The marketing funnel, explained in ice cream

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Did you know that there’s a “right way” to eat ice cream?

If you’re eating from a bowl, you’re supposed to use a gold spoon because other spoons can change the flavour.

And if you’re eating a cone, there’s apparently a “gentleman’s technique” – lick from the top of the cone, diagonally up.

If you ask me, there’s only one way to eat an ice cream cone – start at the top and try to get to the bottom before my daughter finishes hers and tells me I need to share mine.

This makes ice cream cones the best analogy for explaining the marketing funnel – you want your customers to get to the end before someone or something else distracts them.

Marketing funnel: Need to know

Marketers and content strategists look at the customer journey differently.

Marketing sees a funnel with three distinct phases: the top, middle, and bottom.

Content strategists see a map with multiple milestones dotting a journey from one end to the other.

Both are important because they complement each other. And they have a similar goal: to move potential customers to the end.

The Golden Rule with both approaches is this:

How you engage with your customers changes depending on where they are in the journey or funnel.

The “marketing funnel”, explained in ice-cream

The marketing funnel illustrates how customers move through the buying process, from the moment they become aware of your brand or realise that they have a problem, to the moment they sign on the dotted line.

You need to understand each stage of the funnel so that you can meet your customers whenever and wherever they enter the funnel and escort them to the bottom.

Think of the funnel as an ice-cream cone:


TOFU: Not something you eat

Your leads, or potential customers, enter the funnel at the top when they become aware of your brand or that they have a problem.
They might not even know that they have a problem at this stage, in which case you need to educate them.
But before you can do that, they must be triggered into taking action.
Maybe it’s a hot day at the beach.
Or you’re rewarding your kid’s good report with a massive sundae.
Or the ice-cream truck with its awful out-of-tune earworm music is in the neighbourhood and your kid is WETTING HERSELF WITH EXCITEMENT.
These are all triggers that create awareness.
In this stage, you should assume that your customer knows nothing about you or what you offer.
All they know is that they want ice cream.
So, what do they do?
They ask Google, ask friends, read reviews, and browse Instagram profiles.
Don’t come on too strong at this stage.
Your goal is to stand out, entice, to stop them mid-scroll.
And you do that with sprinkles, chocolate syrup, and a glazed cherry on top.
Not vanilla content.
Eye-catching content.
Content that works well in this stage include:

  • Blogs
  • Social posts
  • Infographics
  • Videos
  • Checklists

Now that they’ve had a taste for what you offer, you can nudge them towards the middle of the funnel.

MOFU: Not an insult

So, your potential customers know they have a problem and that ice cream is the solution.
Now they’re thinking about things like:

  • What flavours do I want?
  • Two scoops or three?
  • Cup or cone?

They can get this at any ice cream shop.

It’s the mushy middle.

But you want them to come to yours.
So, how do you stand out?
By offering high-quality, useful, and engaging content in exchange for something that’s equally valuable to you: their email address and permission to contact them.
Marketers call this “gated content”. It sits behind a gate that can only be unlocked with a proverbial “key” – the customer’s email address.
In return, they can access even higher value content than what you dished up in the TOFU stage.
Something exclusive.
Something gooooood.
Content in this stage is often called “Hero Assets” and include:

  • White papers
  • Webinars
  • Templates
  • Downloads
  • In-depth guides
  • Ebooks
Content strategy best practice:
Don’t half-arse your Hero Assets.
They will serve you for a long time and can be repurposed in more ways than you think. Yes, they take time, money, and effort to create, but the return on your investment could be substantial.


Through Hero Assets, you build trust and nurture the relationship until they’re ready to take it to the next level.

BOFU: Not what you call your bestie

Your prospects have fully considered your product or service against other options and are ready to buy – they just need a nudge in the right direction.
Before they decide, they’ll want to see proof that you really do make the best ice cream in town.
They’ll look for evidence in case studies and testimonials. But they also want to make up their own minds.
Content at this stage must be persuasive, meaningful, and leverage the relationship you’ve worked hard to build.
It’s the point where you both get rewarded.
The chocolate tip that ends the experience on a (sugar) high note.
If you have a software company, you might offer a free trial.
If you teach yoga, you might offer a discounted package.
If you sell ice cream, this is when you dish out the samples.
Content that works well in this stage include:

  • Free trials
  • Samples
  • Exclusive discounts
  • Insider tips
  • Case studies
  • Testimonials

Nice to know

If the ice-cream analogy gives you brain freeze, fear not.
There is another way to map your customer journey.
The content strategist’s way.
And it starts with asking:

What goals do your customers want to accomplish as they interact with your brand?

More here.

More to explore

Go deeper with SEMrush’s Anatomy of a Powerful Content Marketing Funnel and explore:

      • Top-performing content types for each funnel stage
      • Tactics to drive audiences to the next stage
      • Most efficient channels for content distribution

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