Marketing Funnels. What they are (and aren’t). Why I think they’re a terrible way to structure a client relationship. And what to do instead. The idea today is to show you why and how to look deeper at the prevalent logic that you HAVE to do this to be successful. You don’t.



Episode Transcript:

I’m Illana Burk, CEO of Your Life’s Workshop, coach to entrepreneurs and solopreneurs across dozens of industries and host of Good Business. With nearly 20 years experience helping hundreds of clients create profitable, ethically driven and sustainable businesses based on their life’s work, I’m here to teach you how to do great work, make great money, and make a positive impact without feeling like you need a shower afterwards.

Welcome. Today’s episode is the final chapter in our ethical selling series. We’re talking about one of my favorite and least favorite topics to talk about, marketing funnels. We’re going to talk about what they are and what they aren’t. We’re going to go into a little bit of history about where marketing funnels came from, what their original intention was, and how they’ve been co-opted by internet marketers everywhere. We’re also going to talk about why I think they’re a terrible way to structure a client relationship and why I think that it’s a crap way to get started with anybody, and what to do instead. As a preface, I could do a whole podcast all by itself on only this topic, and I would have enough content for years.

There’s a lot to be said. There’s a lot of debate, a lot of content, a lot of permutations and components to this. I want you to know that today is just going to be a primer. The idea is by the end of the episode, I want you to have a clear understanding of the simple fact that a marketing funnel is not at all a necessity, nor is it even a good idea, if relationship building and trust are core values for you, your business, or for those you serve. I want you to be at least questioning by the end of this episode. You might have a marketing funnel. You might be in the process of creating one. You might even be beating yourself up for not having one yet. All of those states of being are fine.

I want you to have some tools to examine what you’re doing and why, which is so much of what we do in business. Especially when you’re starting, it’s like a big flipping fucking mystery. You follow instructions, you follow people who seem successful, and you do what they did, and then they get successful, and then they teach you how to do what they did, and so around and around we go. We keep following the same patterns over and over again. The thing is, you don’t have to do that. We’re going to talk about critical thinking and decision making in another episode. I promise it’s a big area, but today I at least want you to start dipping your toe in the water of going, “you know what?”

I’m allowed to be discerning in my business because it worked for somebody else. It doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for me. Marketing funnels are the big fucking flashing red neon sign of marketing everyone thinks they have to do. You don’t. Eleven years in, I still don’t have a marketing funnel. Please know that. I’m practicing what I preach on this one.

First off, let’s talk about what a marketing funnel is. I’m betting that if I lined up ten people listening right now, you’d give me ten different answers. They’d all be in the same neighborhood, but they’re probably not as informed as you think they are. The idea of a marketing funnel is a complicated question because it goes back to a guy named Elias St Elmo Lewis. In 1898 he developed the A.I.D.A. model. Picture the A at the top and the other A at the bottom, that’s originally how a marketing funnel was created. When you go through a customer process, it was about the psychology of a buying process for an individual customer.

He was an advertising guy. He was one of the original ad men, and he’s widely acknowledged as the foundation for this. It’s a model that’s still in use today. The idea of A.I.D.A. is awareness, interest, desire, action. The customer becomes aware that your thing exists; they get interested in it; they start actively expressing interest in a particular product. At the grocery store that could be as simple as picking something up off the shelf. That’s the interest stage. Then desire; I start to feel those feelings of, “I think I want this, I think I’m going to buy this.” Then you take action, you purchase. It’s relatively simple. You have to go through those things, but in 1898, not so obvious.

Try to see it through that lens. The idea of that funnel has been used over the subsequent century and a half or so. That idea has been co-opted into three separate things or uses, depending on your perspective. This is my rough and tumble explanation.  The first is the original model. It’s still used as a basic roadmap for selling. I remember back when I was like 23 and was managing a makeup store at a mall. We were taught a permutation of this that was about how to get sales. It was the hello, the approach. I think it was an acronym,  like “habit.” It was, hello, approach. I don’t remember all the other things, but it ended with “ask for the sale.” It was a way of following the original pattern.

I have seen innumerable permutations of people trying to co-opt this and make it their own and make it into something else because it’s straight forward. You have to get people to see it. You have to get people interested, you get people to want it, and then you get people to buy it. That’s how selling works. That’s the basics of business. It’s the backbone of marketing, honestly. So the original model, totally awesome. As long as you’re doing all of those stages with empathy and service mindedness, you’re golden. Awesome, right? That’s not the marketing funnel we’re talking about today.

The second is a conversion funnel. A conversion funnel has emerged out of e-commerce because it’s used to describe the process that an individual user goes through while interacting with a website, or an online store, or something like that. It’s their initial visit results in a sale. It follows the same model as the original, but it involves deliberate choices that can be easily manipulated to result in sales. Again, not inherently bad, but it can be and often is. It’s using psychology, heat maps, a particular color theory, with the end of getting people to take action, not delivering value. Notice those, the difference there. It’s a common theme. It’s something that I’m going to be talking about a lot during this episode. This is effective; effective doesn’t always equal good, and that’s what we’re talking about.

The third is the marketing funnel. That’s the core of what we’re venturing into today. That’s the philosophy that ventures into dehumanizing, financially driven strategy. It’s the absence of clear and deep examination. It’s always a negative, as far as I’m concerned. It’s taught in a way that completely devalues the actual needs agency and consent of the person you’re trying to sell to. My biggest problem is not with the model. I’ve said this before. Marketing is like a hammer. You can’t hate a hammer for being a hammer. You hate the hand that wields it. This is just like that. The thing is, I see very few people actually doing a marketing funnel well and ethically because they’re all taught the same way. We all follow the same playbooks. In the absence of criticizing, in the absence of noticing that there’s some dark shit happening when you push someone headfirst into a funnel, this is what keeps happening even among really great, ethical, cool people.

I have a lot of dear friends and other business owners that I love that do this stuff without looking harder. Maybe this episode will help people and will challenge people to look a little harder. That’s my goal here. So what does the yucky version of a marketing funnel commonly look like? It looks like free stuff at the top that hard sells you into some lower price stuff. We’re going to get into what a trip wire is a little bit later in the episode. A marketing funnel is making you go, “okay, I’m interested in this thing that I got for free, but it didn’t solve anything. So I guess maybe I should buy their $19.99 thing and maybe that’ll solve my thing.” Then that hard sells you into a slightly higher price thing with a little bit more depth, but still doesn’t solve your core problem and then hard sells you into a high ticket, high-value offer that maybe solves your problem. Probably solves your problem but that’s not even the point at that point, for the marketer at least.

At each stage, you’re expected to lose people. Think about that for a second. You put all that effort in, and you’re expecting people to drop off, based on what you deliver. Think about how messed up that is and how much of a waste of energy that is. We’re going to circle back to that again in just a moment. I want to go into why that’s bad.

You cast a really wide net, make really big promises. You promise things that you know going in, you’re not going to completely deliver on at the first stage. Your brand is making this big promise; the free thing at the top isn’t making that promise. Psychologically, we don’t know the difference. As visitors, when we’re making these millisecond decisions of signing up for a list, we’re looking at the promise of their whole brand. We’re not looking at the promise of the opt-in. You get this collateral authority based on what you develop around it. Then when you don’t deliver on it, people start questioning themselves. “Maybe it was just me.” So you lose people because you made a promise you aren’t delivering on and you’re getting away with it because you manipulated the language of your original promise so that the first thing, like an opt-in, kind of delivered. It’s that interest that it “kind of” delivered. It’s like it delivered adjacent. That will get a certain percentage of your buyers to spend a little cash and go a little bit deeper. Think about this for a second. The people that drop off should be the ones you want most. If you’re good at what you do, think hard on that. What about the quality of the people who are buying? Do you ever think about that? Does anybody ever think about that, or do they see people as dollar signs? I honestly don’t know. I know I’m not the only one. I know that the numbers are fewer than they should be. The ones who dropped off are smart, discerning, and actively looking for what you have.

If you’re good at what you do, the idea of leaving even one behind because you didn’t deliver on something, should make this whole process a no-go for you — that one thing. What started as a way of understanding and relating to customers has become a way of manipulating them. That sucks.

So let’s untangle that. Now we have terms like lead magnet and tripwire, and we have all of these other terms for all of the different permutations of a marketing funnel. I want to go into what those are for a second because we’re getting so jargony in this industry that new people coming in feel like they’re inherently missing something. When they hear someone more experienced say things like, “what’s my new lead magnet?” or, “I’ve got to develop a new tripwire.” It’s part of the root cause of this continuing to perpetuate. You hear those things from people who are more advanced than you, and then you go looking for what they are and then you do the thing instead of questioning the thing because it has the authority of that first person you thought was doing it the right way.  

A lead magnet is an interchangeable term with an opt-in. It’s a simple, easy to understand way of getting people to take action in some way and become a part of your active community. Instead of, if your podcast is a listener or somebody who’s a lurker. It’s turning a lurker into someone engaged. It’s a simple, easy to understand way of getting people to move into that action mode. For big retail giants, this might be something like a gift or a 10% off coupon for signing up for a mailing list. That kind of thing. For internet-based solopreneurs, which I’m sure many of you are, this is a checklist, a simple e-book, a short, basic course, that sort of stuff. We all know what freebies look like. That’s a lead magnet and an opt-in — same thing.

A tripwire is a thing that you sell them after they get the free thing, to get them into the next stage of the funnel. It’s designed to be too good to pass up. Cheap, easy, but it’s not usually basically cheap. It’s usually something that’s deeply discounted, for some asset you have. So, a special thing just for our subscribers, you get half off on this if you buy in the next 10 minutes. Or “if you click through in the next five days while you’re reading my e-book” or something. It should be something that is such an easy, simple yes that it’s almost a no-brainer and we’ll feel like it solves the problem that your lead magnet was supposed to solve but didn’t. It’s easy to talk yourself into, “okay, well for 15 bucks I guess I’ll get the next thing.” Marketers know, and this is really fucking important -pay attention. Stop jogging for a second or whatever you’re doing. Pay attention to this part – because marketers know that when someone buys once, they are statistically quadruply more likely to buy more later. I know that’s not a statistical word; this is why I’m not a math major. They’re way, way, way more fucking likely to buy later and probably quickly. This is the moment where a marketing funnel starts to work, where they go from, I signed up for your thing and gave you my information, so I’m giving you permission to market more things to me, too, I just gave you some money.

Why is this so important? Why is getting someone to spend 15 bucks or ten bucks or five bucks, whatever it is – why is that so critical? Once we buy something, we feel invested in it. That used to be true about giving someone our email address, but it’s not anymore. That used to be getting people on your list. That’s why we have popups and all that stuff. People start to feel invested. It’s just not true anymore because it’s so prevalent. We’ve gotten so used to it that we don’t feel that same level of investment, but the minute you take out your credit card, all that changes. Once you’re invested, your ego is tied to it. It means that we will actively look for value in it to validate the choice we made to purchase in the first place. Even when we don’t feel like we’re getting value from something, we’ll be more likely to buy from the same source because we feel invested.

We start questioning ourselves. We want to feel like we made a good decision. That’s critical. Everybody wants to feel like they made a good decision. We’ll buy the deeper thing to see if maybe we need that to feel inherent value. The deeper we go, the more money we spend, the more engaged you become with that brand. The less inclined you’ll be to get critical of what you’re consuming and the more likely you’ll become to recommend it to others. The more money you spend, the more likely you are to recommend it, the less likely you are to criticize it. By the bottom of the marketing funnel, you’re so invested that you may even start pushing the thing you bought on friends and loved ones. All this to feed a natural subconscious need to validate our choices.

We are hard-wired this way. Thinking you’re immune to it is a mistake. Thinking that your people are immune to it is a mistake. I’m not immune, and I see these tricks clear as day in front of me. I still crave solutions and validation and simple fixes just as much as anyone. I also work hard not to add to the bullshit. That’s what we’re talking about right now. If enough of us can make an example of the fact this is not the only way to fucking do it, then it’ll start to change, and we’ll start to give people their agency back. We’ll start to give people choice back. We’ll start to give people a reason to buy, instead of manipulation into buying.

So what should we be doing instead? That’s the big question. If not this, then what? Glad you asked!  First, look critically at what you’re offering and to whom and why you’re offering it. Your offers should always consider two things, and this is going to be like, “Duh.” What do your people want? What are your people need? Chances are they need and want a lot of things, but you’re only paying attention to one thing because we all think we were supposed to solve one big fucking problem. Chances are you’re never going to solve the one big fucking problem for a lot of people because there are a thousand tiny problems that make up that one big problem. That’s where the real stuff comes in. That’s where all the ancillary things that your brand offers become important, because chances are if you’ve done the work to know your people, to know who they are, to know what they value – and if you don’t know and you’re confused by this right now, check out episode, episode four, the one where we talk about values and value – instead of sneaking up behind them and shoving them into a funnel, you give them what they want and need in as many possible ways as you can.

Here’s what that could look and feel like. You’ve got somebody in front of you, and they say, “Hi, I know you need x, and you want y, and I have both. Take my hand. Let me show you why it’s worth it to invest in what I have to offer.” Go through that again. Instead of going, dive head first into my funnel, giving him a swift kick that they have very little control over. Instead, you’re, “Hi, I’m offering you an invitation. Would you like me to show you why it’s worth it to invest and give me money? I want to show you why it’s worth it. Here are some small ways I can show you why it’s worth it. I can give you opportunities to get a real taste and solve a real problem in small ways.”

It should break down their big needs and desires into a lot of teeny tiny ones and should satisfy those a piece at a time with incredible value at each stage. It’s okay to give away the farm. The thing about a farm is it keeps growing new things. If you’re good at what you do and you’re creative, you’re not a finite commodity. You’re a never-ending well of new and creative ways to solve problems and offer new things. Remember that, have faith in that. If you give people a taste of deep value, you don’t have to manipulate them with low-value fluff.

It’s that simple because those highly engaged, intelligent people that see and feel big value from small price things are exactly the people that you want because they’re going to be the ones that are genuine evangelists who the people around them deeply trust.

Think of this another way. I’m going to tell you a fun little story. It’s your birthday. You make a reservation at the buzzy hot new restaurant across town. When you get there, you have to stand around and wait. It’s really loud, and it’s not quite the intimate experience you were expecting or hoping for. But it was buzzy, and everybody said it was really good. So you went, and it’s your birthday. You’re trying to like make the best of it because it’s fun and there are all these expectations. Then the first course, you get some decent, not great, but passable, fresh, nice baked bread. That tastes good. It might even satisfy your hunger a little bit, but you’re going to want the next thing to be better, more special. You’re going to want to say it’s got to be better than bread. I mean, it’s not even olive bread, it’s just bread. Then the next course is a Caesar salad. Even if it’s the best Caesar salad you’ve ever had, it’s still just a fucking Caesar Salad. It’s still something you can get at Olive Garden.

Now you’re not going to get up and walk out, even though you’ve had two strikes to tell you that this is not as special as you thought it was going to be. You’re not going to get up and walk out, because you’re hungry, and you want to see what the fuss of this fancy new place is. You want to be part of the experience of going there. You want to be able to tell people tomorrow at work that you went there. You don’t want to admit that it might’ve all been a dumb waste of money. There are very few people in the world who will. These are big blanket statements, and I’m aware of that. I know many of you might get up and walk out if it’s mediocre. I acknowledge that.

We’re back to the restaurant. In your mind, you may even be thinking, maybe that was an amazing salad, and I’m just not refined enough to recognize it’s awesomeness. You start convincing yourself you’re not tasting what you’re tasting, you’re not experiencing what you’re experiencing, that you’re not disappointed because who wants to be disappointed on their birthday? Who wants to be disappointed when they spent a bunch of money and waited for ages for a reservation and went through all these hoops to get to where they are? By the final course, which was pretty good, maybe even great, it might’ve been the best steak you’ve ever had, but it still wasn’t an experience that you thought you were going to have, and you still had to like wade through a bunch of crap to get there. You’re convinced, though, even though you had to wade through all the crap, that you had the best meal ever. You tip well, and you rave about it, but only parts of it were good.

It was one thing that was watered down and spread out over the whole meal. Emotionally, it was that one simple course that was great. Your brain will paint the whole experience with that one brush. You won’t talk about the mediocre Caesar salad. You won’t talk about the okay bread. You’ll talk about, oh my God, I went there, and they had the best steak I’ve ever had. How long did it take you to get there and how much disappointment did you talk yourself out of before you got to that spot? Instead, you could go to a Michelin Star Restaurant. Something that is universally respected and understood to be excellent. The first course is an amuse bouche, and it’s an explosion of flavor. One bite feels life-changing, and in that single bite, you know you’re in for something special.

Every course after that is thoughtfully designed, well executed, and offers surprise value that you never knew you wanted or needed. Every stage of the entire evening makes you feel hungry and eager for what’s next. It makes you feel special for being a part of it. Instead of talking yourself into the experience being special, when it isn’t, it FEELS special. It feels like something only you experienced and is fucking magical, and you’ll want to tell people about it, but not because it feels so special. You’ll want to protect it a little bit. You’ll only tell people that you know for sure will enjoy it as much as you. When you think about that from a business standpoint, you can be the buzzy new thing that does all the new stuff, or you can be the Michelin Star restaurant that lasts.

It takes years to get that good. It takes years to develop their processes. It takes ages to develop something that’s truly exceptional and offers great value at every turn, at every stage, at every corner of the whole experience. The only people they tell are the ones they know are going to be right for it, too. What would you rather have? Highly engaged, highly discerning, highly intelligent, incredibly cool people that are part of your business? Or not? One more time that is not to say that people who fall into a marketing funnel are dumb. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that they might have been the wrong people for you to begin with. Just because they bought from you, just because they told people about you, doesn’t mean they were the right people. Did you satisfy them? Did you change them? Did you make their life or business better? Whatever it is that you sell, did you do that? Do you know?

Your business can be buzzy and mediocre and successful, or your business can be magnificent, special, and successful. You pick how you deliver absolutely everything. It shows people what matters to you. It shows people that they matter to you. It shows people that your work is more than trying to make a buck, trying to make a living, trying to feed your family. It shows people the work you’re putting out is your life’s work. It shows them you care so deeply about what they’re experiencing, that you’re going to go far above and beyond is an effort to be of service, instead of focusing entirely on success.

When you do this, success happens. It just does. It might take longer, though, so know that. It might take longer, but oh my God, it’s so much sweeter at the end.

All right everybody, I want to thank you for being here for our whole selling series and also for those of you that participated in our launch week giveaway. It’s wonderful to have you as part of our community and I really, really, really encourage you to check out the earlier episodes, especially in the selling series. It’s the foundation of the work that I do.  I hope you enjoyed our little primer today and I hope to see you again soon.

Thanks so much for hanging out with me today. For more information, visit or


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