explaining to me where one client’s content fit into their marketing tunnel.

“I mean funnel,” she said.

We all laughed.

But after we hung up, I started to wonder: was there actually something to the idea of a marketing tunnel?

Reader, there is. In fact, if you’re a startup with a lean marketing budget and you’ve determined that content marketing is a good investment, I’d argue that the marketing tunnel is a metaphor you can’t afford to ignore.

Here, I’ll break down what the marketing tunnel is, why it’s so powerful for startup content marketers, and how to use the idea of a marketing tunnel to shape your content and serve your customers.

Background: The Myth of the Funnel

Let’s face it: the whole “funnel” metaphor in marketing is misleading.

The funnel in my kitchen ensures that all liquid I pour from one vessel ends up in another.

Not so with the traditional marketing funnel. In fact, I’d argue that the marketing “funnel” is more of a sieve with a pipe at the bottom. While you may be bringing in lots of leads at the top, most of them aren’t ultimately converting into customers.

If you’ve got budget for days, this isn’t a problem.

It may make sense to drive lots of unqualified traffic to your site – why not? That can help build brand awareness. It may have downstream effects for your site's overall SEO. So sure: if you’ve got budget, why not embrace that sieve-pipe contraption?

But if you’re a lean startup, you don’t have money to waste. You have to make sure every dollar you send into the world comes back to you with a couple friends.

You don’t need a marketing funnel. You need a marketing tunnel. Here’s what that looks like.

How the Marketing Tunnel Works

Before I explain how the marketing tunnel works, let’s remind ourselves how other types of tunnels work.

At the most basic level, they let travelers bypass some obstacle so they can get where they want to be faster.

So what journey does your content make quicker and easier for your customers?

It depends on your industry and goals and your clients. But a lot of the time, it’s the journey to understanding.

For example, say your startup is dedicated to helping organizations achieve their short- and long-term goals via digital transformation.

You do amazing work, but you have to find a way to communicate the benefits you offer to people who don’t understand what “digital transformation” is or don’t understand the many ways it can improve their organization’s performance.

You have to get these folks from where they are (baffled about how to keep up with their changing industry) to where they want to be (understanding exactly what changes they need to make to remain competitive).

You have to build a marketing tunnel.

Without your tunnel, your potential customers are on a precarious road of trial and error. Or else they’re opting for a much safer road – but one that leads away from where they need to be.

With your tunnel, they can zip straight to a place where they can see exactly how to solve their problem.

So you write a series of blog posts that explain…

  • What “digital transformation” means.
  • What common digital transformation projects look like.
  • How a company must embrace operational changes to accommodate updated technology.
  • How the transformed structure can result in improved performance across the board.

When your target customers read these posts, they have an ah-ha moment.

They realize, for example, that their ever-declining revenue isn’t a result of customer dissatisfaction with their product – it’s a result of outdated ways of delivering customer care.

What’s more, they see that to deliver the kind of experience their customers now expect, they’ll have to unify their many data sources – i.e., launch a digital transformation project. And that’s something you can help with.


How to Build a Marketing Tunnel

If your startup has a content marketing program, you may well already have a marketing tunnel. But if you’re just launching a program or looking for ways to improve your results, I recommend rethinking your efforts with this framework:

  1. Who are your ideal customers? Instead of answering this with demographic information, answer based on specific events they’re experiencing. E.g., Heads of sales who are struggling to both hit monthly numbers and retain their best employees.
  2. Where are they now / where do they enter your tunnel? E.g., they’re trying to figure out why things that worked in the past no longer work.
  3. Where do they want to be / where will your tunnel lead them? E.g., to an understanding of the problems with their current operations or to an understanding of how customer expectations have changed.
  4. How are they likely to get there without your help? Will it take years of trial and error? If so, how much will that cost them? (This is important to keep in mind as you decide how much to invest in your tunnel and letting people know about it – more on that below.)
  5. How can you help them get there more easily? Your tunnel! An explanatory blog series, for example, which you maybe promote on LinkedIn or via a newsletter to ensure your target audience sees it.

Remember, the purpose of the tunnel is to get your target audience to a place of understanding. When they’ve passed through your tunnel, they’ll clearly see what’s causing their problems and how your services can solve them.

Measuring the Success of Your Marketing Tunnel

Like a regular tunnel, a marketing tunnel succeeds when…

  1. Your target audience can find it; and
  2. It gets them where they want to go faster.

Bonus points if it’s an enjoyable journey.

Luckily, those can be inferred via things you’re probably already measuring – or, if you haven’t yet launched your content marketing program, the things you were planning to measure: site traffic, social engagement, time on site, conversions to MQL status.

I also suggest plain old asking people what was helpful and what wasn’t. It’s something you can ask new customers as they onboard but also something you can digitize via a site popup. A simple “did you find this article helpful” with the option to hit thumbs up or thumbs down might give you valuable feedback you can use to guide revisions and future content.

At its core, tunnel mindset isn’t about changing how you measure success. It’s about changing the way you think about what content you create in the first place.

Thinking of your content as a tunnel may also change how you choose to promote it. For example, if you write a blog post that you know 90 percent of your prospective clients need to read to understand how to solve a key problem they have, you should give that piece its best possible chance of reaching your audience.

Yes, optimize it for search. But maybe also send some paid traffic there.

Pay to promote it to key audiences on social.

Heck, you may even want to pitch a version of it to podcast hosts and industry publications your audience pays attention to.

When you're confident that your tunnel works – that it gets your ideal customers from where they are to where they need to be faster and easier than they’d otherwise be able to – your goal should be to figure out how to get as many of those ideal customers as possible to the entry of the tunnel.

The Essence of the Tunnel: Become a Helpful Resource

Maybe the main difference between the marketing funnel and the marketing tunnel is that the funnel focuses on what your content can do for your bottom line and the tunnel focuses on what your content can do for your customers.

Let’s not kid ourselves: we also want tunnel content to convert visitors into leads and leads into customers.

But by starting with the tunnel framework, startups are more likely to make decisions that benefit their end users. Ultimately, those are the decisions that will lead to long-term growth.

Questions about all this? Think I’m a few cards short of a deck? Get in touch:

Photo credit: Paweł L. from Pexels