“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”Michael Crichton
I never liked or appreciated history. I found it to be a dull and forgettable affair at school, happy to forget about it the moment I left.
It’s taken me years to appreciate the significance of lessons embedded in the threads of history that can be applied to our lives today, patterns in the signal that can help us anticipate and prepare for future events.
And so, I start this series with a look back in order to see forward.
- If you want to read about the “tsunami,” a timeline of events that shaped the internet we use today for commerce, continue to THE INVISIBLE TSUNAMI.
- If you want to skip ahead to read about linear vs. ‘open world’ funnels, skip to ‘CLOSED’ LINEAR FUNNELS (TRADITIONAL MARKETING).
The Invisible Tsunami
I left high school in 1991, a freshly minted nobody, a world of possibilities ahead of me. The “internet” wasn’t a thing, not yet. It was invisible to everyone, a tsunami building on an ocean at night — “a fad,” declared some of the visionaries of the time.
By 1993 there were 130 websites and 14 million users (a ratio of 108,935 users per website). A year later, Yahoo! would launch (2,738 websites, 25M users, or approximately 9,297 users per website). The tsunami was building.
Then in 1996, a year after Altavista and Amazon launched, I built the website of the computer company I was working for in South Africa, using Microsoft FrontPage 1.1 (one of 257,601 websites, now with 77M users, or 301 people per website).
Google would show up in 1998, one of 2.5M websites. The internet wasn’t a fad anymore, it was serious fucking business, a tsunami impossible to miss.
Today there are over a billion registered websites browsed by over 5 billion people (64.4 percent of the world’s total population).
A similar dynamic played out across other industrial complexes — music, film, news (publishing), the arts, retail, manufacturing, software, advertising…
The tsunami of disruption from the internet’s long tail washed over every industry, submerging some and forever altering others. Nothing was unaffected, everyone left dripping wet.
Change is like that.
It starts as an imperceptible undercurrent, then comes surging forward and crashing down, disruptive, devastating everything in its wake. However, as with the receding waters of a tsunami, new life emerges from the depths.
Change is transformative. Inevitable.
The internet phenomenon was led by large industrial complexes, “hubs” of the old internet like Yahoo! and Altavista, which was washed away in the disruptions, the “long tail” of the internet emerging, leading to increased competition, innovation, and specialization, as sovereign creators, indie businesses, and entrepreneurs seek to cater to the diverse needs and interests of a globally connected world.
The internet long tail has provided a platform for smaller, niche sovereign creators and businesses to showcase their unique products and services, fostering unparalleled creativity and innovation.
It’s allowed us to thrive.
However, in the early “Wild West” days of the internet, there were orders of magnitude less competition, so generating traffic to a website was relatively easy and inexpensive.
As a result, creating the ultimate invisible selling machines on the internet evolved into a “science,” an industry that endures today.
I observed it happen. It was impossible to miss.
As everyone raced to capture as much value from the market as quickly as possible, leveraging every tool of persuasion in the marketing toolbox, how direct-response marketing “was done” became shaped in stone — a “template” everyone copied.
‘Closed’ Linear Funnels (Traditional Marketing)
Implicit in the idea of a traditional “sales funnel” is that it’s a highly engineered straight path to immediate results (or as quickly as possible). Shovel as many people as possible top of the funnel, predictably generating customers at the narrower end.
Modern-day magic right there.
We see expressions of “sales funnels” everywhere online, a byproduct of traditional direct-response marketing invented and honed into a science by our forebears — Claude C. Hopkins, David Ogilvy, Eugene Schwartz, Gary Halbert, Dan Kennedy, et al.
Like ancient religious texts, many of the tactics codified in their copywriting books perpetuate today, like commandments from the gods.
For good reason, I suppose — they still “work,” plucking at the physiological strings of the human condition, emphasizing all dimensions of urgency, scarcity, and loss aversion, a blunt force approach to persuading and leveraging immediate action in service of a sale asap.
“Capturing” an audience en mass (lead generation 101) has been over-engineered and optimized out the wazoo for years, where prospects are shoehorned through linear paths — lead magnets, free-shipping book funnels, free webinars, and other funnel-hacking tripwire bullshit where “free” is inserted just before an unnatural highly engineered transaction.
And god forbid if anyone “escapes!”
Retarget their ass to get them back pronto before the window of opportunity to monetize closes for good. Such is the shortsighted mentality of the traditional funnel marketer.
However, if optimizing solely for immediate first-order outcomes (narrowing the delta between generating leads and customers) is the short-sighted definition of “works,” I don’t know about you, but I want nothing to do with it as a path to fostering durable long-term relationships with audiences and customer happiness.
As a sovereign individual, you’ve undoubtedly been dragged, pushed, and shoved through many traditional funnels that represent a linear worldview experience.
As a prospect caught in these over-engineered mousetraps: how does it leave you feeling?
This trend will likely stay the same while the drumbeat of coercion marketing, the blueprint for audience building as quickly as possible, beats on.
Until it stops working.
Which it will.
Change is like that, a pattern embedded in history.
Sadly, in a weird and dialectical paradox, you’re likely locked into doing the same to your audience to some degree, under the misguided assumption that this is just “how it’s done,” part of the marketing playbook — best practices for doing business online.
From my perspective, the issue with “traditional funnels” is not so much their linear design but rather:
- their placement as the engine at the center of the business, the heartbeat that’s constantly optimized for throughput, the entire business subject to its performance;
- the idea that a “sales funnel” can force people into becoming customers within a narrow time horizon (and for this to have no negative downstream consequences).
Here’s a generalized visualization of a linear sales funnel, where A flows to B, which flows to C, which flows to D, etc., with the single goal of generating a low-cost customer as quickly as possible.
This then triggers an accession funnel, sequentially presenting and cycling through ever more expensive offers over time.
The traditional reductionist funnel model focuses on independently optimizing the throughput of each step in the funnel.
However, this approach is misguided as it assumes that the whole system will improve when every point of conversion is perfectly optimized. In reality, this can (and almost always does) undermine the overall performance of the system.
“The performance of the whole is never the sum of the performance of the parts taken separately; it’s the product of their interactions. (…) Improving the performance of one component of a system will rarely improve the performance of the whole system. In fact, it can frequently harm it.“Dr. Russell Ackoff (considered the grandfather of modern systems thinking)
In the illustration above, ‘A’ generates a lead (lead magnet being the most common method of “bribing”), ‘B’ is a free shipping offer or “free webinar” masterclass, ‘C’ and ‘D’ represent a parallel email sequence which promotes ‘E,’ the first low-dollar offer, and so on.
Bolted around this central linear funnel engine are various pages (Home, About, FAQ) and perhaps a blog that creates an illusion of something more than what’s actually there.
This linear funnel (or funnels) is obfuscated from unsuspecting prospects and customers, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yet their linear nature is the engine of the business, the mousetraps locked and loaded, waiting to “capture” someone, then hammer home a sale chop-chop.
The linear funnel is everything.
But when a funnel stops performing, the entire business stops working. I’ve seen 7-figure businesses rise and fall from a single linear funnel.
When a business is reliant on the performance of a single funnel (or series of linear funnels), it’s an incredibly fragile affair. It thrives when traffic is cheap and easy to convert, but comes crashing down, a house of cards, when the tides rise.
Which they always do.
‘Open’ Non-Linear Funnels (Open World Marketing)
If the traditional linear funnel is not the answer (when optimizing for happy customers and enduring relationships), what is?
The purpose of this manifesto is to present an alternative narrative to this question. But before we get there, consider asking yourself a different question.
What if we are not in the “generate a customer as quickly as possible” business but rather in the “transformative experience” business?
What if instead of a series of linear “mousetraps” designed to quickly capture attention and then coerce a sale asap using a playbook of persuasion tactics, we counterintuitively turn the model on its head, creating an ‘open world’ funnel, allowing prospects to engage within a non-linear world?
An experience so engaging (and transformative), people want to immerse themselves in it, inhabiting the world from which happy customers inevitably emerge.
What if becoming a customer is an inevitability for the right people when exposed to a different expression of (open world) marketing, negating the need for the traditional strong-arm tactics associated with direct response marketing?
In my view, when we emphasize building relationships before optimizing for transactions, we establish the affordance for happy customers to emerge more organically.
Across this dimension, ‘open world’ marketing funnels are more effective than traditional direct-response marketing funnels.