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Think about the last time you gave into that craving to eat that whole sleeve of cookies. Or that tub of ice cream. Or that entire pizza. You were actually in a conversion funnel (or at least, a craving funnel).

There was the moment that sparked your craving. Maybe it was an online ad or a photo in someone’s social feed. It could have been something a friend said to you. Either way, it awakened… something… in you. 

You may have debated for a few minutes. Do you really need that snack? You even considered a few healthier options. What about grabbing a piece of fruit instead? But you’re way past that point. Nothing else will scratch that itch. And before you know it, you’re diving face-first into your favorite treat.

When it comes to making a purchase, the same steps apply. There’s a point at which you become aware of a need, a process through which you research and evaluate your options, and an action where you pull the trigger – whether it’s indulging in your guilty pleasure food or checking out via the online store.  

The same goes for enrolling learners in your online courses. They are also on a journey from curious lead to engaged customer. And the more you understand that journey, the better you can guide them through to the ultimate goal: conversion.

What is a conversion funnel?

Whether you know it or not, as a business with online courses, you already have a conversion funnel. After all, someone is signing up for your course! 

A conversion can be any action a customer takes on your site. Commonly, it’s a purchase – you want someone to pay for your course, for example. But it can be anything from signing up for a monthly newsletter to enrolling in a free trial. Chances are, you have many different kinds of conversions on your site, each with its own set of actions.

The term funnel describes the experience of customers as you guide them from point A to point B (or C, or D) – from the first step to the final action. But this metaphorical funnel doesn’t hold everything that pours in. The closer you get to the bottom, the fewer people flow through. And that’s okay – after all, no course is the right fit for everyone!

A conversion funnel is a representation of the customer journey before, during and after they convert with you. It helps you visualize their experience with your business as they move toward the desired action. A conversion funnel can also be called a customer funnel – and if the desired outcome of the funnel is a purchase, you might know it as a purchase, buyer or sales funnel.

Conversion funnels are typically split into three phases, starting with a wider pool of leads and narrowing to active converters:

  • The top: Customers with a need who are starting their search for a solution
  • The middle: Customers who want to learn more and narrow down their options
  • The bottom: Customers who are ready to buy, register, download or subscribe

Those are the broad strokes, but you’ll need to consider the finer details as well. After all, the customer journey isn’t linear or standard across all individuals – they join at different entry points, search with different motivations and weigh different priorities.

Add to that, the web of smaller conversions you may weave throughout the overall customer journey. For example, a micro-conversion like downloading an ebook could lead to the ultimate conversion goal of purchasing a course.

Why do conversion funnels matter?

Ultimately, the goal of mapping, analyzing and optimizing your conversion funnel is simple: increasing conversions!

And those conversions are fueled by a seamless experience focused on customer success. Sure, buyers today are more informed than ever, but they’re also deeply uncertain and stressed, with a ton of information to sort through and an increasing number of options to consider.

By taking a closer look at your customers and how they buy (or download, or register), you can make sure that every step across their journey flows as smoothly as possible:

  • Optimizations at the top of your conversion funnel can help you attract more customers to interact with your brand.
  • Optimizations in the middle of your conversion funnel can help you provide the right content, education and support at key decision-making moments.
  • Optimizations at the bottom of your conversion funnel can help remove friction from the purchase process.
  • Optimizations post-purchase can help retain customers over the long run.

A closer examination of your conversion funnel shows who drops out of the customer journey, when it happens, where it occurs and why. This can highlight key areas of friction in the customer experience, whether it’s a sign-up that’s too difficult or confusing to complete, or messaging that just isn’t hitting the right note. 

While useful across the board to understand how your customers move through their experience with you, it’s particularly useful for: 

  • Marketing improvements: Reach people in the right ways with the right messaging for their specific stage in the journey. Conversion funnels can help you identify qualified customers sooner in the journey. They can help you better understand customer context, motivations and needs, which allows you to target specific customer segments on the most effective channels with tailored content at the right time.
  • Process improvements: Smooth out areas in the experience where customers hit roadblocks. Conversion funnels are one effective way to highlight processes that have too many steps, confuse customers, take too much time or are too difficult to complete. Once you know where customers are getting held up, you can remove those challenges and keep the flow going.
  • Product improvements: What’s turning people away – the product or the description? If your product doesn’t have the right features to serve your customers (or if your course doesn’t cover information that learners are hungry for), then your customers will drop out of the funnel eventually. This could be a sign to tweak what you offer – or launch something new and exciting!
  • Support improvements: Understand how customers interact with your support experts. If your customer service agents often hear the same handful of questions about your certification process, for example, you might use this cue to add answers directly into their experience with your website and save prospects the step of calling or emailing.

The end result? Gathering more qualified leads, spending less time courting people who aren’t likely to buy your products and offerings, spending budget in the most effective places, and improving loyalty.

What does a conversion funnel look like?

Your conversion model might be pretty basic – three phases to your “customer journey”, and you’ve got a student. But depending on your business model and the length of your sales cycle, you might want to get more granular with how you think about the customer journey.

Let’s explore some popular conversion funnel models, from simple to complex:

Awareness -> Consideration -> Conversion 

This simple model pares the customer funnel down to the basics. It works well for short sales cycles with single purchases as the ultimate goal.

Simple Conversion Funnel Thinkific (1)

  • Awareness: Your customers learn that you and your product exist. This is when you make your first impression and entice them to learn more about you.
  • Consideration: Customers research what solutions are available for a problem they’re having.
  • Conversion: Customers are informed and ready to make a decision. Now’s your chance to persuade them that your business is the right decision.

Awareness -> Consideration -> Conversion -> Loyalty -> Advocacy

This model adds detail to the basic three-phase conversion funnel with more emphasis placed on the retention of retaining customers and refilling of the funnel with more high-quality leads from your biggest fans. The two added steps go like this:

  • Loyalty: Customers keep coming back because you continue to interact with them and offer discounts
  • Advocacy: Happy customers are more than willing to share your course or products within their own network, netting you more customers at the top of your funnel.

Pirate Metrics – AAARRRR

The pirate metrics model or “AAARRRR” is an acronym that describes a set of five user-behaviour metrics that product-based businesses should pay attention to, and measure. It was developed by Dave McClure, a Silicon Valley investor. McClure saw that many startup companies were easily distracted by superficial metrics such as likes on social media, and wanted to create a model that allowed businesses to narrow their focus on metrics that were indicative of the health of a business.

  • Awareness: Describes how your customers are becoming aware of the business 
  • Acquisition: Describes the desired actions that a customer takes when interacting with your business 
  • Activation: Describes the customer taking the desired actions with your business 
  • Retention: Describes when customers continue to engage with your business, products and offerings 
  • Revenue: Describes the estimated revenue from customers willing to pay for your products or offerings 
  • Referral: Describes customers who like your product and offerings enough to recommend it to others

TOFU/MOFU/BOFU

The TOFU, MOFU and BOFU purchase funnel divides the customer journey into three stages: Awareness, Consideration, and Decision. 

Top of Funnel (TOFU): Describes the “top of the funnel’ customers that are still in the awareness stage. In this phase of their journey, your customer is doing research and looking for answers. Your goal should be to increase their awareness of your business and gain their trust. 

Middle of Funnel (MOFU): Describes the “middle of the funnel” customers that are aware of their problem, and are exploring the different available solutions. During this stage, your goal should be to give your customers as much information as possible about your business, products and offerings to help them make a decision.

Bottom of Funnel (BOFU): Describes the “bottom of the funnel” customers who are highly qualified leads, and are close to conversion. During this phase, your goal should be to provide your customers with an incentive to convert.


Attention -> Interest -> Desire -> Action 

Known as the AIDA model, this approach has stood the test of time for more than a century. It provides more insight into the customer’s frame of mind through the middle of the funnel as they move toward the bottom.

  • Attention: Similar to the first phase in the previous model, this is where your customers first hear about your business or a course that you offer. 
  • Interest: Customers become interested in you after realizing your course might fit their needs. They want to learn more.
  • Desire: Customers feel a positive connection as they learn more about the benefits you can provide them and how you’re different from competitors.
  • Action: Customers are ready and intent to conduct business with you.

Awareness -> Interest -> Desire -> Conversion -> Retention

The AIDA model, while long-lived and much used, is often criticized for its lack of post-funnel foresight. After all, you’re 60 to 70 percent more likely to sell your products or offerings to an existing customer than a new one. Existing customers are more likely to try new products from you, too. This variant adds a step at the bottom to keep happy customers coming back – and increase their overall customer lifetime value.

  • Retention: After converting, customers are satisfied and interested in other courses or products you offer.

Customer Awareness Stages 

From Eugene Schwartz’ copywriting classic “Breakthrough Advertising”.

Unaware: Customers who are unaware of problems, and not even close to thinking about solutions. For example, someone creating a youtube channel might not realize how long it takes to build enough of a following on social media to monetize through advertisement revenue. In this case, targeting these customers with solution/product-aware content that shows them how digital products can help them monetize a small following won’t resonate.

Problem Aware: These customers are aware of the problem they are facing, and have yet to become aware of a solution. For example, a new youtube channel creator has just gotten started, but the uptick isn’t on their views isn’t as quick as they thought. They are aware of the problem but are not yet sure how to solve it.

Solution Aware: Aware of their problem and the solutions available, but may not know what products can help them.

Product Aware: These customers are aware of their problem, the solutions available, and the different existing products and offerings in the market. They are taking into account different benefits of the products and weighing them against their specific needs to make their buying decision. You will need to “make a case” for your products with this customer. 

Most Aware: These customers know your product, and only needs to know what’s in it for them if they purchase.

How do you create a conversion funnel?

Before we go any further, one quick note: your conversion funnel is about the way you pull – not push – customers from step to step. You aren’t forcing them down the purchasing path; rather, you’re enticing them. It’s a carrot, not a stick.

All good? Now let’s go through what it takes to build one.

Lay the groundwork

1. Set your objectives. What will you gain by building a conversion funnel? Perhaps it’s raising your total business revenue, generating more leads, retaining more customers year over year or getting the biggest bang for your buck in your marketing budget. The more you understand what you want to gain, the more direction you’ll have in what you put together.

2. Know your customers. When you understand who your customers are, what they care about and how they find you, you can better align your course and the way you talk about it with their problems, needs, feelings and context. If you’ve done the legwork on customer segments, customer personas and ideal customer profiles, you’re already partway there! Demographics, surveys, interviews and user testing can help you get even further.

3. Define what “conversion” means to you. Start with the major goal on your site, like enrolling in a course or making a purchase. These actions you are looking your customers to take will live at the very bottom of your funnel – and everything will lead to it. Then, work backward. Consider your micro-conversions that help your customers get to that final goal. These might include downloading a case study, reading customer reviews or watching a preview video.

4. Outline customer paths. Begin mapping which actions customers will take, from the first interaction to last, into your conversion funnel model. Because customers will enter your funnel at different points and flow through in different (and often non-linear) ways, you’ll likely need to map out a few possibilities. You won’t capture every possible journey, but the more you anticipate, the better prepared you’ll be.

5. Set up your tools. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so make sure you arm yourself with the right equipment for the actions you plan to measure. Google Analytics, for example, offers the ability to map and track conversions across your site. Heat maps can help you pinpoint what page elements are attractive or distracting. Marketing automation can help gauge who engages with your messaging (and to what extent). This will let you see how, exactly, people are moving through your funnel, and how many are taking the desired actions.

Put it into action

6. Plan your touchpoints. Customers rarely buy straight off the bat – on average, they’ll consume three to seven pieces of content before they reach out to you, and it’ll take six to eight touchpoints with you before they make their decision. So you’ll want to make sure you’re reaching out to the right customers with the right content at the right times throughout the funnel.

7. Create your content. Support each stage of your funnel with content that meets your customers’ needs as they progress through their journey. Each piece should clearly lead them toward a next step or call-to-action so they don’t get lost along the way.

As a rough guide, you might consider the following kinds of communications through the buying process:

Top of funnel: Attract strangers with targeted messaging:

  • Social media campaigns
  • Advertising campaigns
  • Blog posts
  • Educational videos
  • Newsletters

Middle of the funnel: Engage prospects by building interest and knowledge:

  • Email drip campaigns
  • Product catalog
  • Demonstrations
  • Free samples
  • Ebooks, guides and whitepapers

Bottom of funnel: Delight customers with a final push:

  • Case studies and testimonials
  • Pricing pages
  • Promotional offers

8. Consider automation. Email sequences can make sure you stay top-of-mind with busy customers. For example, you can tease each topic in your course in a 10-email sequence. Or create email sequences targeted to different customer segments. Or follow up after a certain amount of time has elapsed after downloading your ebook with new offers.

Analyze and optimize

9. Crunch the numbers. Once you release your content into the world, it’s time to measure how it’s doing. Your data can help you reach your best leads more quickly, move people through the funnel more efficiently and identify leaks in your funnel where qualified leads decide not to convert. 

Pay particular attention to:

  • Technical barriers like slow-loading pages or pages that aren’t optimized for mobile (especially if many of your customers use mobile devices).
  • Common entry points, especially around specific customer segments. These pages should resonate with customers and make it as easy as possible to reach the next step.
  • High-traffic pages that many customers visit. You may have a handful of key chokepoints with opportunities for many different actions. (Imagine an Amazon product page with options to buy, browse reviews, view pictures, compare prices, read specs, etc.)
  • Leaks where customers exit the funnel before conversion. Once you know where the leaks are, you’ll need to figure out why they happen and address them.
  • Sources that tell you where people are coming from. Use tactics like link tracking from emails, social media and online ads to see which touchpoints are working best (or not working at all) within different customer segments.
  • Page elements that distract customers from taking the next step or effectively entice visitors to move forward

10. Make small changes. It’s tempting to plug every leak at once, but taking a slow and measured approach can help you pinpoint exactly the difference each tweak makes on your conversion funnel. A/B testing is a fantastic way to measure the difference a tweak to an email newsletter or a webpage will make before rolling it out live across a wider set of customers.

A few quick notes. Optimizing your conversion funnel isn’t a one-and-done deal. This is where you really hone in on making your customer experience as smooth as butter, through increments and iterations.

And don’t bother trying to optimize for 100 percent conversion. No customer funnel is completely leak-proof – otherwise, we’d call it a conversion cylinder! No matter how qualified and interested your customers are as they enter the funnel, many simply won’t be ready to buy right now.

Conversion funnel troubleshooting

If your conversion funnel doesn’t net the results you anticipated, one of these common culprits could be to blame: 

  • Optimizing in the wrong places – Trying to plug larger leaks at the top of the funnel where a large number of people simply won’t convert no matter what you do, can have less impact than plugging smaller leaks at the bottom where people are committed and about to pay you but whoops something went wrong.
  • Too many steps in the funnel – Don’t make your customers jump through hoops to convert. The longer the process, the more opportunity for error, distraction, frustration or confusion. Plus, their time is precious – don’t waste it.
  • Forgetting the “after” experience – The customer journey doesn’t end after they hit the “enroll” or “purchase” button. Keep your customers engaged throughout their time with you. Even an automated “thank-you” email can put the warm-and-fuzzies in a customer’s day… and keep them coming back for more (or referring others your way).
  • Forgetting a clear next step – A funnel is about guiding customers down a path. And for that, you’ll need clear signposts, lest they get lost along the way. If you don’t provide a next best action for them to follow, they may give up on you altogether.
  • Blanket messaging – Generic messaging? Boring. Customers increasingly want personalization in their interactions – and that includes the way you communicate your benefits or position your offers. Customer segmentation can help you figure out what your customers are looking for and narrow down your messaging to resonate on a more personal level.
  • Mapping the selling process – Conversion funnels are about following customers through the buying process, not pushing them through your selling process. If you don’t meet customers where they are, they’ll leave you to find someone else who does.
  • One funnel to rule them all – A conversion funnel isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every course you offer and every customer who comes your way. You might need separate funnels to describe the journey of different segments of customers and different products.
  • Giving up on non-converters – Just because someone didn’t enroll in one of your courses or purchase one of your products today, doesn’t mean they will never enroll or purchase. Who knows – they may need you next month or next year. Keep those leads warm if they’re a good match for your product and interested in what you have to offer.

So what’s your next best conversion funnel action?

When you landed on this article, you felt curious about what conversion funnels are all about. Maybe you knew a little already but had never dug deep. Or maybe this is your first time hearing the term, and it simply piqued your interest.

As you read more about the topic, perhaps you started imagining how a conversion funnel would fit into your own business. You read about the benefits, did a little more digging on different models that are out there, and explored the examples and stats we shared.

It felt like a good fit – perhaps you’ve been wondering why your lead generation is lagging, or why those leads seem to disappear before they hit the “enroll” button. 

Here you are, a conversion funnel convert!

And if you’re wondering where to take your next step, we’ll leave you with one final nugget of wisdom: start small. Test the waters by mapping out a single conversion point. Target one segment of your customers with a high interest in your topic and a high fit for your course or offerings. Measure the response you get, and tweak it to bring it higher. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try it on a larger scale.

Happy converting!

Are you ready to supercharge your conversion funnel with an online education program? 

With Thinkific Plus, your business can nurture customers, increase customer loyalty, and expand its revenue by offering personalized learning experiences to your different customer segments at different stages of their journey. Learn more about Thinkific Plus or book a call with our team to try it today.