Here’s the Difference Between Marketing and Sales Funnels


Marketing and sales funnels take complex lead generation systems and simplify them into visual strategies that show where our leads come from, how they progress through content and sales processes, and which ones turn into paying customers. But is there a difference in how they work?

Depends on who you ask.


Marketing Funnel

A marketing funnel looks at your market potential from a high level. The goal is to take a prospect and guide them through the stages of awareness (top of funnel), consideration (middle of funnel), and conversion (bottom of funnel). This funnel teaches prospects about your brand, and it also collects data to create tools such as personas and the buyer journey framework.


Sales Funnel 

A sales funnel is about coordinated and specific actions. This is where the sales team talks to sales qualified leads, meaning that this contact has chosen to opt-in to an email, attend an event, and ultimately purchase your product. The sales funnel picks up the marketing lead and takes it through conversion.

The barrier between marketing and sales funnels is fuzzy, but one thing is for sure: the context of the conversation changes during this transition. To make things clearer and more efficient, some businesses are doing away with the distinction entirely and instead focusing on the customer funnel.

A new term that has popped up recently to describe how sales and marketing funnels are one and the same is “smarketing”. Taking this approach helps increase revenue generation and reduce infighting between departments.

Before we go further into the concept of smarketing, it’s important to understand the stages of the marketing funnel first.

Stages of the Marketing Funnel

A marketing funnel always includes three stages that mandate how we connect with customers: top-of-funnel, middle-of-funnel, and bottom-of-funnel.

Top of the Funnel (ToFu) – awareness

The top of the funnel is where every single person who is interested in content about or from your brand enters into the journey. The goal at this stage is for marketers to educate readers, create brand awareness, differentiate themselves from competitors, and offer helpful content without asking for anything in return. Marketing provides tons of informational content in blog posts, videos, podcasts, articles, and more.

The data collected may only be an anonymous user ID who is racking up engagements with your website or other destinations. As soon as that anonymous user fills out a form and raises their hand to be contacted, they move to the next stage of the funnel.

Middle of the Funnel (MoFu) – consideration

The goal at this stage is to provide your prospect with evidence that your product or service is worth choosing over a competitor. Now, you’re discussing what the problem is they’re trying to solve. This can include case studies that show your company is best-of-breed or that review technical specifications.

Prospects in the middle of the funnel interact with content like white papers, case studies, reports, and gated content like webinars and competitive intelligence. The sales development representative (SDR) is actively engaged in this stage of the marketing funnel and takes the lead in communicating.

Bottom of the Funnel (BoFu) – conversion

Here’s where all of the nurturing of the previous stages comes to fruition. The sales rep should have a lot of information now on the prospect in order to finalize a deal. Content in this stage includes free trials, customer testimonials, demos, and CTAs

The benefit of having leads reach this stage is that marketing now has the data to map out the buyer journey, figure out what messaging catches prospects’ attention, and even develop buyer personas to better target the ideal customer.

Stages of the Sales Funnel

In practice, the sales funnel is part of the marketing funnel. Imagine that you zoom in to the bottom of the funnel and segment that section further into actionable stages. In the sales funnel, reps are speaking to prospects that have said yes to learning more about buying the product.

We can also use the term sales pipeline. While both terms are used to describe the flow of prospects through a sale, a sales funnel represents the quantity and conversion rate of said prospects through your pipeline stages. The sales funnel is a visual representation of your team’s open opportunities.

The stages here become more distinct and require the deal to qualify for each step onward. Tools like Salesforce have built their businesses around the sales pipeline and the specific actions taken to move a customer into further stages.

Every company segments their sales pipeline differently. But they all include these concepts: prospecting, evaluation, commitment, and closed-won/closed-lost. Below are the stages used to quantify how successful the marketing and sales activities actually are.

Marketing qualified leads (MQL)

For a prospect to be considered qualified at this stage, they must have demonstrated interest by filling in a form, downloading content, or some other way of providing their contact details.

Sales accepted lead (SAL)

Here is where the sales team comes in and decides if the lead is the right fit for the product. Leads don’t stay here for very long. Many of the marketing and sales KPIs emphasize acting immediately when a lead lands in a rep’s pipeline. If many leads are disqualified at this stage, then there is a disconnect between marketing and sales.

Sales qualified leads (SQL)

Here, a sales rep will have spoken with the customer about fit including deal size, timeline, urgency and whether the product or service solves their problem. More frequent and in-depth involvement from the sales team is required.

Closed-won or closed-lost

At this stage, the lead either becomes a paid customer, or the opportunity is closed as lost by the sales team. The prospect either chose a competitor, decided to hold off on the project, or objected to pricing. The lead can be placed back into the marketing funnel. If they buy, they move to post-sales engagements like customer success and implementation.

Evolving the Marketing and Sales Funnel

The silos between marketing and sales can lead to enormous waste because each team tracks every step in the process, but not always in the same way or even the same system. Both organizations have come to accept a 20% close rate as success, which means that 80% of the work being done leads nowhere. Daniel Barber, CEO and founder of DataGrail, sums it up well when he asks, “when is a two out of 10 across sports, engineering, or even academia a success?”

According to HubSpot, only 3% of your market is actively looking to purchase. Fifty-six percent are not even ready to evaluate, and only forty percent are ready to begin researching solutions. This creates a trap where sales teams focus on the bottom of the funnel leads which only include 3% of the potential customers. And there are only so many times that a prospect can say no.

The marketing team’s job is to qualify leads as much as possible before they reach the sales funnel, giving their reps the best chance of success. To be successful, no matter how you structure your funnels, these teams need to collaborate and agree about lead quality, what reasoning is acceptable for disqualification, address concerns that leads consistently bring up, and other details that are not as visible in the upper stages of the funnel.

Selling never stops, and marketing is much more involved in speaking to educated customers that need to hear something new. It’s harder to tell where the marketing funnel ends and the sales funnel starts.

Companies that move to a revenue operations (RevOps) model see a big change in how sales and marketing collaborate. RevOps is a centralized function that rolls up the operations team for sales, marketing, customer success and systems under one leader. Strategies are chosen that drive marketing and sales teams to achieve the same revenue goals. RevOps specialists also create processes and select tech stacks to enhance cross-functional collaboration.

What’s next?

The smarketing approach increases collaboration, reduces waste and of course, closes more deals! It has also served as a precursor to the growing RevOps trend of creating one revenue organization that works strategically with both marketing and sales teams. To learn more about how to build your own smarketing team, check out The Power of We: Getting Sales and Marketing on the Same Page.

Colin is the Director of Marketing at Sales Hacker. Before that, he led the strategy team at a marketing agency, and worked with hundreds of B2B brands to build winning inbound strategies. Outside of work, Colin is the world’s biggest dog lover, and spends as much time as possible outside.

Join Us Today

Insider access to the GTM network and the best minds in tech.

Trending Now

You may also like...