Why Awareness is the Most Important Stage of a Full Funnel Marketing Approach


Few meaningful decisions are made impulsively. The average consumer might pick up a pack of gum at the checkout aisle without thinking too much about it, but when it’s time to find a doctor, buy a new laptop, hire a landscaper, or choose where they want to go on vacation, a lot more thought goes into the process.

As marketers, our goal is to create a framework that steers consumers towards a desired end (often referred to as a “conversion”). Decision makers need objective information, guidance, and a place to confer with others about their options, and smart brands position themselves as a facilitator of that process.

It’s helpful to create visual metaphors for this framework and a useful one is the marketing funnel.

When Building an Audience, Start at the Top

Generally, the idea is that the process starts with the largest possible audience — as many people as you can get your message to — and then to generate a maximum number of qualified leads from that group. Those leads are nurtured through the funnel, disinterested buyers are gradually excluded, and your focus narrows onto the group that is primed for conversion.

Naturally, it’s rarely possible to convert everyone (otherwise it would be a marketing cylinder, not a funnel), so Full Funnel strategies like we developed at Hanlon are designed to optimize each stage of the process.

The stages of the marketing funnel are defined differently throughout the industry, but the Hanlon Full Funnel is notable for continuing past the point of purchase where many end and into brand loyalty and advocacy.

The first three stages are part of the Customer Acquisition phase:

1. Awareness

2. Consideration

3. Preference

The final two are part of the Customer Retention phase:

4. Loyalty

5. Advocacy

It should be noted that brands operating in the B2B sector utilize marketing funnels slightly differently than those in B2C. The path down a funnel for a B2C customer is often solitary. They make each decision by themselves (or with a small group of trusted confidants). By contrast, the average B2B buying group is 6.8 people (up from 5.4 just a few years ago). There is also a lot more direct contact between buyers and sellers in the B2B sales process, though mostly at the bottom of the funnel.

What they have in common, however, is an affinity towards helpful, information-dense, and unbiased branded content. 75-percent of B2B buyers say they want branded content that helps them research business ideas, yet 93-percent of brands only produce content that is narrowly tailored to promoting their own offerings.

Why Branding is So Valuable

At the initial awareness stage, the brand hasn’t yet established a relationship with the potential customer. In effect, they are meeting for the first time, and the customer is naturally cautious. They will need more time in the funnel to research, get social proof from friends and family, and consider their options before developing a preference or any specific ideas about the brand. But first impressions matter, and general feelings start to form here.

“89-percent of B2B marketers say brand awareness is their top goal, not sales.”

Branding is the art and science of connecting specific, lasting, and typically positive emotions and ideas to a brand in the minds of consumers. 77-percent of B2B marketers say that branding is critical to growth. The awareness phase, however, is rarely the place where the brand becomes fully realized in their minds. Trying to leapfrog over the intervening steps is a recipe for scaring people away.

Love at first sight might be common in the movies, but in the real world, people need to be wooed. You have to prove your brand promise is more than just words, but rather, a bedrock commitment with measurable value, which takes time. That’s ok, though, because most brand managers (70-percent) agree that building a relationship with a large audience is ultimately more valuable than direct sales.

Tools of the Trade

At the top of the funnel, the awareness stage, you are dealing with a large number of leads that have not yet been qualified. Their value as leads is low because they have not yet shown the intent or even the ability to be converted (intent can be inferred later on from surveys, web browsing data, or items added to a digital shopping cart).

Awareness is a tricky stage because of the lack of pre-existing contacts, but it’s vitally important because you need sufficient numbers of individuals to feed into your funnel. No one at the top of the funnel means no leads to nurture through the rest of it, and no sales or repeat customers at the bottom. Which explains why 89-percent of B2B marketers say brand awareness is their top goal, not sales.

“Most brand managers agree that building a relationship with a large audience is ultimately more valuable than direct sales.”

There are many theories of how best to start filling your funnel and building awareness, but many modern marketers rely on inbound marketing techniques: tools that attract attention and draw people to you (e.g. content marketing, social media outreach, blogging, search engine marketing).

Outbound marketing (reaching out directly on channels like email) can also be used to promote brand awareness, but are usually better suited for later in the funnel. That’s because a potential customer is less likely to send your email to their spam folder if they already have some awareness of who you are.

Other effective options include virtual and in-person events. Over three-quarters of companies consider small executive events, tradeshows, and/or webinars as the best way to generate high quality brand awareness.

Relationships Take Work

The awareness stage requires brands to be cognizant of their customers’ pain points, needs, and general level of understanding:

  • What problem do they need solved?
  • How sophisticated a buyer are they?
  • What information are they lacking?
  • How quickly do they need to act?
  • How much are they willing to pay?

No one likes being bombarded by offers from someone they don’t have a relationship with — even if they are objectively good offers — so the awareness stage is an entirely soft sell approach. The brand shouldn’t immediately proclaim it has exactly what the customer is looking for and try and close to the deal then and there.

“Brands are reimagining themselves as not just purveyors of goods and services, but educators and hubs of discussion.”

Rather, it should use this first point of contact as a moment to prove its bona fides and start establishing a relationship. Don’t say: “We know you need a widget! Buy ours!” Say: “If you’re interested in widgets, we’re experts. Here’s everything you need to know about them.”

Particularly now that the internet has so radically democratized access to information, and consumers are armed with powerful tools for researching and conferring with others, brands are reimagining themselves as not just purveyors of goods and services, but educators and hubs of discussion. The awareness stage at the top of the funnel is well suited to these developments.

Strategic brands are relying on their analytic tool sets, their creative strengths, and a systematic approach, like the funnel model, to stay relevant, useful, and well-known even in today’s crowded and competitive market place.


Want to learn more about a strategic Full Funnel approach? The Hanlon marketing pros are here to help.