The buying journey: TOFU → MOFU → BOFU

One day, I walked into a Warby Parker store and bought some glasses. As far as they could tell, that was the only interaction I'd ever had with them. What I know that they don't is that a few years earlier, I'd bought glasses from a discount website. They were ok, but not great. I heard Warby Parker would be better, but I wasn't in the market, so I forgot about it. Then they opened a store near where I live, and I heard people talking about it. I walked by the store a few times and thought about going in, but didn't. Eventually I went on their website to check out the prices. Finally, after about three years of having them on my radar, I walked into the store and bought some glasses.

That's a "buying journey". Even though my actual purchase took about 10 minutes and didn't involve any marketing or sales (my mind was already made up), I took a three-year journey to get to that point.

Too often, businesses focus their marketing on only conversions. This is a problem. Most of the steps in a buying journey don't end with a customer purchasing your product, so if you only work on marketing that directly converts, you're basically ignoring the vast majority of what actually goes in to a customer choosing you.

Disclaimer: I'm still learning how to harness this framework effectively myself. I first heard about it from my friend Rick, and this blog post is my attempt to write down how I'm thinking about it for my business. Follow this advice at your own risk.

Modeling where a customer is in the journey

It's hard to give a lead what they need in that moment if you don't know where they are in the buying journey. You can model this journey using three obnoxious buzzwords: BOFU (pronounced "bow" like bow and arrow, "foo"), MOFU, and TOFU.

A visual of the three steps in the buying journey

I know, these are extremely douchey terms, and I sort of hate myself for using them. But as embarrassing as it is, this is such a helpful concept that I think it's worth swallowing your pride and doing your best MBA impression. But I still refuse to say "synergy". I have my limits.

Ok, so here's what these dumb terms mean:

TOFU - Top of funnel

The buying journey starts before your customer even knows that there's anything for them to buy.

Let's use my company, Less Annoying CRM, as an example. We sell customer relationship management software to small businesses, specifically to customer-facing teams such as sales and customer service.

People don't just wake up one day suddenly wanting a CRM. A CRM is a solution to a problem they're experiencing, and they generally feel the pain of that problem before they go looking for a solution.

For example, maybe a sales rep wants to close more deals. Or a sales manager is struggling to assign leads fairly to their reps in the field. Or a customer service team keeps angering customers because they're replying to emails without understanding the full history of the relationship.

When someone experiences a problem like that, what do they do? They search Google for "how to close more leads" or they ask a more senior sales manager how they handle assigning leads or they go to an industry event hoping to learn how to provide better customer service.

This is the TOFU stage of the buying journey. A person has identified a problem they need help with, and they're looking for answers. Somewhere down the line, this might result in them buying your product, but they don't even know what your product is yet.

MOFU - Middle of funnel

The TOFU lead asks around, reads some blog posts, etc. and eventually they figure out that there is a solution to their problem. Back to using LACRM as an example, maybe a friend tells them, "you just do this in your CRM. You do have a CRM, right?"

Now that person is in the MOFU stage of the buying journey. They've heard about the category of solution, but they need to learn more. What can CRMs do? Are they expensive? Whoa, there are like a gazillion CRMs out there, what's the difference between them?

These are the types of questions a MOFU lead is trying to answer.

BOFU - Bottom of funnel

After someone does their MOFU research, they eventually feel informed enough to start making a decision. Out of the entire universe of options, they might narrow it down based on recommendations from people they trust, feature requirements, pricing, or any number of other things. For a CRM buyer, maybe they narrow it down to LACRM because of our pricing and customer service, Hubspot because it's free, and Salesforce just because that's what everyone else uses.

Now they're a BOFU lead. They're looking at our product to decide if they should pick us. They're probably looking up our reviews on G2 and Capterra, looking at our feature list, trying our live demo, and possibly booking a sales call with us.

And then, hopefully, they buy.

Applying this framework

Now that we understand the three different stages of the buying journey, what do we actually do with it? This might be oversimplifying it a bit, but the basic idea is that you want to create content to attract people at different stages, use that to get them to follow you, and then "nurture" them to the next stage.

Creating the right content for the right stage

As I explained above, someone who hasn't even heard of a CRM yet probably doesn't care about our customer testimonials. Different content is appropriate for different stages of the journey, and you need to meet the lead where they are, and deliver what they need in that moment.

I already hinted at this above, but here are some general guidelines for the type of content people in each stage might be interested in:

  • TOFU leads probably want lightweight content such as blog posts, Youtube videos, etc. They aren't committed to solving this problem yet, so they're not ready to make a major time commitment. You need to provide value fast.
  • MOFU leads are a bit more committed, but they need to learn more before they're ready to buy. They're probably interested in webinars, whitepapers, ebooks, or more involved blog posts so they can become more informed on the topic.
  • BOFU leads are ready to buy, so they want information that helps them make a confident decision. That includes reviews, testimonials, product tours, and demos.

Ideally, this content will either bring in new leads directly (e.g. a blog post might get organic search traffic) or it will be something you can push leads to (e.g. you can use a paid ad campaign to drive leads to your content).

If the lead is already at the BOFU stage, you can try to convert them right away. Otherwise, you need some other way to stay in touch with them since they aren't ready to buy just yet.

Get the lead to follow you

It's not very valuable to get someone to read your TOFU content if afterwards they leave your site and never think about you again. If you want them to remember you, you'll need a way to continue communicating with them, and that means having them follow you.

This could be via social media, but I think that's a risky approach because social media companies (especially Facebook) have a history of holding your followers hostage unless you pay to promote your posts. Instead, I think an email newsletter is the best bet. It might be harder to convert someone to a follower, but the followers you do get will be more valuable.

How do you get someone to join a newsletter? The first step was writing good content. If they just read a crappy blog post, you don't really have much chance of converting them to your newsletter. Assuming they liked your content, there are a few options for getting someone to join your newsletter:

  1. Just ask. If they liked your post, and at the bottom it says, "want more content like this? Join my newsletter" they might go for it. For example, scroll down to the bottom of this post, and check out the CTA (call-to-action).
  2. Make an email course. You can write a series of emails that will get "dripped" to your audience slowly over time (e.g. every day for X days or once per week for Y weeks). For example, I have this post explaining the best website hosts for small businesses, and at the bottom, the CTA is to get my course on how to build a website.
  3. Offer something valuable in exchange for their email address. I don't have an example of this on this website, but you could make an eBook, whitepaper, etc., and offer it as an incentive for people to join your newsletter.

The second and third options are probably better for converting people, but only if they're related to the original content that captured the lead's attention in the first place. They also have the downside of requiring even more content creation. The reason I went with option #1 for this post is because I don't want to spend the time it would take to make an entire email course about this topic.

Nurture the lead

Once you have permission to email someone, your goal is to "nurture" them until they're ready to buy. There are many ways to do this, but here are the two extremes:

Untargeted engagement
If you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of this post, I send you one email per week with all my new content. I'm not really trying to get you to do anything in those emails. I don't sell LACRM, I don't try to convince you to sign up for anything else I'm offering, I literally just send you email updates. The idea is that even if I'm not moving you along in the buying journey, you might move yourself along. Who knows, maybe you'll need a CRM one day, and when that day comes, you'll probably think of me. This is a pretty lazy and suboptimal approach, but I only have so many hours in the day.

Intentionally advance leads in the buying journey
My understanding is that more sophisticated marketers will actually target the email content at the stage a person is at in the buying journey. If someone is TOFU, their emails will be about TOFU problems, and there will be regular hints about CRMs. Once they click a link or otherwise show interest in the CRM topic, the campaign will shift to being more about that, and then the goal is to move them towards BOFU.

Whatever you do, the goal is to stay connected to the lead as they progress through the buying journey.

Additional tips

So that's the basic idea. You make content that is of interest to the lead at whatever stage of the buying journey they're at, then you get them to join an email list, and then you nurture them until they're ready to buy. But there is a bit more nuance:

Not everyone starts out TOFU

I mean, yeah, in theory everyone goes through the TOFU stage, but that doesn't mean you'll ever interact with them at that stage. A robust marketing funnel will have entry-points (i.e. the initial piece of content that attracts the person to your site) at all three stages so you can still capture leads even if you missed them at the very beginning of their buying journey.

The path isn't always a straight line

Sometimes people will spend years in TOFU land, and then they'll have one conversation with a friend who recommends a product, and they'll immediately skip to BOFU and start evaluating that product. As helpful as this buying journey framework is, I wouldn't get too attached to the exact flow.

The earlier in the journey, the more volume you need

As you can probably imagine, the vast majority of people who read a blog post don't end up joining a newsletter. I've heard that websites that do this well get between a 1 and 5 percent conversion rate. Then you need to keep them reading your email, get them to move to the next step in the buying journey, etc. The more steps between the initial visit and the eventual purchase, the more people you'll lose along the way. This means:

  1. Understand the type of volume you'll need - If you're writing TOFU content, you'll probably need at least tens of thousands of visitors before you start seeing actual paying customers.
  2. When in doubt, start at BOFU and work your way up - It's much easier to convert a BOFU visitor, so for new businesses that are still in survival mode, that's probably the best place to start.

This website (Less Annoying Business) is my attempt at TOFU content. My expectations are (a) it'll probably fail, and (b) if it succeeds it'll take years and at least hundreds of thousands of visitors. I started this site 11 years into the business after our BOFU/MOFU stages were already working well, so it seems worth the invest to me now.

There are different levels of TOFU

In theory, any content that appeals to anyone who might be a future customer could count as TOFU, but some is more focused than others. For example, if I wrote a post called "the easiest way to calculate commissions for your sales reps" that would be much more likely to lead to an eventual CRM customer than a post called "How to file business taxes in Alaska". If your TOFU content is unfocused, you'll need even more visitors for it to work.

Having said that, I decided not to write super-targeted TOFU content on this site. In the early days of LACRM I tried to write a bunch of content about sales, but the truth is that I don't know anything about sales, nor do I care to know about it. I decided that I'd have a better chance if I write about what I know and love, even if it means I need 10x as many visitors for it to work out.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.