Why marketers can’t afford to ignore the middle of the funnel

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher February 13, 2023
Don't forget the middle of the end-to-end in sales and marketing.


There's a marketing strategy we don't like to talk about much, the one that says potential customers move through a funnel from top to middle to bottom. We don't talk about it because we no longer believe it's a straight line - that people move in and out, back and forth, so it's hard to think in such exact terms. However, when marketers build their strategies, they need to think in these terms because it helps them focus and create content and experiences that match where a customer is in their journey. 

The question is, are all three stages of the funnel treated equally? Or are we more focused on the top and bottom? Kevin Tate, CMO of Clearbit, argues marketers need to think more strategically about the middle of the funnel. His thesis is that when everything was going well and people were buying, there was an urgency, and the speed of growth was real. As a result, companies had little problem getting people into the top of the funnel, and they would naturally find their way to a salesperson at the bottom. 

But times have changed. Buyer behavior has shifted, and there's much more caution around the purchase process. It involves more people, approvals, longer sales pipelines, and self-service expectations. And that means more nurturing, he says: 

Sometimes that means people are seeing a lot more tire kickers, sometimes that means that the ICP and the buyer personas and sort of jobs to be done have changed. But all those things, I think, shine a light more on the mid-funnel and the place where you really understand what's going on in that sort of, you know, interest and consideration versus, say, awareness and action.

The middle of the funnel is pretty darn important

The middle of the funnel focuses on nurturing and helping individuals through self-education. There's a lot of content that helps them understand the product better (and how it can help them). It's also where free trials and PLG find their footing. But just because a person appears to be interested and hanging out in the mid-funnel stage doesn't mean they are the right fit for a company.

It's here that Tate says marketers need to focus on two key signals that will help them understand what's happening and where to focus:

  1. Is there a company fit? Can you see things that suggest this person is a top prospect?
  2. Is there intent? Can you tell if they are leaning in?

Tate points out that these things aren't new. Right company, right time has become a motto for marketing and sales. But he said the questions are raised even higher when you need to focus on the mid-funnel stage.

How the mid-funnel affects and influences other stages

Clearbit's customers are primarily tech companies, and there are noticeable patterns, with conversations often coming from two angles. First, there are demand-generation marketers focused on ads and ad performance, who aren't seeing the conversions they are used to from their social advertising and top-of-the-funnel efforts. These marketers need to look at the mid-funnel to understand what companies are making it to landing pages and clicking CTAs (call-to-action) and what content they are engaging with. By looking at these things, demand gen marketers can bring a fit and intent lens to everything that happens after the ad is clicked. This helps them understand what is working and what isn't.

Then there's the conversation from operations forward. For example, Tate says companies are seeing sales close rates decrease even though the people and processes haven't changed. In this case, looking one step earlier to see what might have changed with the customer or approval process would enable marketing and sales to identify signals in the mid-funnel that can be managed better.

There are other areas to consider as well, including what's happening on the website or with SDR/outbound teams. In these cases, watching and analyzing what's happening in the mid-funnel can improve the website experience and outreach. Tate explains: 

This isn't new. We've been looking at this for a long time. But I think that the technology and the signals you can leverage have changed considerably, even in the last three or four or five years. So the way people would perhaps be looking at the mid-funnel now is pretty different from whenever that happened five or six years ago. You have some new ways of looking at it.

Tracking and activating on what's happening in the mid-funnel

To understand what's happening in mid-funnel, you need tools to provide this ICP fit and intent intelligence. Account-based marketing tools, some marketing automation, and customer data platforms can give you some or all of that intelligence. With Clearbit, you connect to your CRM and other data sources and use that data to build audiences that you can activate or automate activities.

What do you do when you find the right fit? You could alert someone on Slack for an immediate response, send an email digest, or build an advertising audience and provide air cover. You could build a subset to pass along to Sales if there's strong intent. What you do depends on how you build your marketing and sales strategies. The key is you are responding to the right people at the right accounts at the right time to help move them along in their path to purchase.

Clearbit uses its own technology for this purpose. There is a range of content, tools, and hand raising that maps to different levels of engagement, Tate says. At the highest level of the mid-funnel, it might be downloading an ebook or viewing a recorded webinar. At the lowest level, it could be registering for a live webinar or a demo request.

Tate advises that marketers must pay attention to the signals and determine fit and intent. By keeping an eye on the right-fit people, you learn if they are truly in-market and can find ways to help them move through to the next stage. What is important is being responsive and capturing interest before they leave. He pitches that Clearbit allows companies to work across different stacks in motion, including PLG, direct sales, website, etc. (i.e., you aren't committed to one go-to-market strategy at a time).

Content strategy in the mid-funnel

The content marketers develop should work across all stages of the buyer's lifecycle, but some things work best at each stage. Clearbit recently launched a new content section on its website called Guides, which includes a set of 'recipes' for achieving activation goals at the mid-funnel. These how-to guides show customers how to use Clearbit, connected to other applications (G2, Salesforce, Marketo, etc.) to perform some action. One example: "How to improve speed to lead with Clearbit, LeanData, and Salesforce."

Tate says the firm has found that people are trying to understand how to put the pieces of their stack together more effectively. Yes, the tools marketing uses are getting easier to work with, but it's often challenging to figure out how to connect them and build end-to-end processes.  

Other content that works well in the mid-funnel includes webinars, guides, nurture email series, and original research. Andy Crestodina offers a great list of content at each funnel stage if you're looking for more ideas.

My take

There is a lot of focus on the top and bottom funnel stages because a) we need to get people to pay attention, and b) we need to close deals. But I agree with Tate that what happens in the middle of the funnel is the most enlightening area marketers need to focus on because it influences whether someone we want to do business with will move to the next stage. It also helps us understand if all the effort we put into the top of the funnel is working to attract the right people. 

One download does not equal a prospective buyer. Even two might not. But what if that downloader is in your ICP? And they've been there before and showed intent? Now that's a different story. And it's a story you can tell by paying attention to the middle of the funnel. 

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