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Forget the Funnel: New User Acquisition is a Target and You Need a Bullseye

We like to picture new user acquisition as a funnel. It makes sense to us because it’s what we’ve always done. But for many startups, there’s a fundamental problem with this analogy.

The Funnel

The funnel representation assumes that every person who drops into the top of the funnel has the potential—to some degree—to continue all the way through the funnel to become a customer. This isn’t necessarily true.

Each person who comes into the top of your funnel is already predisposed to a certain degree of potential for becoming a customer. What you do with them once they’re in the funnel is definitely important, but treating everyone like they have a 90 percent chance of signing up will mean a lot of wasted time spent on those who only ever had a 10 per cent chance to begin with.

Let’s use an example:

Say that someone stumbles upon the Treehouse site because they were searching for information about building tree houses (I know it’s an extreme case, but stay with me). So they hit the site and we’ve got them—they’re in the top of the funnel.

Now a second person comes across the site from a link they found in a blog post on learning to code. For argument’s sake, let’s say the tree house builder has a five per cent chance of signing up, and the person interested in learning to code has an 85 per cent chance.

If the time and effort that’s spent on maximizing the funnel is focused on every person who drops into it, that 85 per cent chance is going to be lowered once they arrive. Spreading your efforts across these two potential customers means you’ll provide less focus and less benefit for the 85 per cent-er.

Act smarter.

Five per cent is too low to worry about. The guy’s building a tree house—he doesn’t want what you’re selling. To maximize your funnel, you need to be putting your energy into the people like person #2 who has shown up at your doorstep with an 85 per cent chance of converting.

The Target

This is how we should be thinking about new user acquisition, because this is how it works.

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In reality, there is no funnel. Not everyone hits your site with the potential of being converted. Each person who comes in contact with your brand somehow is hitting that target—somewhere. The five per cent guy who wants to build a treehouse? He’s in one of the outside rings—barely on the board. And when he realizes this site’s all about learning code, he’ll bounce right off the target.

The hypothetical 85 per cent-er is much closer to the center, which is what you want.

To really develop an effective user acquisition strategy, you need to work from the inside out. You’ll be putting your brand in front of people in some way—with PPC ads or content marketing or with social networks—and you’ll want to focus firstly on the people in (or almost in) the bullseye.

These are the people who want to be your customers already, but they’re not. Maybe they haven’t heard about you, or they don’t know exactly what your product does. Maybe they just haven’t seen your brand name enough times to make the leap into signing up. Whatever it is, that’s something you can work on—and if you do it right, you’ll have these people in your customer database in no time.

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Don’t think that I’m saying you should forget about those who hit your target in the outside rings, though. They’re important too—just for a different reason. With such a low chance that they will ever convert, creating a blanket user acquisition strategy to offer the same messages and marketing to all of your customers is less effective. With a carefully focused strategy you can target these people who land further out in a better way. Because even though it’s unlikely that they’ll sign up or become paying customers, they probably know someone who will.

Working on your target’s outside rings is still important—just keep in mind what the relationship should be for maximum benefit. Hint: it’s not the same as the one you have with your bullseye customers.

The Bullseye

And finally, to the bullseye. This is your perfect customer. This is the customer who absolutely needs (and wants) your product or service, and is just itching to sign up to any company that offers it. You want to find bullseyes. You want to target them with your marketing, and you want to draw them in to sign up with your user acquisition strategy.

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Bullseye customers are looking for a solution to an immediate problem. They’re looking for a long-term solution, something they can put their faith in and work into their lives. They’re going to agree with your company’s beliefs and values, they’re going to be supportive of your mission, and they’re going to buy-in quicker than anyone else.

If you build your product for your bullseyes, they will support you. If you market to them, they will respond. And if you shape your user acquisition strategy (not entirely, mind you, but firstly) around your bullseyes, you will not only have a better conversion rate, you’ll have a stronger conversion rate—your conversions will be worth more, because more of them will last longer.

Forget the funnel. Refocus your energy. The target’s already there, it’s just up to you to work with it.

And if you’re worried that you don’t have enough bullseyes, it’s time for some tough love: you either need to rethink your customers, or rethink your product. If there are not enough bullseyes in the world to support your startup, you need to pivot.

I’ve taken a pretty strong stance here, so now it’s your turn to shout me down or agree. Do you think user acquisition works as a funnel or a bullseye? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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