The article originally published in Huffington Post

Introduced over a century ago, the marketing funnel — the model of how a person comes to ultimately make a purchase (awareness, opinion, research/consideration, decision, purchase) – has guided marketing strategies for brands of all sizes across every industry. Following years of losing the battle of relevance in a time of very complex customer behavior where no one follows a linear path to purchase or loyalty and where a huge sphere of influence exists outside of a brand’s control — the marketing funnel has died.

Our society is now one of perpetual connectivity, which opens the door for brands to have continual engagement with their customers. The paradigms that have shepherded strategies for generations have to make way for ongoing relationship nurturing and customer advocacy development. As smartphones become more ingrained in our lives (people now check their phones 150 times per day), mobile allows marketers to engage in a two-way dialogue that takes a more human (read: effective) approach to nurturing relationships.

When the marketing funnel was in its prime, the outlets and interaction models customers had with brands were limited. Today, a person receives customer service on Twitter, refers friends on Instagram and reads “expert” reviews on their favorite niche blogs. This evolved customer journey requires brands to take a more individualized approach to their customer relationships and build loyalty through amazing experiences no matter what journey each customer is on. The new strategies to guide brand/customer interaction are:

  • Omni-Channel Personalized Experiences: Regardless of what channel a consumer interacts with a brand, the experience must be consistent. One of the biggest struggles in the customer journey today is the irregularity in how a person is treated online versus in-store versus in-app. Brands need to have a single view of their customers, integrating all data and systems (CRM, email, social, etc.) to automatically serve personalized experiences every time at every digital and physical touchpoint. If I have spent a lot of money with a retailer online, but am not acknowledged as a loyal customer in-store by the sales associate, I will be less inclined to continue a relationship. Brands with a brick-and-mortar presence need to leverage emerging technologies like beacons to drive in-store engagement by delivering personalized deals based on micro-location as well as allowing for customer identification which empowers flight attendants, servers or other sales associates to provide experiences rooted in previous behavior and demonstrated preferences.
  • Be Immediately Available, Any Time: It sounds simple, but brands need to be there when their customers need them. No one follows the same path but will be expecting you at every turn. It’s not just about being there, though. To build up a bank of good will, marketers must provide people with the information, content or functionality they need the moment they need it, no matter the screen, channel or touchpoint. Brand interactions need to be highly personalized to the individual and automatically trigger based on factors related to their current situation, such as weather, location, time or intent.
  • Preemptively Intervene: Netflix and Amazon predict with high accuracy what movies or products we would like and we have started to take these personalized recommendations for granted. At the very least, brands need to recommend products based on someone’s previous affinity to other products. The truly great experiences, though, will come from delighting customers with what they want in a situation before they even know they want it. If there is heavy traffic, does your brand know from past behavior and social media activity that your customer is likely to be in a bad mood? A brand can then share a special offer for a treat to brighten their day. The magic lies in the ability to subtly intervene with something that a customer would like when it’s incredibly personal and relevant, without recommending something for far-fetched situations.
  • Nurture a Community: Our society is one where people like to be involved – whether it is through sharing a picture of their meal or outfit they have curated from vintage shops to rating their drivers. We live in a time of a hyperactive exchange of opinions across people’s extensive social circles and on communities like Trip Advisor. Studies have demonstrated these peer reviews are among the most trusted in the customer decision journey. To provide for this fundamental part of today’s customer experience, marketers need to create their own communities where people can be active participants (like Sephora’s new platform) or cultivate sub-communities on existing sites like Facebook and encourage reviews on established sites.

To motivate consumers to act, marketers must focus on building relationships. Pre-purchase, what experiences, rich information and real-time interaction can you provide to surprise and delight customers? If an unexpected rain shower pops up, a retailer could push an offer for a new umbrella as someone passes a store. When a person is browsing (virtually or in-store) new spring styles, a brand can share a photo of a celebrity who was just snapped wearing something from the collection. It’s about understanding who your customer is, what they would respond to and serving up the experience when it’s relevant to them.The journey doesn’t end after a purchase, but requires a brand to ensure that the customer is satisfied with their decision and provide ongoing experiences. Nurturing your customers post-purchase is critical in building an army of advocates who are the ones that will shape the future purchase decisions of their peers.

As brands move on from the marketing funnel era, they need to keep the individual customer as the focus of every effort. Marketers can’t promote a new product to the world and expect people to run out the door to pick it up. They must tell me how this would benefit me, why I might like it and only when it aligns with an immediate need of mine. We used to live in a world where the brand had complete control of the conversation – the message, the experience and time of interaction. Today, there are more touchpoints than ever before and purchasing behavior is driven not by brand promises, but by social conversations and ongoing brand experiences.

RIP, marketing funnel. Welcome, real-time situationally-aware, consumer-driven experiences.