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In online marketing, the idea that a consumer will see your advertisement and then immediately click through and become a customer has long been known to be fantasy.

As a rule of thumb, advertising experts believe that it takes an average of five “impressions” of your brand in order for an individual to form enough of a bond to become your customer. They might, in fact, click your ads or experience your brand several times before they become a purchaser.

This real-world behaviour, of course, wreaks havoc on the budgets and plans of online marketers, because we have been building and measuring our online campaigns like we just finished watching Glengarry Glen Ross.

The sales funnel is dead. Or, at least, the traditional sales funnel is dead. We’re now starting to design and to measure campaigns as they guide a consumer along a “decision journey” and to build the relationship with the consumer progressively and with increasing effectiveness.

The decision journey (or at least this moniker) was brought to the fore by researchers from McKinsey& Co. in 2009. In their paper, the authors described the consumer’s experience with a new brand or idea as a “circular journey, with four primary phases representing potential battlegrounds where marketers can win or lose.”

When we began actively marketing RosterBot in 2014, we realized the effects of this behaviour as we started to use social marketing methodologies (engaging users in scale via Facebook, Twitter, our company blog, etc.). We were very good at driving traffic in the tens of thousands by writing great blog posts, posting hilarious video content and so on, and encouraging people to share them. This was happening at pennies per visitor, and fractions of a penny per impression. These were not, however, leading to a compelling number of customer signups.

So we turned to retargeting. If you’ve ever abandoned a purchase at an online store, and then were suddenly beset by ads for the items from your deserted cart at that online merchant, you’ve been the object of a retargeted ad. Retargeting networks like AdRoll buy online advertising inventory in bulk on traditional ad networks (Google Adwords, Facebook Ads, etc.) and then resell these at a higher value. Here’s the retargeting cycle:

You should be willing to pay more for retargeted ads (still on a pay-per-click basis, by the way) than for generic ads because the retargeter is actually taking contextual information from your website and the user’s browser to target them directly based on their prior visit to your site. But here’s the good news: the retargeted ads generally cost roughly the same as any other online advertisement.

The challenge for our team is that we’re only interested in people who play sports, not simply those who ‘like’ sports. So, on Facebook, we market the content to people who “like” certain sports, but our content is really only designed to appeal to actual players. In this way the content acts as both a separator to filter the athletes out from the fans and as an amplifier that encourages them to share RosterBot with their friends.

The reality is that in this “social” session, at least, the site visitor is less likely to sign up–they’re just meeting us for the first time, after all. The best we can hope for in that first visit is that they share our funny video or post. This is where retargeting takes over.

Now that we’ve got their cookie (or rather they’ve got ours), we can retarget these visitors with a progressive campaign of ads to nurture their interest in signing up. This might take days, weeks or months. A healthy percentage of those do eventually return, and regardless of how high or low that number is, we only pay when they do. In the interim, we’re extending their understanding of our brand completely for free.

Unlike visits generated by our social content, visits generated by retargeted ads convert with very favourable economics. As a bonus, retargeting also plugs into our other campaigns such as press, radio ads, and search advertising, to radically increase their overall effectiveness. In essence all we need to do is generate that first impression, drive the user to visit our site, and then we are able to bring them back and develop that relationship further via off-board ads.

Customer acquisition, whether online or not, is really a conversation between a brand and the consumer. The key to success is to take a more considered, nuanced approach to developing your relationship with the consumer, and to understand that the funnel simply ain’t what it used to be.

Ian Bell has been bending bits into business since 1993 and is creator of ‪TingleRosterBot and other things celebrated and ignominious.  Follow him @ianb on Twitter.  This article originally appeared in Profit Magazine.

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