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Why You Need a Content Funnel For Your Content Product


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