Why the Marketing Funnel Needs an Empathy Overlay

Depiction of the marketing funnel shows there's more to know beyond the traditional approach.Do you like it when people put you in a neat little box? Does anyone?

Yet that’s what the marketing funnel model does. Sure, it illustrates a theoretical and simplified customer journey. And marketers like it because it gives them a way to measure their efforts.

But the marketing funnel is an illusion, a way to prove a department’s worth with vanity metrics and a lot of creative storytelling. And it ends up funneling all prospects and buyers into the same neat little box.

The traditional marketing funnel, in which all customers start and end at the same place.Source: Sprout Social

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the funnel is useless. It provides a convenient framework to help plan, implement, and measure your marketing. I am saying, however, that it’s not enough.

The funnel leaves out empathy.

The #marketing funnel is an illusion to prove marketing’s worth with vanity metrics. It’s not good enough anymore, says Carmen Collins via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Empathetic marketing beyond the funnel

You have been taught empathy is “walking in someone else’s shoes.” But that thinking trips you up. It makes you think you can drop yourselves into your customers’ shoes and understand everything about them at that moment.

Empathy is walking beside someone until your shoes start to feel like theirs. It’s not a moment; it requires constant communication and deep understanding.

Walk beside your customer until your shoes start to feel like theirs.

But the marketing funnel doesn’t give you room to walk beside your customer. That’s why when you use that framework, you drop yourself into those customers’ shoes and walk single-mindedly with blinders on, pushing an outcome the way you think it should arrive.

How do you inject empathy into an empathy-deficient system?

Let’s look at four ways to do that.

1. Send the marketing funnel to the back

You can use the marketing funnel as a foundation, but you need to build on it. Overlay the funnel with the never-in-a-straight-line, often looping, sometimes-stopping road that is the customer journey.

An empathy overlay on the marketing funnel showing how non-linear most customer journeys are.

By following the curvy road, you’re less likely to eliminate potential customers who won’t buy in an arbitrary time frame. You’re forced to think of long-term utility vs. short-term profits. It also prevents marketing from being reduced to a sales-enablement role rather than a builder of the brand.

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2. Understand your customers’ likes and dislikes

Remember, you are walking beside the buyer over time. Social marketers have a unique – and valuable – position because they are among the closest teams to their audiences.

For example, if your brand wants to reach customers 45 and older, you know that TikTok doesn’t have many fans in that demographic. (A March 2023 survey found 65% of people ages 45 to 64 and 83% of 65 and older favor a TikTok ban .)

Statistics showing the percentage of people in each generation who support a TikTok ban.

Source: Statista

Or if you aim to make inroads with Gen Z, you know they like to turn subtitles on when they consume social, streaming, movies, and TV content. (A Preply survey found 70% of Gen Z use subtitles most of the time compared to 53% of millennials, 38% of Gen X, and 35% of Baby Boomers.) You know your video content should include that all-important detail.

A graph depicting the percentage of people in each generation who use subtitle while watching video content.

Source: Preply

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Marketing Content to Gen Z? You Better Play by Their Rules

3. Build community

My working theory is that every legacy social media platform loses users to new platforms. The barrage of ads and inauthentic connections send them fleeing to seek more personal connections.

Make sure to put into practice what you’ve learned about customers’ likes and dislikes and show off your new empathy skills on whatever platforms you use.

TikTok data from January 2023 indicates 76% of users like it when brands become part of the special interest groups they identify with. The key phrase is “become part of.” Brands need to show up authentically wherever they are because the audience can spot someone trying to sell them something a mile away.

TikTok’s guidance is to find the communities that make sense for your brand. For example, ScrubDaddy and its sponges are all over #CleanTok. Click To Tweet

Here’s one example from @cookingconomi, who demonstrated the product for her hundreds of thousands of followers:

@cookingconomi Ok @Scrub Daddy I’m a believer … #cleantok #scrubdaddy #lodgecastiron #lodge ♬ original sound – omi

Once you find your communities, find not-so-obvious ways to embed your brand into them authentically.

One example of unexpected collaborations is the #TrainTok content from Gucci and The North Face. The brands teamed up with wholesome trainspotter and 20-something TikTok influencer Francis Bourgeois to create content around a $9,000 puffer vest. This YouTube video captures one example of their joint output.

Though Bourgeois might seem an odd choice to represent a luxury brand, his followers include many high-profile celebrities, and his content embraces the love of adventure that makes sense for The North Fans. By partnering with him, both brands reached a new community of outdoor and travel enthusiasts.
Find your customers’ communities and embed your brand #Content into them in authentic ways, says @ CShirkeyCollins via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

4. Show, don’t tell (or sell)

You should show that you get your audience, not sell (tell) to them. This is why TikTok’s guidance has always been to “make TikToks, not ads.”

You do this through brand storytelling – creating content people want to engage with. Comment and interact with your audiences through social listening. Doing that leads your audience to have an affinity for your brand.

Remember, it’s not about you – the brand; it’s all about them – the customer. While this graphic from UserOnboard is from 2014, it still serves as one of the better visualizations of marketing with empathy.

It plays on the Mario Brothers game with a small Mario-like character representing the person who is a potential customer. Next is a plus sign followed by a flower representing the product. A caption for the flow explains that the product isn’t what your company makes.

But the prospective customer and the product add up to a larger-than-life Luigi character described as an “awesome person who can do rad shit!” The point is that the awesome person is what your brand creates, not the product you sell.

A Mario Brothers-themed representation of how a customer plus your brand's product creates "an awesome person who can do rad shit."


Here’s a real-life example of customer-focused empathy. The social marketing team at Gillette Stadium outside of Boston used their Twitter content to connect with Taylor Swift fans (like me) before her concert earlier this year.

They posted an image of her wearing a New England Patriots jersey during a 2010 performance alongside a picture of a blue, white, and red Patriots jersey with her last name and the number 13 on it.

Above the images, they wrote:

“13 years ago Taylor Swift played her first Gillette Stadium show. 1 week until she plays her 13th. RT and follow to enter to win a custom #13 Swift jersey!”

It may not mean anything to a non-friendship-bracelet wearing non-Swiftie, but those in the cult of Tay-Tay (and viewers of her Capital One commercials) know 13 is her favorite number. Gillette Stadium’s social team showed they understood her fans (i.e., what their customers like) through their storytelling and giveaway prize rather than telling them to enter the contest.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Activating Empathy: How to Manage It, Measure It, and Market With It

Build with empathy

When you see the marketing funnel as a foundation on which to build, you can look at the customer journey through the lens of empathy. By valuing emotional connections and a genuine customer community, you take buyers out of that neat little box into a world where they can see themselves and how your brand connects to their lives.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute


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