The Marketing Journey Begins With Customer Knowledge

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Jake Sorofman
Jake Sorofman

How can multichannel marketers best identify customers' true path to purchase?

The fragmentation of online and offline experiences has fundamentally changed the consumer's decision journey from a straight line following a relatively predictable path to an eccentric walkabout, guided by both deliberate intent and moments of serendipity, inspiration, distraction, and flights of fancy.

The path proceeds, stops, and then winds back on itself as a consumer progresses through the stages of awareness, interest, desire, and action. Perhaps we're standing in a physical retail setting, but our minds and thumbs are elsewhere: we're checking prices, consulting ratings and reviews, and calling on our social networks. Along the way, maybe we find alternatives. If yesterday's path to purchase was a funnel, perhaps today's is more like the flight of the bumblebee.

This can be utterly maddening for marketers, who must somehow connect the dots between these experiences to keep consumers on the path to purchase. Increasingly, consumers cross channels and screens as they traverse the path. Maybe they begin researching on a tablet. Then, perhaps they visit a retail store, where they use a smartphone to research more. Maybe they find better alternatives and beat a path to that door. Or maybe the experience is all digital, but crossing devices as a consumer completes the decision journey. It can feel like an intractable challenge, but smart brands embrace these multichannel realities as part of their customer engagement strategies. As a marketer, where do you start? Like so many other strategic challenges in business, you start by getting to know your customer.

Here are some tips:

  • Break the habit of channel thinking.

Channels are silos, which stand in the way of integrated experiences. It's an inherently inside-out view of the world that doesn't remotely match how consumers think or interact with your brand. Consumers don't draw the distinction between channels. They simply expect a consistent experience across online and offline touchpoints. Break the habit of channel thinking and shift your perspective to integrated experiences.

  • Model consumer experiences.

Invest in truly understanding your customers. How do they shop? Where do they research products? Who do they consult and trust? How do they consume media? What devices do they use and in what combination. This understanding should inform your technology selection and experience design.

  • Turn a risk into an opportunity.

A good example is the smartphone in the retail store, which is often seen as an unwelcome guest. Why? Because, if you're not careful, your retail store can become an online competitor's most valuable asset. But, short of frisking customers at the door (not recommended, by the way), you have no choice but to accept its presence. Turn this risk into an opportunity by extending in-store shopping experiences using programs and campaigns shaped around the smartphone; using 2D codes, mobile coupons, and payment options; and even augmented reality. Doing so will make the device an integrated and valued part of the shopping experience.

  • Create linkages between experiences.

Integrate online and offline with calls to action that create linkages between disparate channels on the path to purchase. Consider location-based offers and experiences to complement a retail location. Create second-screen experiences that increase engagement. Deliver personalized experiences across devices that remind customers where they've been and offer the breadcrumbs to get them back on the path to purchase.

  • Eliminate channel conflicts.

Too often, multichannel marketing begins and ends with a conversation about integrated creative, media, and promotions. But the reality is that the best marketing can be quickly undone by flawed internal operations. Recently, I was told of a marketing executive who lamented that “customers really need to understand how our business works.” No they don't! Don't allow your organizational structure to stand in the way of an integrated experience. Your customers don't care how your business works. They don't care how your channel leaders are compensated. Don't let corporate provincialism stand in the way of an integrated multichannel experience.

  • Personalize experiences.

Digital marketing tells us a lot about our customers—not only as a population, but also as people. Combine internal and external data sources to create rich customer profiles that allow you to deliver personalized offers and experiences that draw customers ever closer to your brand—and back onto the purchase path when serendipity and flights of fancy take them off track.

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Jake Sorofman, Gartner Inc.

Jake Sorofman's first post-college job was as a sailmaker, following which he was a sailboat captain. Now, instead of ocean currents and wind patterns, he analyzes digital marketing strategy, trends, and practices at Gartner as research director. He focuses on mobile, social, and content marketing and helps clients use these techniques to engage customers, evangelize their brands, grow revenue, and transform their businesses. Before joining Gartner, Sorofman founded a boutique content marketing agency and held communications, product marketing, CMO, and other leadership positions with software start-ups, as well as established technology companies. He blended content and communications strategies into high-impact brand engagement. When not working, he spends his time with his wife and children, ideally on the water or climbing a mountain.

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