Though the classic children's board game Candy Land offers players one basic path to their Home Sweet Home, chance essentially negates the potentially linear journey. Players may kick things off by choosing the fast-track to the Lollipop Woods, but their next step could very well lead them back to the Gumdrop Mountains. Much like today's typical customer interaction, there's no single route to follow on this journey, for numerous factors play an integral role. Yet, while players must rely upon the luck of the draw, customers are influenced by emerging technology's impact on their path to purchase.
Compared to the days before iPhones and Twitter, the average customer journey appears more murky and undefined than ever before. "The customer interaction now looks more like a spaghetti bowl, with customers using search, websites, social channels, mobile apps, mobile offers, emails, product ratings, and reviews in a wholly self-guided fashion to move themselves along the buyer's journey," says Marti Tedesco, director of corporate marketing for Baynote.
With an increasing number of channels to account for, marketers are beginning to understand that the traditional sales funnel of yesteryear no longer exists. Instead, this generic model has been replaced by an array of models that vary based on the company and its customer base. Soctt Cooper, CEO of ShopAdvisor, notes that, to succeed in today's environment, marketing and sales professionals must establish an omnichannel approach that facilitates consistency across all consumer touchpoints.
"The problem with companies that only partially embrace emerging channels is that they are leaving many holes in the new funnels," Cooper says. "And each hole represents diminished returns on their marketing spend and the opportunity for a competitor that is more savvy to reap the benefits."
Because consumers are "always on" now, they have the constant ability to find brands and products in everything they do. While magazines may also act as product catalogs, street corners may become virtual marketing channels with the help of beacons and geo-location. However, because consumers can essentially discover, research, and purchase within the span of one brief mobile session, brands must be more vigilant than ever, providing relevant information and exciting content at every turn. As Mark Smith, president of Provenir, highlights, today's consumers often change their minds second by second, as they can easily turn to the competition within an instant. Thus, brands have no choice but to embrace such scattered behaviors, or else suffer the consequences of failure.
While many traditional retailers, such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, now offer in-store pickup for online purchases, supermarket chains, such as ShopRite and Tesco, allow customers to place online grocery orders that will then be delivered to their door. Target's Cartwheel application also embraces connected consumer behavior by tapping into social media and mobile technology, enabling customers to create in-store shopping lists and claim money-saving offers. Each company demonstrates an active attempt to not only address each channel's influence, but also blend the most popular avenues in order to create a seamless experience no matter the customer's path.
By employing the best tools and capabilities available, companies can come to understand the customer journey by gaining visibility into the role each channel plays on the path to purchase and those roles may vary across specific segments. As Ari Osur, director of product management for eBay Enterprise Marketing Solutions, emphasizes, this deeper level of insights drives granular level tactical changes that impact everything from subject lines to content creation. Marketers are also looking to such data to optimize spend and allocate their budget in ways that reduce redundancy in order to pour more money into the channels that truly drive conversions and ROI. Osur adds that those companies that refuse to deploy these advanced tools will inevitably become extinct, for their continued growth and success relies upon their willingness to evolve and make smarter decisions.
"Things are constantly changing in terms of how customers will utilize different technologies and devices," Osur says. "How they use their phones, their tablets, their desktops, and other emerging devices is going to consistently change. For example, today you may see someone on the commute to work using their phone to do a little bit of research about a product, and once they get into the office, they are surfing around on their desktop to do a little more research, and then they go home, where they have their tablet, and that's when they convert."
Yet, while consumers' tendency to use multiple devices may be clouding the path to purchase, companies are not alone when it comes to deciphering such behaviors. With a plethora of new and evolving tools at their disposal, brands are actively diving into the mountain of consumer data they've collected to establish how these customer behaviors impact not only their overall experience, but also their likelihood to convert. By understanding how the average consumer interacts with the brand, the company can then begin to make more informed, targeted adjustments to their customer strategy.
"Companies have begun to embrace Big Data and cross-channel insights to make smarter and faster decisions," says Nathan Jokinen, vice president of strategic development at Adconion Direct. "The most successful brands are making it a priority to fully understand how their consumers are using technology and engaging in multiple online channels across devices. They're also looking at the customer buying journey as a never-ending cycle. Today's most effective marketing strategies are not one-size-fits all. They drive performance and consider consumer behaviors that allow for optimization based on actionable, real-time insights."
Jokinen also notes that the companies that are staying ahead of the customer journey are those that are investing in technology and partnerships that inspire innovation and provide marketing efficiencies at scale. Those that don't are simply limiting their ability to interact with consumers effectively and reducing the full potential of their return on ad spend. While many may be hesitant, testing has become an essential element in understanding the value that various channels bring to the consumer, how they use said channels, and how these behaviors relate to the other channels they use.
"Brick-and-mortar retailers observe behavior patterns in-store so they know to place cereal on the middle shelf, that bargain shoppers look at end caps for specials, or that they should cluster items that are sold together, like peanut butter and jelly," Jokinen adds. "The Internet gives retailers the ability to look at these same patterns, but online. The combination of the Web and cross-channel digital advertising can break down walls and silos for retailers, enabling them to 'see' the entire purchase process-how a consumer got to a store, what they are searching for, what they looked at and engaged with, and the path traveled."
Ultimately, however, both sales and marketing must admit that, when seeking the most lucrative path to purchase, it's all relative. There's no clear-cut customer journey anymore. Instead, brands must be present everywhere the customer may enter the funnel in order to offer applicable content and information as they work to guide consumers closer to conversion. After all, companies certainly don't want prospects to get stuck in the Molasses Swamp, only to revert back to the Peppermint Stick Forest instead of moving forward. They want each player on this path to purchase to reach their destination-the sale-safe and sound.