Improving SEO to get more eyes on your website’s content is important. But it’s not your company’s ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to increase the quantity and quality of your business’s sales (or for nonprofits, your mission and fundraising to support that mission).
SEO is actually a tool used to get to that end goal.
By moving your customers or potential customers through the content marketing funnel to buy / participate / give. So I want to spend some time describing the content marketing funnel, providing a quick refresh about search intent, then showing how SEO fits into that process.
What is the content marketing funnel?
To understand the content marketing funnel, start by picturing a real, physical funnel. Maybe one you used in an elementary school science class to guide marbles down a shoot.
Do you remember how you’d put the marble in at the very tippy top? Then it would swirl around, first in big circles at the top, then tinier and tinier orbits as it moved down the funnel. Finally, it would pop through the small hole at the bottom.
That’s exactly how the content marketing funnel works, except with content. At each stage of the actual funnel – the wide top, narrower middle and tiny spout at the bottom – there’s a different stage of content that works to engage with your audience and move them through to the next stage, ultimately ending in a “conversion” (a sale, donation or some other action). The content builds the relationship with the audience to keep them connected, engaged and moving downward through the funnel.
Here are the funnel phases with examples of types of content.
Funnel stage 1: curiosity or awareness: Your audience (the marble) enters, or “meets you” at the top, where there’s lots of space, because they’re curious about something. Maybe they heard someone share about a product or service you provide or maybe they have a question they want to learn more about. Either way, they somehow are “introduced” to your company’s online content.
This is a low-pressure, “get-to-know-you” stage, and the content you produce reflects that. Often, it’s a how-to guide, an infographic, or a helpful-but-simple tool to help the audience meet a need. For example, an HVAC company may have a downloadable checklist for homeowners to use for annual unit maintenance. An advertising agency may have a blog with a few simple tips to follow when planning to market a new product.
Funnel stage 2: interest or exploration: After your audience “meets” you, they know you’re a helpful contact and will come back when needs arise. At this point, there is a deeper connection with the audience, and a stronger interest in the product or service. The content reflects that.
Examples of content at this stage may be a recruiting firm’s industry report that requires a downloader’s email address to access or a real estate agent’s webinar for prospective first time home buyers.
Funnel stage 3: evaluate and decide: The final stage in the content marketing funnel leads up to the point of purchase. Now the audience is on the precipice of making a decision, so the content will help the audience make that leap. Often, content at this stage includes product reviews, case studies demonstrating success and product overviews that lead someone to make the purchase (or donation).
A quick refresh about search practices and intent
SEO is a critical tool to drive your audience to the content at each stage of the funnel. But before we start to look at examples of SEO leading your audience to and through the funnel, let’s pause for a quick refresh about types of searches and search intent. (Because users will search or voice different types of keyword phrases based on their funnel stage or intent!)
Based on their needs and intended next steps, users can search for:
- Informational keywords. This includes asking a specific question or general information. These keywords indicate that the searcher is seeking information. Examples include “what is…” and “how to…”
- Navigational keywords. This is when searchers intend to navigate to a specific site or page for an intended purpose. Examples include brand or company names.
- Commercial keywords. In this case searchers are investigating brands or services. They are typically closer to the decision-making process, but not entirely there yet. They need to feel a bit more confident. Examples include brand / service reviews, comparison content.
- Transactional keywords. This is when searchers intend to complete an action or purchase. They’ve done their research and their decision is made. They’re ‘good to GO’. Examples include, “buy Samsung Galaxy s23” and “used Nissan Pathfinder for sale.”
*SEMrush blog and Alibaba article
Creating user-intent content for the different types of keyword phrases is a content development strategy that works to get users to land and engage with your content - at every stage of the marketing funnel.
So how does SEO play a role in the content marketing funnel?
So now you understand the types of content at each funnel, and how users search based on their intent. Now let’s look at examples that show how SEO – at those different points of intent – leads audiences to and through the content marketing funnel.
Funnel stage 1: At this stage of the content marketing funnel, SEO is especially crucial. Often, the audience is only learning what to look for, so using a search engine to explore the topic will help make an introduction to your company’s web content. At this stage they will often use informational keywords.
Imagine a growing business deciding they may now want outside help to do their taxes. Searching something like “tax help for small businesses,” may lead to a tax firm’s blog with a list of tax practices every small business should put into place. In these types of scenarios, SEO makes that first, top-level connection.
Funnel stage 2: After entering the marketing funnel, a prospective client may proactively come back to your company to look for more intentional support.
But other times, SEO can be a tool to re-engage the prospective client on a deeper level. In the tax support example, the growing business may have used the tips from the blog, but a few months later need more substantial help. A quick search (using either informational or navigational keywords) leads them to a result from the same tax support company with a calculator tool they can access after providing an email address. They are more inclined to click (and offer their email address) because of the value already provided to them.
Funnel stage 3: Finally, SEO can help at that point of decision. Not only can it remind someone about a brand they’ve encountered via previous searches (that small business going to their trusted tax information source during tax season), but there are times when it can bring ready customers to a company for the very first time. At this stage searchers are often using commercial or transactional keywords.
For example, an office manager has been informed yesterday they need to accommodate an influx of new staff, and are ready to buy new office furniture today. They are essentially dropped right to the end of the sales funnel, and having product information ready and waiting on a SERP can lead to a fast sale.
As you can see, SEO is a powerful tool. But taking a moment to remember and appreciate the content marketing funnel as the context in which that tool operates can help you use SEO in an even more effective way in the future.