What’s the difference between a Sales Funnel and a Marketing Funnel?

People can get easily confused about these two terms, and that confusion is at least partly my fault.

See, I’ve been writing about digital marketing for more than a decade online. I even wrote a book about Marketing Yourself. Despite being an ‘expert,’ I have been very sloppy about how I use those two phrases.

During a recent workshop I was teaching, somebody asked me the question that had me shook:

What’s the difference between a Sales Funnel and a Marketing Funnel?

She wanted to know what I thought made them different from one another. For the first time, I put some intentional thought into the distinctions between a Sales Funnel and a Marketing Funnel, and I realized I have been using these terms wrong, all along.

TL;DR: Marketing Funnels are for pulling, and Sales Funnels are for pushing.

There are 3 phases a person goes through, on their journey from stranger to customer: Marketing, Sales, and Service.

push pull

Marketing is the first phase: they go from being a stranger to a prospect. They read your work, they learn about you, they compare you to others, and finally they volunteer their willingness to enter into a commercial conversation with you.

Sales is the second phase: they articulate their problem, listen to your solution, discuss the terms, and finally pay you some money.

Service is the third phase: only customers who have paid you money enter this final stage.

Because a lot of my work is digital, and asynchronous, I have been muddying the two terms Marketing Funnel and Sales Funnel, as if they are interchangeable.

But they are not.

marketing funnel vs sales funnel

A Marketing Funnel looks like this:

  • Landing page (where you opt-in or subscribe)
  • Lead magnet (a PDF or free gift)
  • Email Automation (prewritten emails sent automatically)
  • Sales Page (details of the offer)
  • Checkout Page (where the e-commerce happens)
  • Thank-You Page (where you deliver the goods)

For some time now, I’ve been calling this sequence a Sales Funnel. My Sales Funnel Workbook has guided people through these steps, and helped people identify the gaps in their own systems.

sales funnel

But that is not a sales funnel. A Sales Funnel looks like this:

  • Lead (someone qualified to do business with you)
  • Prospect (a person who has voluntarily expressed interest)
  • Suspect (the recipient of a proposal)
  • Customer (paying client)
  • Referral partner (advocate of your work)

When I host training workshops that educate entrepreneurs on how to make a sales pipeline, I give them this Trello board. Adding Leads to the first list, and moving them to the subsequent lists in order, is all you need to do to turn Leads into Customers.

trello board

This is what most people call a Sales Funnel. Here’s a short video describing the progression:

Getting The Names Mixed Up

While I’m an expert in digital marketing, I’m also well aware that experts make the most mistakes in their field. (Experts often make the BIGGEST mistakes, after all.)

This mix-up was one of my biggest mistakes of my career.

When I published my Sales Funnel Workbook in 2016, what I was really describing was a Marketing Funnel.

sales funnel workbook
This is now obsolete

I have noticed other people using the term Sales Funnel to describe what I would call a Sales Pipeline, and it always bothered me.

I didn’t take the time to examine why…until recently. It didn’t bother me that they were doing it wrong, it bothered me that I was doing it wrong.

Now that I know this, it would be hypocritical of me to lean into my past mistakes, like many experts often do. So eight years later, I am rebranding my Sales Funnel Workbook into a Marketing Funnel Workbook.

Marketing Funnel Workbook

I couldn’t find the old cover template, so we are using this one now

It’s old, nearly a decade, but the concepts are still solid. My branding is a bit…dated, so you can use this opportunity to peek into how I used to present myself online.

You can use this PDF to fix the gaps in your own Marketing Funnel, or you can use this Trello Board to manage your own Sales Funnel.

If my misuse of this nomenclature has added to your confusion over the years, my apologies. I know that experts are often the last ones to change their minds, but I know from experience it’s not always from stubbornness; sometimes it’s just from oversight.

I hope this clarification helps you think about your business, and the systems that support it, more clearly.