August 29, 2013

Why I hate funnels.

It's kinda funny how I've founded an email marketing service with over 3 million users around the world, but I've never felt comfy calling myself an "email marketer," let alone a member of the email marketing community. That's partly because I nearly failed Marketing 101 in college (don't tell anybody). But mostly, it's because I hate funnels. And professional marketers just won't shut up about those God forsaken things. You know the funnels I'm talking about? They always look like this:

The idea is that you need a ton of website visitors, then some of them become become leads, and then after you do something (the usual recommendation is to bombard the leads with marketing automation) they relent and pay you money, thus becoming a "customer." 

I hate this, because it's shortsighted. Granted, if you work in a company that's shortsighted (they're racing to some sort of exit, or maybe living quarter to quarter), this funnel stuff is probably important. But if you're the kind of guy who thinks more long term, that funnel looks more like this:

Someone I know recently heard one of our ads on the radio (an ad where we discuss hats for cats), and he asked me what my logic and approach is when it comes to marketing (I've learned that this is a nice way for friends to say, "Dude, wtf are you thinking?"). Which reminded me of that funnel. I told him I just take that funnel, and turn it upside down:

There. Doesn't it look a lot more stable that way? This approach works especially well for early-stage businesses. When you start a business, you don't have a budget for marketing. You probably don't have the time or talent for it, either. The only thing you've got is your passion. That damned, trouble-making passion that suckered you into starting your business in the first place. Take that passion and point it at your customers. Deliver awesome customer service. Delight them. Empower them. When I say "empower them" I mean empower them for free, with "no strings attached." Because when companies make people sign up and register to download their content, we all know they're about to feed us into the automation meat grinder. 

I told my friend that we discovered this "upside down funnel" approach in the early days, and never really grew out of it (because it's worked). When you see our strange billboards that don't even say our name, or when you see our random "high five" shirts, vinyl toys, or hear ridiculous radio ads, just know that they defy logic because they're for our existing customers. We're not going for new leads, let alone conversions or whatever they teach you in Marketing 101. We're going for customer service. Which, by the way, leads to leads. 

I suppose this approach and philosophy extends into MailChimp as well. Our colleagues in the email industry seem to be building for that place where marketing and sales overlap:

This is more illogical than hats for cats, if you ask me. I can understand building a few features that help people score leads or send automated messages (MailChimp has some of these features). But that's short term tactical stuff. If that's your core offering, you're basically just attracting customers who have short term goals. Yikes. Seems like your only hope there is for a quick exit. Maybe Salesforce will buy you (unlikely now) or maybe their competitor Oracle (then again, maybe not).  Or maybe you can try to keep going with an upside down model and hope nobody notices. What do I know? Again, I nearly failed Marketing 101.  

For the past 12 years, we've been building MailChimp with this in mind:

Seems like we've got a really weird approach when you compare that to the way others operate. I'm even guilty of warning new employees about how "things are really weird around here, and it's going to take some getting used to." But the more I look around, the more I think this is the most normal, most human, most sustainable way to run your business. 

Related and highly recommended:

A little self-marketing:
I was asked by a friend to speak about "creative environments." It was to a group of youth ministry professionals, which was a very different audience for me, so I jumped at the chance. If you've got a few minutes, and you care what I think about creativity at work, here you go (it's tolerable).