Marketers Need To Rethink the Customer Decision Journey

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In 2009, McKinsey & Co. proposed what was touted as a radical shift in marketing practice they called the consumer decision journey. The article called into question the long held concept of the purchase funnel in favour of a new model that incorporated customer experience and advocacy.

“If marketing has one goal, it’s to reach consumers at the moments that most influence their decisions,” the authors of the study wrote, but continued, “today, the funnel concept fails to capture all the touch points and key buying factors resulting from the explosion of product choices and digital channels.”

McKinsey’s vision was met with great enthusiasm among marketers. Yet at its core it still largely represents the same old thinking. Rather than merely targeting messages based on past behaviour, consumers increasingly expect marketers to adapt in real time and make personalized suggestions. We need to seriously rethink the consumer decision journey.

The Purchase Funnel Reimagined

To understand the shift taking place, let’s revisit the purchase funnel concept. In the days of mass audiences, marketers could treat everyone as if they were the same. Programming was so limited and television audiences were so large—you could easily reach a large chunk of the population with a single ad spot—that the numbers made this a pragmatic approach.

So marketers sought to grab consumers’ attention through glitzy ad campaigns and then “push” them through the funnel, maximizing conversions to avoid losing customers along the way. In effect, the marketer’s mental model looked like this:

The McKinsey consultants pointed out that this approach failed to take into account customer experiences and resulted in missed opportunities. In their view, the consumer journey was not a mere narrowing of options, but a more circular process driven by real interactions with the brand.

They advised brands lessen their focus on pure awareness and pay more attention to the ‘loyalty loop.”

These are fair points and there is no shortage of research and metrics, such as net promoter scores, that clearly show how important it is for brands to inspire advocacy among their customers. However, what McKinsey’s model doesn’t take into account is that technology has shifted customer expectations and that has led to a fundamental change in behaviour.

recent study by BloomReach found that 87% of consumers prefer to buy from brands that are able to personalize experiences the best. Joelle Kaufman, head of marketing and partnerships for the company told me that a majority of the respondents specifically said that they expected brands to either predict their intent or to learn their behaviour and adapt the experience to them.

This represents a major shift because it suggests that marketers need to do far more than simply adapt their tactics to take new “touch points” into account. Rather, it points to a fundamental change in how marketers need to think about how they serve their customers..

The Big Data Shift

Historically, marketers have sought to understand their consumers through market research. They would commission a study, collect data and then analyse the results in order to derive insights. They would also use statistical techniques to determine confidence in the results and would routinely reject possibilities that the data didn’t fully support.

For most of the 20th century, this approach to data was considered standard and prudent. However, more recently it has been called into question for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s extremely time consuming and facts on the ground often change in the time it takes to collect data, analyse it, derive insights and take action based on them.

Another problem is that the process is highly focused on average behaviour, discarding data points that don’t conform as “outliers” to be ignored. Finally, because of the time and expense involved in standard surveys, it is difficult to correct for flawed insights. Once a consumer is classified in a certain way, they are essentially stuck with inferior service.

Yet big data allows us to do things differently. Rather than collect data in intermittent chunks, we can do so continuously and update insights in real time. This approach is opening up worlds of new opportunity.

Inverting The Funnel

To see how this new approach plays out in the real world, let’s look at an actual example: the My on Neiman Marcus’s website. Usually a website is engineered to service the typical customer, putting the most popular products front and centre. More recently, marketers have used online data to more accurately predict customer preferences.

My NM, on the other hand, does very little to predict what your preferences are. After all, what you did last time you were shopping is not a good indicator of what you’re looking for this time. For example, if you made a purchase yesterday, you’re probably looking for something different today. Or, you could be looking for a present for a friend.

So, when you first go to My NM, it gives you a wide range of possibilities. However, as you begin to shop, the selection begins to change based on pattern recognition algorithms. In effect, the system is not trying to target your preferences, but is accompanying you as you shop, intuitively making suggestions much like a salesperson would do in the store.

Notice the difference. Neiman Marcus isn’t trying to “funnel” you towards a dwindling set of options, nor is it trying to predict your consumer journey and barrage you with messages at predetermined “touch points.” Rather, it is putting you in control of the experience and assisting you as you shop.

Becoming A Consumer Concierge

As I noted above, the McKinsey consultants who formulated the consumer decision journey wrote that the goal of marketing is “to reach consumers at the moments that most influence their decisions.” But is that really what we want from the companies who serve us? To focus their efforts on influencing our decisions at times when we are most likely to be compliant?

I would suggest that we can do better. Marketers need to come to terms with fact that, in a digital world, control has become an illusion. Rather than acting like traffic cops, directing data flows to predetermined silos of demographic and behavioural characteristics, we should see ourselves as offering a concierge service, helping to enrich personalized experiences.

The good news is that the tools we have today far exceed what anybody could have imagined a generation ago. This new era of data is fundamentally different not for how much information we can collect or transmit, but how we can now engineer systems to adapt and learn how to better serve our customers.

We need to shift our focus from identifying touch points on the consumer decision journey to enhancing experiences all the way through. While everyone seems to love to talk about the significance of data and technology, we still have yet to bridge the gap between crafting messages and designing experiences.

Image via flickr

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