Rethinking the Buyer’s Journey
Mar 28, 2023|Read time: 9 min.
- The current buyer’s journey model is out of touch with real audience behavior and needs to be reframed.
- Digital marketers face an uphill battle trying to force consumers into the neat marketing funnel model. In real life, people are either researching or buying — and they’re looking for solutions and value.
- Brands that want to foster authentic, long-term relationships are shifting to a new journey model that respects customers and provides value upfront.
Understanding the buyer’s journey, and optimizing it to maximize effectiveness, is one of the most important ways to:
- Create exceptional experiences
- Build trust
- Strategically connect with your audience
The problem is: The traditional model makes major assumptions about human behavior that are outdated, and often, downright wrong.
Due to the limitations and assumptions of the old model, marketing priorities get skewed in the wrong direction. This failure to understand the real people in a marketplace makes it impossible to know what they really want and how to deliver value to them.
To create strong relationships between brands and consumers, we must fundamentally rethink the customer journey and how to generate conversions.
The traditional buyer’s journey
The journey model used for decades is no longer providing optimal results. It misleads marketers, ignores customer behavior shifts, and creates lower ROI across channels because it doesn’t prioritize customer connection.
Buyer’s journey stages
At its simplest level, the traditional buying journey consists of three stages:
- Awareness stage — When the audience realizes the problem or pain point they have to solve. This is when they are researching and seeking resources to build context around the problem. They are not yet aware of a solution.
- Awareness content types — Marketers target this stage with blog posts, social media posts, videos, whitepapers, one pagers, ebooks, and more.
- Consideration stage — This next stage is when the audience fully grasps the problem they need to solve and begins researching all the potential solutions. They are considering potential solutions but have not yet identified a brand to buy from.
- Consideration content types — Marketers target this stage with case studies, comparison guides, and free material and resources.
- Decision stage — The stage when the audience deeply understands their problem, knows a solution, and begins to select a brand from their shortlist. After this they make a purchase decision.
- Decision content types — Marketers target this stage with special offers, promotions, coupons, free trials, live demos, and other offers.
Does it work?
The model above is marketing as it has been practiced up until now. There’s a reason it has hung around this long — it works. The question is how well?
The fundamental weakness of the traditional buyer’s journey is that it tries to force a linear path and sales process from awareness to transaction. In reality, people act in extremely non-linear ways. That is, they bounce around, up, down, and horizontally around the funnel at different times for different reasons. They might even be at multiple stages at once. There isn’t just one decision-making process.
A new model should respect the intelligence, and changing perspectives of consumers. It should serve them on their terms and — most importantly — provide value instead of asking for it.
If your brand marketing doesn’t live and breathe this central goal, it’s time for some rethinking.
Reframing the customer journey
Understanding the true customer journey begins with recognizing a philosophical shift in consumer desires and behavior.
Ask yourself: Do your target audiences really want to be greeted with an immediate shove down the marketing funnel to the transaction, all the while being asked for value (time, purchases, subscriptions, emails, personal information)?
The truth is none of us are looking for that. We’re looking for the best possible solution to our problems while having the best possible experience along the way. The interruptive approach doesn’t create potential buyers.
Brands that understand what consumers are searching for and are prepared to provide that value (without the shoving), are the ones consumers trust.
Ultimately, they are the brands people buy from, and return to, over the long term.
Achieving this status has many steps, but the first is to see how customers actually behave, instead of relying on how dated models make us think they behave.
Consumer Connections Newsletter
Exclusive insights, trends, and actionable brand strategy, direct to your inbox.
The real customer journey
Professor John Dawes at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science has published research that forces marketers to rethink the traditional customer journey model.
With key changes to the model, brands can bridge the reality gap and evolve their marketing to focus on building authentic, lasting customer connections.
The real customer journey has only two stages along with some “micro-moments”:
Research stage — 95% of the customer journey is consumers looking for a solution to a problem and relevant content. This includes defining the problem, comparing solutions, and zeroing in on the best (or most relevant) solution.
- “Consideration” lands here but is not a stage, it’s a micro-moment of value alignment between a particular brand and customer that is part of research.
- The types of content and targeting tools from the old awareness, consideration, and decision stages — blog posts, social posts, videos, whitepapers, one pagers, ebooks, case studies, comparison guides, free resources, special offers, promotions, coupons, free trials, live demos, webinars, and more — actually fit here. This is when brands must consistently offer real value to their audience at each engagement.
Buying stage — 5% of the customer journey is when consumers are actually engaged and connected enough for decision-making and buying (or re-buying in the case of loyal customers).
Before this, retargeting ads and related contact points aren’t as effective because the consumer lacks a connection to and trust in the brand. Marketing strategies that attempt “push” tactics when the audience is still researching are misaligned with actual customer needs. Here’s how:
- The purchase decision lands within this stage as another crucial micro-moment that concludes the buying process.
- End-of-process activities that demonstrate the final value proposition of the brand’s offering are included here.
Unfortunately for their marketing ROI, brands focus too much on the buying stage when all the value creation and trust building happen during the research stage. This results in consumers never reaching a decision because they have no relationship with the brand.
When marketers realize that consumer audiences do not fit into neat “stages” and start treating them as real people with diverse needs, wants, and evolving perspectives, a shift in thinking occurs. Brands can no longer rely on old marketing tactics to force consumers towards a transaction, they need to authentically connect with their potential customers to earn that transaction, trust, and loyalty.
Looking back at the awareness, consideration, and decision model, various problems come into focus:
- Marketers fail to prioritize the needs of the customer — With so many moving parts, purposes, methods, differing ROI, and costs across the three stages, the major challenge is how you prioritize it all. Getting this marketing mix wrong can break a marketing department and devastate customer acquisition efforts. Simplifying it mitigates risk and allows for a more organic prioritization process.
- Marketers fall victim to the transaction trap — A BOFU obsession causes marketers to only focus on transactions, instead of building trust across the whole funnel. Brands want to increase revenue, but a narrow prioritization of “only sales” often means fewer sales. Without awareness and strong trust, people will not convert.
- Marketers lose sight of audience desires — Constantly trying to classify people by their funnel position and using the traditional tactics for targeting every stage presents the risk of forgetting about what people really want. Real people usually do not fit into marketing templates.
- Marketers overlook consumer behavior data — Relying solely on ideal customer buyer personas and the traditional funnel model reveals only a slice of what the audience wants and how to deliver it. When marketers understand and leverage real-time consumer behavior data, like Google search intent data, they learn exactly what consumers want from their brand and how best to deliver real value.
When you look at the old model and the limitations above, is it any wonder that marketing is fractured? And also, what can brands do about it?
Customer Journey Map Template
Create better journey maps to reveal consumer needs.
Aligning your strategy with the real customer journey
Creating a strategy that reflects real customer behavior and delivers consistent value to audiences at every engagement requires two things — search intent data and optimizing controlled assets.
The simplification of the stages into researching or buying means we need to really know what the audience wants, when they want it, how they’re seeking it, and how we can provide it. You can find this information in the data collected by search engines whenever a user performs a search.
This search intent data lets you fully listen to and understand your audience’s desires. Then, translate them into a unified strategy focused on providing the value your audience needs when they go looking for it.
This “consumer connection” strategy prioritizes investment in owned assets (the unique properties that a brand fully controls) and turns them into a constellation of consumer engagement. Each asset in your digital constellation should deliver the unique value and information that your audience is searching for.
Together, all these new points of consumer connection create a galaxy of content that helps shape a better customer experience built on your audience’s needs.
Start with search intent data
Marketers can take search data and convert it into an accurate, truthful source of both big-picture and granular consumer intent. Search intent isn’t just an approximation of consumer intent — it really tells you what people want and how to satisfy them.
The benefits of leveraging search intent data are not just limited to the web either. It can inform real-world business decisions and help organizations see what consumers want and expand into new markets accordingly. We can use this powerful tool to optimize the customer journey. When you know exactly what the audience wants, the opportunity to provide real value, before you ask for it, is massive.
Creating a customer journey with owned assets
Brands own hundreds (if not thousands) of unique web properties we call owned assets. Examples include:
- Landing pages
- Blog posts
- Corporate sites
- Publishing platforms
- Online profiles.
In the customer journey context, each of these can be used to satisfy the diverse desires of the audience.
Optimization looks different depending on the asset type and its unique goal. For example, a blog post could be leveraged as an awareness piece for the research stage. A hypothetical supplement brand might write a piece of content on vitamin certification facts to rank for the terms consumers researching supplements may search for.
A product landing page (another brand-controlled owned asset) might contain educational content on why their offerings are better than competitors.
Brands that leverage search intent data can fully optimize each of these assets to connect with their consumers, letting them find you when they need you.
At a high level, the asset optimization process includes:
- Collecting and analyzing consumer search intent data
- Mapping out all owned assets
- Creating new owned assets to fill any gaps
- Optimizing each owned asset to meet specific goals and offer value to consumers
- Iterating and refreshing the assets as brand position and needs change
Assets and the real customer journey
Optimizing your owned assets helps brands transition from the outdated, linear customer journey model to the fluid, more realistic, 95:5 customer journey model.
Each asset provides real value to each visitor again and again, while a brand’s whole network of assets increases its reach, meeting the needs of new audiences.
The old customer journey model doesn’t prioritize relationships and trust and brings backward assumptions to the table. So even when consumers are exposed to transactional material they don’t engage.
Consumer search intent-driven asset optimization:
- Makes customer relationships goal number one
- Unlocks authentic consumer desire
- Provides upfront value to consumers and doesn’t “push”
- Creates a digital infrastructure that helps consumers on their terms
- Reorients transactional tunnel vision towards the 95% of consumers researching solutions
- Builds trust each time the audience visits any of a brand’s assets
- Improves ROI across ALL marketing efforts
Fostering authentic customer relationships should be the guiding principle for modern brands. The winners across industries are the brands that people trust. That trust is a hard-won trophy of consistently delighting your customers, but very few brands actually achieve this.
Our owned asset first philosophy turns marketers from value takers to value providers — and focuses on connecting when consumers are ready. This approach helps brands truly listen to and understand consumer needs, and revolutionizes marketing efforts with innovation, intentionality, and insight.