A recent Marketing Week article really caught my attention. The author proposes dealing with the “messy middle” of your marketing funnel by examining probabilities of various paths through your content. What struck me – and forgive me if this is self-congratulatory – is that I’ve actually been working toward a very similar concept, albeit specifically regarding website content.
As has been repeatedly lamented, the neat and tidy marketing funnel has been edged out by the customer journey. For website content this has been driven largely by the evolution of search and its increasing focus on satisfying particular user intent, but also by social media. Indeed, your efforts to design a step-by-step top-down funnel, from awareness to interest to engagement to consideration to conversion, goes largely out the window if people can enter the funnel at any step. And they do enter at any step, especially your website content. And they do want to create their own journey through your content.
For marketers, this means your job is to facilitate each customer’s journey, making it easy for them to find content that meets their needs, while simultaneously shepherding them toward conversion.
An Example for Higher Education
Since admissions marketing is projected to be an increasing priority for many institutions, let’s consider admissions content. It has been my experience that a solid and workable framework is to structure your website content around Brand, Offering and Conversion (BOC). Sounds rather like a funnel, right? More on that later.
Content at this level is broader, with a focus on overall positioning and differentiation. It should also have a stronger emotional appeal.
This content focuses on specific offerings (e.g., programs), with two sub-levels:
- Offering Overview: salient and/or differentiating program points, infused with brand and value proposition.
- Offering Details: more nitty-gritty, factual. Should be structured around typical prospect interests or queries. This can have the additional benefit of improving SEO for your pages/site.
For admissions, this content will typically provide details about the application process with a link to the application, while maintaining an appeal to brand value proposition and associated emotions.
This illustration presents an overview of what BOC website content could look like:
This looks rather funnel-like, and it fundamentally is. But please note the absence of arrows going from box to box, or level to level. That’s because prospective students will create their own journey through the content. For example, from a particular Google search query, a prospect may enter your site on a conversion page, which traditionally would be considered bottom-of-funnel. But now that may be the beginning of a particular user journey, and the user may very well work their way “backward” through other content as suits their interests or needs in the moment.
With all of that in mind, here are a few things you may wish to consider:
- Be sure your website’s main navigation easily facilitates a variety of journeys. This could necessitate some user testing.
- Do market research to understand what content prospective students are looking for.
- Use Google Analytics and Search Console to understand how searchers are arriving at your site, and which pages are the top landing pages for what queries.
- If you have site search in place, see if there are recurrent searches being performed by users. If there are, do you have existing content that needs to be more easily accessed, or does new contact need to be created to satisfy those user queries.
- Use on-page links and calls to action to emphasize particular pathways, especially toward conversion content.
- At the Offering level, begin narrowing the ability to navigate away from the offering-level content, always emphasizing links to conversion content.
- At the Conversion level, further narrow the options to navigate away from those pages. Place great emphasis on the ultimate action you want users to take, e.g., starting their application.
- Use website analytics to gain insights about the paths people are taking through your content:
- Which paths are taken most often?
- Which paths are most likely to end in conversion?
- How can you optimize those journeys to conversion?
- Perhaps some content restructuring is needed?
- Some of the new features in Google Analytics 4 promise to be especially useful for this kind path analysis. (You may be interested in my overview of GA4.)
Learn to Love Your Messy Middle
Orderly funnels have been displaced by journeys, and the “messy middle” is just what it promises to be: messy. But a content framework such as BOC, coupled with robust analytics and a set of meaningful KPIs, will help you map content to the journeys your customers want to take, help them achieve their goals, while helping you optimize paths to conversion.
For more about the “messy middle,” this Google article gives an excellent overview of the concept.