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The buyer's journey isn't what it used to be. Thanks to the transformational nature of the digital world, the buyer's journey has been radically changed.

In order to reach today's buyer, marketers must understand the new realities of this journey and align their digital and content strategies to them.

We've all heard of the 'buyer’s journey.' It’s that mystical, CandyLand-esque pathway that buyers take on their way to purchasing a product or service.

And we’ve been taught that it’s a pretty standard process, regardless of industry. Discovery, consideration, and decision…or something like that.

But digital is a very disrupting influence. Not only have digital processes rewired entire industries, they have fundamentally transformed the way that people purchase (i.e., the buyer's journey).

In order for organizations to maximize their opportunity to convert shoppers into buyers, marketers must understand the new realities of these changes and align their digital and content strategies accordingly.

1. It’s no longer linear

Up until digital really changed the way people interact with organizations, the buyer’s journey largely looked like this (1):

It was a straight shot with one step following the next, a linear color-by-numbers approach. But because of digital, the buyer’s journey has taken on a shape more like this (2):

How did digital transform the linear buyer's journey into this spaghetti mess? Most likely because consumers are inundated with information 24/7/365.

From social media or the web, new information comes online every second that can impact a purchase decision (i.e., a new review).

As such, consumers are bouncing around the different aspects of the buyer’s journey—discovery, consideration, and decision—as new information is discovered.

What's the impact? Because buyers can move so easily (and haphazardly) between the different buyer's journey steps, organizations must recognize that making a purchase decision may take longer than before and plan revenue projections accordingly.

2. Discovery can happen at any time

The linearity of the buyer’s journey ultimately became disrupted by one critical factor: the availability of information.

When the information is all known and available, the process can obviously be linear. The consumer goes through a product research process that has a start and an end.

But in the digital world, where new information can be created each second of the day, that’s not the case.

A consumer can think they are finished with the evaluation process and suddenly find new reviews, new write-ups, or new videos about their intended purchase decision…new information that can even insert another competitor into the mix sending the consumer back down the slide to start all over again.

What's the impact? Organizations need to produce content consistently and continually.

A great way to do this is simply to publish questions and their answers to build an on-going library of fresh content about how the organization solves critical customer challenges with its products or services.

3. Outbound marketing can be futile

The problem with outbound marketing, that is 'broadcast messaging', is that it’s trying to reach a consumer that is not traveling on a straight line.

Without any knowledge of where the consumer is going to be in the buyer’s journey, sending messaging out in the hopes that they'll find it is futile.

In fact, so much of the messaging delivered through this shotgun-like approach is lost that there is little in the way of ROI.

Think about the click-through rate for banner advertisements today, less than 1%. Inbound marketing, on the other hand, seeks to participate in the conversations that consumers are having.

Inbound marketing is about publishing helpful content that will lead the consumer back to the information that they need to help them make a purchase decision.

What's the impact? Organizations must adopt an inbound marketing strategy and think about the venues through which they publish their content.

It's not about campaigns as much anymore as it's about engagement and involvement in the venues (like social media and communities) where users frequently look for answers to make a purchase decision.

#4. The end goal isn’t just a purchase anymore

In the golden days of marketing, the linear buyer’s journey pointed to one end goal, making a purchase. And when the consumer was happy with the purchase, they told some friends. They recommended your company.

Digital has exacerbated that a thousand fold. Now when consumers have made a purchase, they might share their experiences on social media (good or bad). They might write a review. They might pen a blog post or post something on YouTube.

The purchase is no longer the end game. It’s the relationship after the purchase. That’s the real value anyway. Thanks to social media and other digital communication channels, one purchase with a good experience can lead to dozens of new customers.

What's the impact? Organizations must focus marketing energy not just on conversion but on nurturing as well. A fair bit of energy must be put towards relationship marketing.

However, according to Econsultancy's Cross-Channel Marketing Report 2013, 22% of firms aren't currently doing this. 

Does your company carry out relationship marketing?

5. Decision making is crowd sourced

If there is one thing that the digital world has done it’s to empower everybody with a voice. Anyone can have a blog. Anyone can create a Facebook profile.

And through these mediums, they can say whatever they want to whomever might listen. That is no truer than when it comes to buying products. It seems that everyone has an opinion.

Just read through the Amazon.com product listings. When today’s consumers think about buying something, they appeal to the wisdom of the crowd. They post questions on bulletin boards and on social media…and the crowd weighs in with their thoughts helping the consumer not only to make the decision but also to direct further inquiry.

What's the impact? Organizations need to learn to drop a lot of the sales-focused messaging and just learn to participate in the channels that consumers use (i.e., social selling).

This can, once again, lengthen the sales pipeline but can potentially produce more qualified opportunities than traditional broadcast messaging. 

(1) This specific version of the buyers journey is courtesy of SiriusDecisions

(2) This illustration is taken from the book "Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences that People Want to Share."

Jason Thibeault

Published 19 June, 2014 by Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault is Senior Director of Marketing Strategy at Limelight and a contributor at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

8 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Richard Hussey

A helpful, thought-provoking article.

One small part I would question is about the extended time period for purchase decisions. With services, content and social selling can sometimes speed things up as leads are to some extent pre-qualified. Perhaps this just depends where you define the start of the process, which is harder to do in the new world of marketing.

With products, I would think that there should only be an impact on sales projections for new products. With established products things ought to even out over time determined by the number of people entering the process and the ultimate conversion rate.

Excellent points about how brands are not in control of their message and image like they once thought they were.

almost 2 years ago

Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy at Limelight Networks

Thanks Richard! Glad you enjoyed the post.

almost 2 years ago

Carl Marsh

Carl Marsh, Director at ICEGRIPPER

Jason's article really resonated with us and reflects many of our actions. ICEGRIPPER is a 'micro business' and traditional above the line media advertising and even PPC seem like increasingly poor investment decisions, offering little incremental return. We have found ourselves moving away from them and more and more towards an 'inbound' marketing model. Combined, with what used to be termed 'guerilla' marketing tactics, we manage to punch above our weight, attracting an audience and competing with extremely large, highly resourced national chains.

This is all fine when you operate in a specialised, niche market area, where sales volumes are low and uncertain, making it unattractive for the big boys to play in. But still difficult for small companies trying to compete in more mainstream areas, because the big boys can still throw money at 'spray and pray' tactics. Which, although returning less and less, still help them to be 'top of mind' and capture the lions share of purchasing decisions that are eventually made, despite the increasingly convoluted 'customer journey'.

'The internet' and digital media have allowed some smaller companies to compete at a national and even European level. It's easier than ever to give consumers the impression you are a 'big' company. But bizarrely, they are also allowing bigger organisations to become more personalised and seem 'smaller'.

In our minds the conundrum is to achieve global reach, whilst acting like a friendly, neighbourhood corner shop. Is this the new holy grail 'business model'? There must be a new best selling business book in it somewhere...?

almost 2 years ago

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Matt Fenn

Interesting article, I can't see a way forward other than being clear about customer personas, creating content and messaging to address their pain points and providing / encouraging interactions (conversions) that map directly to your sales funnel.

Then any activity gives you lead visibility and allows you to nurture directly.

almost 2 years ago

Sarah Alder

Sarah Alder, Managing Director at Cranmore Digital Consulting Ltd

I know this is trivial, but Candyland! I had forgotten all about that game. I spent hours playing that in wet school holidays as a kid. Thanks for the memory jog Jason. Oh, and great post too.

almost 2 years ago

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