There is a quiet revolution taking place among a minority of marketing researchers. This revolution, noble and ambitious in its cause, is aimed at undermining a basic but profoundly powerful idea: that the customer journey can best be described generally, and that it can be summarized by a psychological process of funnel-like conversion, where beliefs and norms transform into attitudes, attitudes combine with situations to form intentions, and intentions translate into some purchase decision.
This kind of conceptual model is appealing in its simplicity. But like many other models popular in marketing research, it is not grounded in the day-to-day (or minute-to-minute) reality of consumers navigating a marketplace. It fails to address the real-world events that consumers experience, the choices they make, the marketing they encounter, the research that they do, the people whose advice they consult, and so on and so forth. Such “touch points,” which occur from the time a need arises to the point at which a purchase decision is made, offer important opportunities for intervention to marketers – and so require our attention in our modeling.
A recent voice in this quiet revolution has come from Dr. Frank Zinni who argues that when considering how consumers navigate a marketplace for products there is not one but many paths to purchase. Some people may act out of habit, some may seek the advice of friends, others may look for discounts, while others might do some combination of these, and other “purchase journey” steps. The relevant point here is that plural pathways can come into focus only when we shift our attention to “touch points” and customer journey events.
This shift in attention creates what may appear to be a big fat analytic mess. The unit of analysis has now morphed from variables into ordered events, making it unclear if and how standard regression models can be employed. And the amount of noise now appears to have increased, since at this granular level everybody’s path to purchase appears quite different from everybody else’s. To be sure, this is not the kind of complexity and plurality that is useful to marketers!
However, it is possible to distill this complex data down in ways that provide unprecedented consumer insights for business. For example, using analytical methods that geneticists use to sequence DNA, it is possible to identify regularities in customer journeys, reducing thousands of seemingly unique paths to purchase to just a handful of common ones. It is possible to relate different kinds of journeys to purchase decisions that benefit (or hurt) our clients’ sales. And it is possible to dig deeper into each kind of purchase journey to better understand the micro-dynamics of consumer choice and strategy. This knowledge helps to identify what types of marketing will be more (or less) effective.
The application of advanced analytics to actual customer experience data provides clear marketing insights with real business impact, both strategic and tactical. Strategic, because it is based on a holistic understanding of the ways customers navigate a specific marketplace. Tactical, because the results can inform day-to-day marketing decisions, like when to send what message to whom. This is ultimately the path to nirvana: providing consumer insights to marketers that they can actually use.