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Flatten Your Sales Funnel: A Better Way to Convert More Prospects to Customers in 2020

by | Apr 13, 2020 | Online Mktg. and Copywriting, Content Marketing | 4 comments

Botticelli's The Map of Hell as a stand in for the sales funnel.
The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have a problem with the traditional sales funnel.

Actually, I have two, but I guess you could call this first one a personal problem: I’ve never liked the funnel analogy.

For me, the funnel creates a negative mental image. I see hapless business buyers caught in a whirlpool, or sliding down a steep, slippery slope to their inevitable doom. It conjures visions of Botticelli’s map of Dante’s Inferno (at left) or some macabre scene by Hieronymus Bosch.

The sales funnel is obsolete

The other problem is practical: the funnel is a poor representation of sales and marketing in today’s online world.

The traditional sales funnel model depicts a process that effectively ends at the sales transaction. It focuses on three things:

  1. Generating leads
  2. Nurturing leads
  3. Converting leads into sales

But the sales funnel takes existing customers for granted. It ignores the fact that it’s much easier and cheaper to sell again to those customers than it is to sell to new ones. For most companies, repeat business costs you less and earns you more.

The sale funnel as depicted by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch
Detail from Christ in Limbo by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plus, the funnel model regards only a sale as a conversion.

In practice, most B2B sales result from a multi-conversion process. The best salespeople have always known that. Yet, the funnel model gives little weight to other valuable conversions, like:

  • Gaining a follower on social media
  • Attracting a visitor to your site through SEO
  • Engaging a reader with your content
  • Getting a subscriber on your email list

Engaging prospects with useful content that can help them solve their problems is extremely valuable. It positions your company as a “helpful advisor” rather than a mere vendor.

More valuable still is getting prospects on your opt-in list. Now, you can put your content right in front of them on a regular basis. You’re far more likely to provide them exactly the content they need just when they need it, wherever they are on their buyer’s journey.

The prospect controls the buyer’s journey

Even Hieronymus Bosch felt the need to turn the sales funnel upside down.
Detail from The Temptation of Saint Anthony
(Kansas City) by Hieronymus Bosch
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many say the sales funnel no longer applies online. Some say the funnel is dead.

I wouldn’t go that far.

After all, generating leads, nurturing them and converting them into customers are still very important. But I do believe we need a new model that accurately informs our thinking about today’s sales process.

A generation ago, companies were dependent on vendors’ salespeople for solution information. Today, it’s the prospect who’s in control.  They begin their buyer’s journey on their own. The Corporate Executive Board says B2B buyers accomplish about 60% of that journey online, before you even know they’re in the market.[i]

So, vendors no longer control the buyer’s journey. But they’ve found they can influence it—by supplying the right information at the right time through content marketing.

We need a new model that reflects our latest methods.

An alternative to the sales funnel: Circles of Belief

Brian Clark, the founder of Copyblogger, has done a lot of thinking about this paradigm shift toward content marketing. He has come up with an alternative to the sale funnel—a model he calls Circles of Belief.

A 21st-century alternative to the sales funnel: The Circles of Belief
Graphic: The Circles of Belief

Unlike a funnel, the visual analogy is two-dimensional, consisting of concentric circles around a center point, as shown at left.

Each concentric circle represents a type of audience relationship with your company, ordered from the weakest attraction at the outermost circle (social network followers) to the strongest attraction in the innermost circle (repeat customers). The concept’s focus is not a single conversion but a series of conversions, with each conversion drawing the prospect closer to the next circle inward.

You might think of this model as a flattened funnel; you’re still trying to draw prospects toward the center but without the heavy, downward pull. (Remember: the prospect is in control.)

Coax prospects gently toward your inner circle

I like to think of the Circles of Belief as concentric rooms in a circular building that houses a dining club. As you move toward the center of the building, each room becomes more elegant, the food more sumptuous and plentiful, the service more attentive and refined.

As the club’s marketing director, your objective is to invite and encourage members of each circle to upgrade to the next level, move closer to you, and eventually join the club’s ‘inner circle.’

You accomplish that objective through a gradual, low-pressure process. You accomplish it by offering plenty of helpful advice to your prospects as they travel their buyer’s journey.

At the center of this is your media strategy and the content you’ve created. Your content is what draws prospects closer to you—not only to the point of the sale, but even further—to your inner circle of repeat customers, advocates and evangelists. The key is building trust by playing the role of “helpful advisor,” as I mentioned earlier.

Before prospects will trust you, however, they must believe you.

Belief precedes trust

Belief and trust go hand in hand. In fact, belief precedes trust. To get someone to trust you, you must first get them to believe you.

The origin of the word ‘belief’ comes from an Indo-German root meaning to “care, desire, or love.” Belief indicates a want. It’s a synonym of faith. Prospects want to believe you have the solution to their problem. They just need some reassurance.

That’s why Clark calls his model The Circles of Belief. Each circle represents a level of belief. Prospects residing in each circle believe you up to a certain point. Stepping toward you, however—into a higher circle of belief—requires a leap of faith. And they’re only going to take that leap if they trust you.

Build belief through great experiences

You need to make it easy for your prospects to take that leap. You do that by providing a great experience within the Circle of Belief where they currently reside. And you do that with great content.

In every piece you publish, your headline makes a promise to your prospect. If your content delivers on that promise, your prospects will have a great experience. They’ll begin to believe you. Keep repeating that experience, and they’ll begin to trust you.

Build trust with prospects, and they’ll be more likely to believe they can trust you at the next level. Their ‘leap of faith’ will seem much smaller, less risky.

In the outermost levels, you need to make those leaps small so you can build trust gradually. As prospects move closer to you, give them more attention. Earn their trust and draw them into your inner circle.

Takeaway Points

  1. Today, B2B prospects start their customer journey without you and complete nearly 60% of that journey before you get involved.
  2. The self-directed buyer’s journey has shifted the customer acquisition paradigm; the traditional funnel model is outdated.
  3. The new paradigm—the Circles of Belief—focuses on gradually drawing prospects closer to your company through a series of conversions driven by content marketing.
  4. Providing great content and a great customer experience will:
    • Position your company as a helpful advisor
    • Build prospects’ belief and trust in your brand
    • Gradually draw prospects closer to your company
    • Ultimately generate more leads, sales and revenue

Next Steps

In my next article, we’ll look at how to gently convert prospects into recurring customers through the Circles of Belief.

If you’d like to have more content marketing tips—along with free white paper and special reports—delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for my monthly newsletter, Technical Response. When you do, you’ll receive a copy of my latest special report: How to Plan a White Paper.

Need help developing great content that draws prospects? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at


[i] The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing, CEB (The Corporate Executive Board), 2012.

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