The earlier a customer is along their journey, the less marketers know about that person. But early on is when you can best influence shoppers.

You know all about the actual purchase event and a bit about what a customer was looking at just before the transaction. But you have very little data to tell you what they were looking at and thinking before they hit your landing page and who they were talking to in the early part of the shopping journey. 

Think of it as a massive spotlight on the actual act of pressing the ‘buy’ button.

You have lots of web analytics and other touch point data to help you personalise the journey and understand their situation. But it starts to get a bit murky the further back you go. 

A single customer view, such as it is, becomes much less singular if you include the whole customer journey, especially earlier on. Because shoppers look for ideas on sites that you don’t own, they use multiple devices and they get feedback on social media where you cannot see it.

A recent study, Understanding how millennial shoppers decide what to buy (registration needed) by Professor Neil Towers and supported by Maybe Solutions, has helped with our understanding of how complex, subjective and difficult to get data on customer journeys really are. 

But there is a way forward and here’s what the research found...

Lighting up the full customer journey needs ‘purchase intent data’. This is the special data that describes the behaviours of individual shoppers across all their devices and all the channels they use.

It includes their interactions with different retailers on their journey and with their friends and shopping advisors.

Every single customer’s ‘purchase flightpath’ is different

Customers embark on very different journeys with different lengths. Each is influenced by different touch points and uses different media and devices. 

Each has their own individual experiences and expectations. They can move through extremely diverse, long and complicated shopping journeys before they purchase a product.

Customers reach out and are influenced by other people beyond the control of any retailer

They use social media platforms that are nothing to do with any retailer. Customers do a lot of things before they make their final purchase decision. They seek content from different retailers. And they ask for social validation of their decisions from their social networks both online and offline.

Customers use a mixture of different ideas source, which makes it tough to remember.

The survey respondents used a variety of online and offline sources to get ideas for what products to buy.

Customers were asked where they looked for ideas and inspiration:

  • 41% said "from a variety of high street shops"
  • 39% said "from a variety of shopping websites"
  • 32% said they got "ideas from partners, friends and family"
  • 25% said from social media
  • 21% used printed sources
  • 18% used TV
  • 15% said search engines

This suggests that ideas are predominantly drawn from product placement in the retailer’s digital and store domains and from social media sources.

But how do these ideas mix for any particular customer?

What was most striking was not the variety of channels and sources that shoppers used – it was how this mixture of sources made shopping difficult.

Taking ideas from different online and offline sources and using different shopping websites seemed to force them into using lots of different ways to remember their shopping ideas. 

Customers take opinions from very different sources

When customers were making their final choice of which item to buy, they asked the following for their opinion:

  • 48% asked their partner or spouse
  • 37% asked a friend
  • 35% asked a family member
  • 10% asked a shop assistant
  • 6% asked a work colleague
  • 3% asked people in online communities or forums.

This indicates that a reliable and trusted opinion was required in the final "ah-ha" moment.

The impact of opinions was important as well: between 65% and 80% of respondents stated that feedback validated their opinion.

Customers behave differently with different journey lengths and prices.

Face-to-face communications was the most frequently mentioned. But as their shopping journeys got longer, shoppers used more technological tools to ask opinions from their contacts.

It was also found that the use of some digital channels increased as estimated price increased. But as estimated price increased, face-to-face opinion seeking hugely decreased from 71% to 31% of respondents. The higher the price then the more digital the pre-purchase conversation was.

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Published 16 September, 2015 by Duncan Shaw

Duncan Shaw is Consultant and Lecturer in Information Systems at Nottingham University Business School and a guest blogger on Econsultancy. You can read Duncan's blog or connect on Google Plus

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