By Daniel Hochuli published April 9, 2017

2 Funnels Are Necessary for Content Marketing


At the initial meeting with a new client, I ask a simple question: What is the goal for your content marketing efforts?

By far the most consistent answer I receive is “to generate leads and sales of our existing products.”

While this is an important goal to have in any content marketing strategy, we often focus too much on direct sales-related transactions to prove our content marketing return on investment.

In his book Content Inc., Joe Pulizzi offers a way to think bigger about content marketing. The simple tagline, “Build your audience first. THEN create your product,” is exactly how marketers should approach content marketing. Use the content to attract subscribers and then figure a way to monetize them around a content product. There is more to content marketing than using the method to support your sales team.

Build your audience first. THEN create your product, says @joepulizzi. Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, many marketers (and, indeed, businesses) don’t think this way. We use tools, like the purchase funnel, to shape our expectations of what our goals should be around content marketing. This approach leads to inaccurate assumptions about what content should be doing, which in turn regularly leads to poor performance. The idea that all content subscribers will someday become customers is born from strategizing with tools like the purchase funnel. That’s not how content works.

Purchase funnel problems

When we set transactional goals such as leads and sales, we put pressure on ourselves to deliver a transactional ROI. We assume that our top-of-funnel content will be so helpful to our audience that we will earn their trust and they will become interested in our products. We use retargeting ads or newsletters to push these audiences down the purchase funnel to become a lead before converting to a customer of our existing products. Marketers shape this pushy approach as giving “convenience” to the customer, but where is the evidence that the potential customer wanted anything more than content?


I’ve seen this action played out the most with white papers in the B2B space: A brand publishes a white paper that contains quality research and asks a person to hand over contact details to access it. Using the purchase funnel as the road map, the marketing team assumes the acquisition of the contact details makes that person a lead and gives it to the sales team to pursue.

But why do we assume that every subscriber to our content is a potential sales lead? Just because a person downloaded a white paper doesn’t mean he or she wants to be contacted by the company’s sales team. How did we ever come to that conclusion?

Why do we assume every subscriber to our #content is a potential sales lead? @LogocracyCopy ‏ Click To Tweet

Companies that use content marketing as a lead generator are often not giving the content itself enough credit. It was the white paper that solved an informational problem for that person. The person’s download behavior does not indicate transactional intent.

My point here is that we regularly make incorrect conclusions about what our content audience wants from our brand, especially when our performance is being measured by transactional ROI. No doubt, we would love for all our audiences to care about our products, but the reality is most subscribers to your content only care about your content.

Content product

We need to comprehend the difference between a content subscriber and a customer. For example, if we concede that only around 10% of our content subscribers ever become customers, then we need a plan to create and report value from the other 90% of our content audience.

Most marketers don’t have a plan. Many don’t even have a nurture strategy beyond acquiring the subscriber. We need to shift our thinking. We need to stop basing the success of content marketing on a tiny number of abnormal transactional returns. Once we do this, we can re-evaluate our expectations around content marketing ROI. It is no longer just about how to drive content subscribers down the funnel to buy existing products, but about how to provide value from information and creating transactions from that valuable information.

Stop basing success of #contentmarketing on a tiny number of abnormal transactional returns. @LogocracyCopy ‏ Click To Tweet

One way to do this is to build a content product.

A content product is a revenue stream that could not exist unless you used content marketing to research and earn an audience interested in the information. Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners calls content products “ripples” – benefits from content outside a lead or a transaction of your existing product.

Brands like Red Bull already figured out the potential of the content product. It created its own media brand that doesn’t measure the success (or the budget) of its content by how many beverages it sells but by the content products produced for its subscribed audiences – revenue from ticket sales to Red Bull events, number of Red Bull-produced videos sold to fans or licensed to other media, money earned from pre-roll ads on its YouTube video content, etc. Its content marketing is a product with a separate revenue stream from the core business products.

Content marketing funnel

I propose a new type of funnel that addresses how you could turn subscribers who aren’t interested in your existing products into caring about and paying for a new content product.

In a #contentmarketing funnel, you can turn subscribers into customers of your content, says @LogocracyCopy. Click To Tweet

Note that the content marketing funnel is an expansion of (not a replacement for) the traditional purchase funnel. I recommend you still aim to secure sales with content, just recalibrate your dependence on these transactions as the bellwether for content marketing success.


The content marketing funnel consists of the three phases – acquisition, research, and launch. Each is a separate strategy to be executed in both simultaneous and consecutive order.

Using this funnel, a distinction needs to be made between what is “content” and what is the “content product.” In the acquisition phase, you use content (such as a blog, YouTube video, white paper, etc.) to attract engaged subscribers. You generate insight from these subscribers in the research phase to help you figure out what your content product could be. Having that data at hand, you enter the launch phase, where you build and unveil a monetized content product and a new revenue stream for your business unchallenged by your other marketing budgets.

Here’s how this content marketing funnel approach works:

1. Acquisition phase – earning your content audience

The acquisition phase is about using content to earn an audience. It involves three key measurable targets:

  • Attention – reach, awareness, or impressions of your content with your target
  • Response – engagement such as a return visit, share, or comment
  • Subscription – indicator audience wants more content from the brand

It is here the content marketing funnel follows a similar pathway as the purchase funnel. However, when we get to the pointy end of the triangle, the value of your content marketing in the content marketing funnel is measured by one simple conversion metric: the number of subscribers you earn; not the number of transactions.

The value of #contentmarketing in the funnel is measured by the number of subscribers earned. @LogocracyCopy. Click To Tweet

Why are subscribers so valuable? Most subscribers have found a reason to engage with your brand outside of a transactional prerogative. As Joe writes in Content Inc., “When you go to sleep at night, you should be thinking of attracting subscribers. When you wake up in the morning you should have subscribers etched in your brain.”

This audience is anyone who follows your brand on social media or subscribes to your YouTube channel; they include those who hand over their email address from your website or register to attend a webinar. Essentially, view subscribers as “content customers.” They “bought” your content and may buy the content product in the future.

2. Research phase – researching and developing the content product

Having earned your subscribers in the acquisition phase, it is time to make them work for you in the research phase using data analysis and surveys. Conduct subscriber research about every six months.

You are testing the audience to see if they are indicating where the opportunity for a content product lies. Use simple surveys on email or social media to ask them about their interests and what type of content product they would be willing to pay for. The feedback should drive the direction of your thinking on what the content product could be.

Ann Handley writes in her book, Everybody Writes: “When you’re creating content and you’re getting feedback from the audience it allows you to hone your vision, as well as embed your vision ultimately with whatever it is that you’re creating.” That vision could be the content product.

When creating #content & getting feedback from the audience, it allows you to hone your vision. @annhandley Click To Tweet

At this point, let me pause to mention ROI. Companies don’t expect a return on the cost of research and development until the product goes to market. The content marketing method for content production development – acquisition and research phases – should be viewed similarly.

Using content marketing in this way requires a leap of faith. You invest in creating a content hub and assets, paying to amplify them on rented channels, building native placements and partnerships all to acquire your subscriber audience. All this costs money up front, but having a plan to build a monetized content product shows that those investments are leading to a product.

3. Launch phase – make money, money, money

Unlike the purchase funnel, which pushes audiences to existing products, the content marketing funnel spreads the research insight across four key goal pillars:

  • Conversion of existing products – Short-term goal
    • You continue to measure the leads and sales attributed to content. While not the primary objective, you should see content assisting in current product purchase transactions over time. This goal should satisfy skeptics of the content marketing funnel early on.
  • Branding objectives – Short-term goal
    • Improve the visibility and reach of your brand. Use content and feedback from the audience to improve your employer branding and customer service, and to align your brand to appropriate social causes.
  • Business processes – Mid-term goal
    • Using content and feedback to improve how your internal teams work. What can you automate? Do you have a store at the locations where your subscribers live? How can you use the insight from engaged content to improve your advertising?
  • Monetization of content – Long-term goal
    • Leverage the value of your audience for a monetary benefit through a content product.

In Content Inc., Joe writes: “Whether you are an entrepreneur in a start-up environment or running a Content Inc. program in a large organization, you should always be thinking of how many ways you can monetize the asset of content you are consistently creating.”

Always be thinking of how many ways you can monetize the asset of #content you are creating, says @joepulizzi. Click To Tweet

Now, let’s review four ways well-known brands have used content marketing to monetize a content product.

Host paid events and webinars – Short- or medium-term goals

Use your content to build an audience of loyal subscribers and invite them to an event exclusive to that niche.

Your admission fees, sponsorships, and exhibitors are revenue sources. Think of the success of the Content Marketing Institute’s own Content Marketing World or Moz’s MozCon. These events originated from the audiences attracted by their content assets. These events are now multi-million-dollar experiences. This is content and its audience driving real business revenue.

Sell ad space on the content asset – Medium-term goal

If your content hub attracts a large audience, sell display and native ad placements on the site. Research the audience to inform you what kind of display ads would be helpful to them.

If your #content hub attracts a large audience, sell display & native ad placements. @LogocracyCopy Click To Tweet

Babycenter is an unbranded content hub owned by Johnson & Johnson. The screenshot below shows targeted display ads from Macquarie University. These ads appeal to the audience of new parents looking for MOOKS study options.


TIP: If your YouTube channel is a hit, open it up to pre-roll advertising.

Sell paid subscriptions or content directly – Medium- to long-term goal

Of course, a true indicator of successful content is when people are willing to pay for it as a subscription or direct transaction. This is how publishers make money. In the 1950s, Guinness Breweries’ managing director had an idea that led to the creation of a book, Guinness World Records. That book, now published by its own company, remains an annual best-seller.


Note, creating a content asset for sale takes some real foresight, a business mindset to content and a bit of luck. If done right, the payoff can be big.

Use content marketing research analytics to create new products – Medium- to long-term goal

Use your content research to discover potential gaps in the market. What product does your content audience need? Or how are your content audience members using your existing products? Are they applying a bandage to make your product work for their needs? Your audience who loves your content could be warm leads waiting for the right product to come along.

Likewise, should your content go viral, monetize it with merchandise. Melbourne Metro used the popularity of its Dumb Ways To Die videos to sell related merchandise – plush toys, a mobile game, and a song on iTunes.



Using content marketing to create a content product is nothing new. With every content marketing strategy you create, expand your thinking toward a long-term goal of monetizing the content you produce.

The content marketing funnel helps clarify the expectations of content around performance as well as showcase the rewards possible for brands that think intelligently about their content marketing efforts. By focusing on more than driving sales, you can potentially disrupt how your organization functions and deliver new revenue streams.

Keep learning how to make your content marketing more valuable to your company and to your audience. Subscribe to the free daily or weekly digest CMI newsletter.

Cover image by Jeff Sheldon, Unsplash

Author: Daniel Hochuli

Daniel is the APAC content marketing evangelist at LinkedIn. A qualified Google Analytics professional, Daniel has lectured on content marketing at the University of NSW and written strategies for clients including Lamborghini, Universum, pwc, Unilever and Robert Half Recruitment. Watch Dan’s masterclass presentationon this subject and follow him on Twitter @logocracycopy

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  • Todd Wheatland

    I really like the way you’ve broken out the Launch phase – most orgs seem to have a limited ‘leads+’ approach, and the ‘+’ is usually very poorly-defined. Great work Dan.

    • DanielHochuli

      Thanks Todd. My aim was to help people see the other benefits (and revenue streams) content marketing can deliver for a business outside the KPI of leads and sales.

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  • Christie Poulos

    Interesting view, thanks Dan. Although for the record, for 20+ years, Red Bull monetised its content (a.k.a. its brand marketing activities captured in content for media to use) through can sales. The Media House evolved quite late in the brand’s life as a ‘secondary product line’ to the can, but only after many, many decades of investment in content to sell energy drinks.

    • DanielHochuli

      Hi Christie, thanks for the clarification. I was talking specifically about the Media House arm of Red Bull, not the overall marketing efforts of the brand, but realize I hadn’t clarified that in the post.

      No doubt many successful content marketing ventures begin with a product focused KPI. It is often hard to break the habit of measuring marketing success against product sales. However, Red Bull is a shinning example of a brand which realized it had a ‘content product’, which as you point out, only came from decades of investment.

      The way you describe Red Bull’s development of a ‘secondary product line’ is exactly how the content marketing funnel should work. Use it to help you discover the potential of a ‘content product’ outside your establish products, just like Media House was to Red Bull’s drinks.

  • Dave Vranicar

    Thanks, Dan. This has made a big contribution to my thinking about the value of content. I already thought it’s valuable. Now I think it’s even more so.

    • DanielHochuli

      Thanks Dave, I’m glad it helped.

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  • Denzil Ford

    I love this point you make: “We need to comprehend the difference between a content subscriber and a customer.” At times and for some businesses, I imagine they can be the same. Or at certain moments in time, this can be the same person. For instance (to use an example here on CMI), I believe that River Pools and Spas content consumers might also end up becoming product consumers. But the key point here is that in many other moments, perhaps most moments, these people are not reading with the intent to buy. They are reading for other purposes: curiosity, learning, problem solving. Eventually these reasons for reading can sometimes lead to purchases at the company from which a reader got prior information, but it doesn’t have to be so. What’s happening in all of these thousands of moments when content consumers are not looking to buy and do not end up making purchases? My gut says a ton. And I’m guessing so much more than we currently realize.

    • DanielHochuli

      Excellent point Denzil. With the Content Marketing Funnel, I try to show that there are additional ways you can ‘convert’ a subscriber who isn’t interested in your products. The primary value is research. Leveraging your subscribed audience to tell you what is important to them so you can pivot your marketing, products and brand towards these valued audiences. Yes, some will become customers (which is great), but most won’t; and marketers shouldn’t be measured on the tiny proportion of their audience that does what sales wants. Let’s broaden our measurement to discover what value our non-customers contribute to our business. It is here that you will discover real innovation and the potential of your brand.

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  • bobscheier

    I totally agree that not all content will or should lead to a short-term sale. But in my experience with clients, tying content efforts to product or service sales is hard enough without getting them to stretch to think about new content-based products or services. I’m also having trouble seeing how this would work in my niche (big ticket IT software and services). Who might a Microsoft or SAP or Oracle sell advertising to? Their resellers or those providing complementary technology will want cooperative marketing dollars from the vendor, not pay them for advertising. And even one or two big sales from a content campaign would far outweigh, I would think, the revenue from in-person or virtual events.

    Bottom line: Being a revenue producing content producer seems like an entirely different business than producing B2B products or services, and a lower-margin one. Can you paint a picture of how this would work for someone in the IT software and services space?

    • copywriter1

      Agreed! The biggest hurdle I encounter with attracting new clients is that the vast number of company owners and managers don’t realize that the need a good writer for their online marketing efforts.

      What works for you to attract new clients?

      • bobscheier

        Most of my clients come through word of mouth or personal contact at trade shows or other events. In other words, look for folks who already understand the need for quality writing and have the high-value, high-margin products that justify the investment in good writing. Hope this helps…

    • DanielHochuli

      Hi Bob, This is an excellent comment and spot on. In many markets, the conversation about using content to create new revenue streams is a foreign concept – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

      Could it be that you are thinking too much about product to make the leap from customer to subscriber? In my article, I’m are talking about the value of the subscriber, not the customer. They are often always different people. We all know that customers are the most valuable for our business, but with content, I’m encouraging you to look at what other valuable audiences you can attract outside of the customer. E.g. subscribers can help you own the market share of voice, without the need to spend on advertising.

      I would also like to plant the flag here and declare that content marketing is not advertising. In my opinion, they are very, very different disciplines and while the outcomes can both lead to customers, content marketing can also create audiences and build new revenue streams. Things that advertising cannot do.

      You mention ‘content campaigns’ (with, I presume, a focus on brand). I feel this is an advertising approach to content. Sure, it has its merits, but is not strictly what I call ‘content marketing’. The content I’m encouraging you to think about requires cadence and an always-on approach, not campaigns. The reason is customers come for product, subscribers come for content. How would a subscriber feel if the ‘content campaign’ they subscribed too suddenly ends? Where did all the content I subscribed too go? It’s not a great experience for them, which is why we should not be thinking in terms of cadance with content marketing; and campaigns for advertising.

      On your bottom line, I think what you say to totally valid. Content revenue is an entirely different business (a publishing business) compared to the business of producing B2B products and services, which is why I would like to see content marketing efforts pulled from the marketing department.

      It is also valid to say that, in most cases, the content product won’t drive more revenue than your core products (unless you use Pulizzi’s Content Inc. model for entrepreneurs and startups).

      But these points are not really strong arguments to not to attempt to attract subscribers. Content Marketing is an extremely cheap way to bring in new revenue streams and to diversify your brand around your customer, especially when you compare it to the wasteful cost of advertising and developing new products. And it is a very short-sighted company who does not see the value in that.

      Regarding how it could help someone in the IT Software space. I worked with a digital solutions company (primarily cloud services) in developing a content strategy that empowered their employees to showcase their personalities with opinions. The CEO liked to be controversial, the CIO liked to talk tech, the CMO liked to talk about human behavior around cloud integration. The stories we developed started as a blog (with opinion and FAQs), then developed into a podcast (which sells ad space) and now they are looking to hold their first event which is aimed at CIOs, IT and digital architects.

      The event is around telling stories about failure. There is not a good CIO out there who hasn’t learned from their mistakes. So we are charging tickets to a networking event where reputable CIOs get up in front of their peers and tell the story of their greatest failure in integrating new tech (hardware and software) into their business. It’s a niche audience, nurtured by content and content products from a brand to deliver strong brand affinity and value. Hope that helps.

  • DanielHochuli

    Hi Varsha,

    Great comment.

    This is probably the most common problem marketers in large organisations have when it comes to content marketing. I think we need a rethink in how marketing is done in general. The word ‘content marketing’ alone is problematic in my opinion. I don’t see the method as a form of marketing, but rather a form of product development.

    To be honest, there is no easy solution to changing mindsets. Part of it is cultural and so a changing of the guard in the organisation might be one way. Another part of it is financial. If a small start-up is taking large chunks of market share from your business because they are investing in audiences, then that will make management listen.

    Education is also a huge factor. They don’t teach content marketing at Universities and, to be honest, it is a disciple that warrants a degree. I’m often asked to speak to marketing students in universities and they get the approach quicker than many CMOs.

    What is needed is courageous management. Individuals who have an unwavering commitment to the method and maintain a clear goal and strategic purpose. In large organisations, I often think a whole new content department needs to be set up. One that is independent from marketing department, so it can develop it’s content product without interference or prejudice.

    Wishes, wishes….

  • Paul Wilke

    Great !!! Don´t agree with everything – but I’ve been thinking about that now – thank you!