Online Marketing Made Easy: How Sales Funnels Work

David Gavrilut   46

Updated on February 10, 2020

Sales don’t happen instantaneously. Especially in the online world. You can’t just display a “Buy Now” button on your site and expect your sales to go through the roof…

You need to take your visitors on a journey, which some online marketers call a sales funnel.

​​In a sales funnel, you'll lead your visitors through four stages before they ultimately decide to become your customers. And each of these stages is as important as the other.

So fasten your seatbelt, because we’re about to look at each part of this journey together so you'll then be able to turn your online visitors into longtime customers!


sales funnel awareness

The 4 Sales Funnel Stages Explained

Sales Funnel Stage 1: Awareness

More specifically: Making visitors aware of their problem.

To understand this better, let’s assume that you have an online business where you educate people about photography. ( If you haven't yet build your own business, make sure to read our ultimate guide on how to start an online business.)

On your website, you offer some free e-books and sell an online course about photography. And, naturally, the end goal is to sell as many copies of your online course as possible.

But how can you make this happen?

Create a Customer Avatar

First things first.

When you put out photography content: Who do you have in mind as your target customer? Who is the exact person you want to educate through your content? 

Creating Your Ideal Customer Avatar

Amy Porterfield has an entire podcast episode about how you can identify your ideal customer (a.k.a. your business's customer avatar). She even goes so far as to say that your ideal customer avatar is someone who is absolutely crucial to the success of your business and if you don’t know who they are, your business won’t have legs to stand on.

You can check out Amy’s blog post about this, here.

Also, the DigitalMarketer blog offers a good customer avatar worksheet you can use to help with this: The Customer Avatar Worksheet: Finally, Get Clear on WHO You Are Selling To!

In our case, the prospect we are targeting could be a guy (let’s call him Tom) who just got a professional camera as a birthday gift, but doesn’t really know how to use it.

Tom always liked the idea of becoming a skilled photographer, but never pursued it. Now, he’s willing to learn how to use his camera and is ready to invest in it as a hobby.

This is where you come in.

Organic Traffic vs Paid Traffic

Your job now is to get Tom on your website. You have exactly what he needs, you just need to let him know you exist.

To do this — to get traffic on your website — you can choose between using paid solutions or trying to get traffic organically.

Organic traffic refers to visitors that land on your website as a result of unpaid (“organic”) search results.

Visitors who are considered organic find your website after using a search engine like Google or Bing instead of being “referred” by another website.

On the Thrive Themes Blog, we have various resources explaining how you can get traffic on your website, the organic way.

For example, you can find out what keywords should you focus on in order to allow Tom to easily find your website when he’s searching for ”photography tips” on Google.

Or, you could also check out the blog post that Andrea (our in-house SEO specialist) wrote to help you SEO optimize blog posts to boost your traffic.

On the other hand, paid traffic is any kind of traffic you have to pay for, whether we are talking about Facebook ads, Google ads, Pay-per-click advertising or Pay-per-display advertising.

Dave, our in-house Social Media expert, has written several in-depth blog posts related to advertising on Facebook to show you how to get better at this kind of paid adverts:

sales funnel interest

Sales Funnel Stage 2: Interest

At this stage, your goal is to get Tom on your email list, turning him from a simple visitor into a lead.

How Does a Visitor Become a Lead?

A lead is a visitor that has converted into a subscriber - To achieve this, you’ll need Tom to give you his email address.

The best way to earn Tom’s email is by sending him to a Lead Generation or “Squeeze” Page, where you’ll offer him something free (like an e-book) about “Photography for Beginners”.

It’s a win-win situation: Tom gets to learn about basic photography techniques for FREE, and you earn his email address.

Creating the Ultimate Lead Magnet

The “free e-book” that you offer Tom is also known as a Lead Magnet. As the name suggests, it’s designed for the exact purpose of helping you gather more leads.

However, in order for the lead magnet to be super effective, it needs to be exactly what Tom is looking for.

To help you do that, our content marketing specialist Brad wrote an epic blog post all about how to create highly specialized types of lead magnets like this known as Ultimate Guides. Check it out here:

How to Create Ultimate Guides that Convert Like Crazy

How and When to Offer Your Lead Magnet

If you’re using paid advertising, it’s pretty simple.

The thing you advertise will be your lead magnet. So, when Tom clicks on your ad, he's sent to a Landing Page where the entire focus is converting Tom into a subscribed lead (via your lead magnet.)

So, on the Lead Generation Page, it’s important not to distract Tom with unnecessary elements like animations, widgets and other calls-to-action. Instead, focus on creating a streamlined landing page focused on the benefits your lead magnet will bring Tom.

Creating a Streamlined Lead Generation Page

In Thrive University, we have a free course explaining step-by-step how you can rapidly create a highly effective, lead magnet focused, Lead Generation page. Check it out:

Make Better Landing Pages [100% Free Course] 

On the other hand, if your focus is on getting organic traffic…

Let’s say that you’ve SEO optimized your blog posts and Tom discovered one of them while he was searching for “photography tips” on Google.

To convert him from a reader into a lead, you can deploy a lead generation tool known as a “Content Upgrade”.

A content upgrade is a complementary piece of information your blog readers can download in exchange for their email address.

In your case, the content upgrade might be the free photography e-book. The secret is to stir up Tom’s curiosity in the blog post so that when he sees the content upgrade, he’s eager to get it.

You can watch Shane talk more about content upgrades, when to use them and when not to use them, here.

sales funnel decision

Sales Funnel Stage 3. Decision

This is where the magic happens: It's time to make Tom an offer to buy your product… like an online course about photography for beginners!

You’ve got a few different ways you can pitch your product at this point. Below, I’m going to present you with a few strategies to that in this stage of your sales funnel:

Present an Upsell Offer on Your Lead Magnet Thank You Page

Let’s go back a few steps, right after you offered Tom your free e-book about photography.

After he gives you his email address, you send him to a “Thank You” page. This is where you thank him for signing up as well as let him know that email containing the free e-book is on its way.

But here’s where you can spice things up a bit.

Below the typical “Thank You” message on your thank you page, you can also display an offer for your beginner photography online course.

Create Upsells Using Thrive Leads

In Thrive Leads, you can use this same upsell strategy by displaying a “Thank You state” on your multi-state lightbox opt-in forms.

Matt from marketing wrote a cool blog post explaining exactly how you can display such Thank You state offers here:

How To Turn Your Opt-In Lightboxes into Revenue Generating Upsells

Use Email Marketing to Sell Your Course

According to Direct Marketing Association’s 2019 consumer email report, when asked whether consumers like receiving certain types of content from brands, 75% of respondents said they like discounts and offers.

So, now that Tom is in your email list, why not take advantage of it?

After he got his hands on your free PDF, you can offer him the Online Course on the Thank You page, as we mentioned above.

But, if he doesn’t take your offer, nothing is lost!

If you give Tom a little time to go through your free e-book, he will see that you actually know a lot about photography and may start to feel he has a lot more to learn from you.

So here, you can send him a few follow-up emails after he receives the e-book to:

  1. Remind him to go through the e-book if didn’t do that already
  2. Highlight a few of the key takeaways from your e-book.

Then, when the time comes, you can start sending Tom emails that contain soft sales pitches about your Online Course.

This is a great strategy because most people will feel more comfortable buying products AFTER they’ve come to trust and value the person or company selling to them.

And that feeling of trust may not come until after Tom goes through your e-book, applies some of the content and then realizes that “YES! I wanna learn more from this guy!”

Pro Tip

It’s important to avoid making your promotional emails different from your content announcement emails that you send to your followers.

Think how weird it would be for Tom to receive normal content emails that he enjoys reading, but then gets a weird, super-colorful email packed with promotions and flashing lights. He’ll wonder why on earth he ever subscribed to your email list in the first place...

To understand how to seamlessly blend both your free content and sales promotions emails, check out Shane’s super interesting video about this here:

Old vs. New Marketing and What it Means for GDPR 

Bonus: Offer a Free Webinar as a “Sneak-Peek” for Your Online Course

If you’ve been using the techniques mentioned above, but your email click-through-rates indicate that Tom still won’t take you up on your sales offers, here’s something else you can try:

Set up a Free Photography Webinar.

This will allow you to drop some photography knowledge bombs on your users — live and in person.

And after the webinar is over, you can even use the footage in one of your online courses or Youtube and/or blog content.

You can also use free webinars to draw attention to the Online Course that you sell on your website.

However, be careful not to give off a salesy vibe when doing a webinar. Instead, try to emphasize the educational content you’re providing over the online course you soft sell at the end. 

Try to trigger Tom’s curiosity by talking about some cool photography techniques while also giving him the impression that “there’s a whole lot more where that came from — if you take my online course."

sales funnel decision

Sales Funnel Stage 4: Action

This is the last stage of the funnel, but it’s by no means the least important.

Because even if Tom has decided to buy your Online Course, he’s not your customer just yet.

Set Up a Seamless Online Payment System

This is critical.

If Tom doesn’t have a good purchase experience, you may risk losing him for good.

Just think about your own experience. Were you ever about to spend money on something that you weren’t 100% SURE you really needed? If you then encountered any sort of payment problem, you probably dropped the whole purchase right there and bounced.

That’s why you need a seamless online payment process for the products you sell online.

Setting Up a Premium Online Course 

If you're looking for a premium online course tool stack that's affordable, straightforward to set up, and powerful when it comes to creating amazing lessons for paying customers, we have a free course in Thrive University that I’m sure you’ll find useful:

Build an Information Product Empire You Actually Own [Free Course]

Provide the Ability for Your Customer to Leave Testimonials

Testimonials are very important to an online business because they serve as social proof.

This is why, after Tom has purchased your Online Course, you need to give him the ability to speak his mind about your online course and leave you a testimonial.

Of course, in order for him to leave you a testimonial, he needs to go through your actual course first.

So, you can either display a testimonial capture form somewhere within the course (either at the end of the course or at the end of certain chapters) or you can send him an email at some point, asking him for feedback about the course.

Speaking of Testimonials…

If you’re interested in learning effective testimonial capture strategies for your online course, make sure to check out Brad’s post all about that here:

The 5 Best Testimonial Secrets For Online Course Creators

Create Your Own Sales Funnel!

Now that you’ve seen the breakdown of all 4 stages of a sales funnel, it’s time for you to create your own so you can take your visitors on a high value journey!

If you have any questions about the stages of the sales funnel I described above, leave me a comment below and let's have a chat!

by David Gavrilut  April 12, 2019


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Leave a Comment

  • I use PayPal for transactions, which includes a shopping cart. Probably not the best cart, but good enough. However, PayPal fees are high, and I’m looking for options. Any recommendations?

    Funny the last 5 seconds of the video. Were they on purpose?

    • Hey, Javier- depends where you are in the world, but lots of folks use Stripe + Payfunnels (a separate invoicer should you be doing advance billing instead of immediate transaction), since recently Stripe has started to offer invoicing to get that business segment too. Personally, I like to keep them separate, but it depends on you biz.

    • Javier and Kyle, a good solution might also be Thrive Cart.

      My colleague Brad has put together a post on how to create a Sales Funnel using Thrive Architect and Thrive Cart and he’ll publish it really soon. Stick around for that!

      PS: Javier, glad you stuck around till the very end of the video haha! They were on purpose, I got the flu that day and our video editor, Miquel, decided to include a blooper in the video 😀

  • Thanks – nice explanations.
    It would be really helpful if you could shoot a video showing how to use the Thrive toolset to create & link the whole sales funnel together – including upsells & downsells.

    • We could definitely do that, Evaristo! I’ve added it to my list 🙂

      Until then, you can check out Hanne’s post on how to create a list building funnel with Thrive Architect from A to Z, here.

      And stick around, because Brad will soon publish a post on how to create a sales funnel using Thrive Architect and Thrive Cart!

  • Thanks David for another very educational tutorial.

    This obviously works very well for digital products that are easily delivered online.

    I offer a ‘physical’ service to the industrial and construction industries by providing equipment training for forklift trucks and heavy construction equipment.

    How best would you suggest I should use this funnel in attracting and gaining more of these physical customers?

    I understand the concept of providing relevant content and SEO etc to attract and engage them but it’s what to offer them as an incentive for them to give me their email address and what to use to help progress them through the funnel process that I’m stuck on.

    I suppose offering discounts and perhaps cheat sheets could be used.

    How would this funnel look if i wanted to gain more paying customers for say ‘forklift training’?

    I see lots of tutorials geared towards those offering online solutions via for digital products but it would be extremely useful for those of us who work in service based industries to see tutorials geared towards those.

    • Jonah,
      You could offer some “forklift training-related” guides, digitally offered to get email addresses… These would also showcase your knowledge in your industry… You might also offer free “seminars” speaking about forklift safety… or other related topics of interest to your audience. You could do this at little or no cost through Meetups…

      This is not my industry so I’m not sure what other topics might be of interest… 😉

      Sample short videos about topics in your niche could also help show your expertise! 🙂

      Hope this helps!

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply Karen. I really appreciate those suggestions and they should work perfectly.

        It’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees and to lose focus on what people actually want or are interested in and therefore helpful to get an objective ‘outsider’ view sometimes. Thanks again. Very helpful.

      • Hi Jonah,

        You’re very welcome! 😀

        I know what you mean about getting an objective perspective!

        IMO, it’s always easier to see potential solutions to other people’s challenges, but so hard to see our own! I face this same scenario all the time! 😉

        That’s why this Thrive community is so helpful! We can all learn from each other! 🙂

    • Hey, Jonah- you might consider shooting a video (smartphone usually is good enough) to add valuable content on a pertinent subject of your choice. It’s not even close to being my niche but I have real estate construction experience. For example: Tie your value video on equipment needed to prepare it for services (water, sewage…) into something as interesting as the “1st stage necessary before you can buy your 1st home”. That’s pretty creative and should create interest & curiosity from heavy equipment manufacturers and users. If you need any help on the videography part, I can help out there too. Thoughts?

      • Thanks for responding Kyle. Appreciate your ideas. You are absolutely right.

        I generally use other peoples videos during courses but your suggestions certainly open up a great deal that can be done to create and use my own videos.

        I had this in the back of my mind but sometimes just getting some outside confirmation that it is worthwhile doing gives that momentum to actually get it done. Thank you.

      • Kyle’s idea is great!

        And, if you do your OWN videos, you’ll be going a long way to establish your personal branding! Viewers can see there is a real person behind the business…

        You can show your OWN expertise and your own unique approach!

        Personal videos like this also raise trust levels, so people want to do business with you! 🙂

    • That is a great question, Jonah. Karen and Kyle both provided some useful tips.

      We could do some research and create some content around this topic because I’m sure a lot of people offer physical products or services, too.

      • This is a great idea, David!

        I think it’s pretty common for many people to have a “hybrid” offering where they have a combination of digital products, as well as services and physical products…

        While I won’t be offering any physical products, I am considering offering some level of coaching services when I get my online course ready for purchase… The topic technical in nature, I think some type of personal access to me is critical for student (customer) success!

        It would be great to see how to integrate that into the overall funnel! 😀

    • That’s great! If anyone else uses CartFlows, we have a tutorial on how you can use it together with Thrive Architect, here.

    • Hi Keno,
      Shane has a different take on this…

      Have you seen this article? (David has linked to this same article above…)

      I particularly love Shane’s “Newsletter-as-a-Service” part of that post, but I think the information on simply rephrasing the text on opt-in forms really simplifies how to deal with GDPR!

      Really helped me! 🙂

    • Karen is right, Keno. You can definitely collect emails for a free e-book. You just need to put a disclaimer somewhere in there and tell your users that “by submitting your email address you will get instant access to the free ebook and also be subscribed to our newsletter” or something like that, and you’re good! 🙂

  • This article reminds us of how the Thrive themes system helps entrepreneurs unlock the confusing world of online business/course development. I’ve read a lot of the reference material before but when it’s presented in this context, its validity is magnified 10X. (its ten times better when presented as a step by step study guide) Thank you

    • Appreciate the comment, Brian! And yes, the references make more sense now because you can much easily see the bigger picture 🙂

  • Nice Post!

    Question for the community: How do you visualize your funnel(s)? GAnalytics doesn’t give me all I need. I have tested Improvely, unfortunately it’s not the cheapest solution. The goal is visualize different funnels based on UTM tags I use for all my links so that I am quickly able to compare any external source and how well they work. Example: How does a visitor compare when they come from a Facebook ad vs. a guest blog post on a 3rd party site?

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Johannes!

      I’m not really an expert on Google Analytics, but if you go to the “All Traffic” option, doesn’t that show you exactly how did your visitors end up on your site? (google / organic, (direct) / (none), google / cpc and so on)

  • Really great idea about Testimonials. I’m going to check out Brad’s post on the subject. I’m leaning heavily (when I get to the ‘course’ prep stage of my biz) on putting a couple of testimonial capture forms strategically somewhere within the course [patterned along the lines of having multiple CTAs in the VSL Funnel], rather than in separate email(s). People just don’t Consistently open let alone fill out a survey within an email.

    • That’s true, Kyle. Brad’s post is a great resource you could check out.

      However, emails might work too, you could give them a shot. Hanne has written a piece about this, here.

      • David, your post is great as a 101 funnel course, but more information is needed at each stage. In my case I would appreciate more information about the eCommerce part of the funnel. Sadly Thrive Themes doesn’t have a plugin for this, but maybe you can recommend some plugins, such as WooCommerce, Shopify, Thrive Cart, etc.
        I currently use PayPal, which includes a shopping cart, but I’m not sure if this is the best approach or if I need something else. Could you please elaborate? Thank you.

      • Sure, I knew that there would be a lot of questions regarding certain steps of the funnel, where more information is needed 🙂

        As I said below, we’ll publish a Thrive Architect + Thrive Cart tutorial reaaaally soon and I recommend you stick around for that and decide if that’s something you would need 🙂

  • Thanks for the sales funnel 101; Could you please follow up it with a more advanced & implemented sales funnel post?

    • Certainly, Bibhash! What stage of the funnel would you be more interested in particular?

      Hanne has recently put together a post where she analyzes the sales funnel of an online business called Mindvalley. You should definitely check it out! Find it here.

      • I am looking forward to some actual implementation videos of some of the most popular & effective funnel strategies though I understand it’s effectiveness varies depending the business type one is in! I was looking for a more detailed discussion on this post of Shane as well as yours –
        Thanks for link!

  • Hi David,

    This is probably the most comprehensive & helpful article on sales funnels I have seen, even here on Thrive! 😀

    Great coverage of the topic!

    As Brian M said below it really helps when you put everything in context in a single content piece! It helps to see the big picture how everything fits together and *still* provide the details necessary to DIY it!

    [Aside: still hopeful for seeing how to create those “tip” content boxes!… I do respect your time and know how busy you must be! So I’m certainly grateful for all your great content! :D]

    • Thanks a lot for the comment, Karen! I’m glad to see you found it helpful!

      PS: The Highlight Box video is finished, we just need to put together a post for it and it will be published later this month. We didn’t forget about you! 🙂

      • Hi David,
        Thanks so much for the update on the Highlight box! Looking forward to adding it to my “Architect template toolkit!” 😀

  • Hey David, regarding the offer on the lead magnet thank you page: Just a trip wire (inexpensive book) or an expensive course (at a timed discount)? What are your thoughts on this?

    Thanks, Ann.

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