For years, consumers bought products the same way. They’d see ads on TV, magazines, or radio, they’d go to a brick-and-mortar store, and after a quick evaluation of shelf appeal and packaging (and some prodding by a salesperson), they’d purchase.
It was a simple enough system—until the internet came along. When that happened, consumers became empowered like never before. They could go beyond the ads they saw to look up information online, read reviews of various companies, and receive detailed evaluations of each product before committing. Things expanded even farther with the rise of companies like Amazon that practically revolutionized the digital shopping paradigm.
These days, consumers buy products in an entirely different way than in years past, and brands need to be aware of how these distinctions influence each customer’s shopping behaviors.
The Basic Research Framework
When customers shop, they perform research on products in a process known as the buyer’s journey: an evaluative framework used by marketers that indicates where a customer may be in the purchasing process. The typical buyer’s journey in inbound marketing has three phases:
For example, consider a customer who’s looking for a new laptop. In the awareness stage, she’ll consider why she needs a new laptop and what must-have features she’ll need to meet her goals. She’ll use this information to enter the consideration stage, where she’ll review different brands and assess her options in more detail. When she has enough information, she moves to decision: the final point of purchase.
This is a well-accepted framework for how customers shop in the digital era, but in truth, the digital world moves fast—and the basic buyer’s journey framework is already a bit dated. To really get a grip on how consumers shop, we need to go deeper.
Going Beyond the Buyer’s Journey
The buyer’s journey is a fine framework—but it doesn’t take into account how modern users shop.
A key supposition in the buyer’s journey is that customers follow a linear path from awareness to decision; they learn about their problem, they find solutions, narrow down their options, and commit to best one. Right?
Just think about the last big purchase you made. Did you have a linear process of doing research, finding brands, and then buying? Probably not. Most people fluctuate back and forth between these phases. We do initial research and find brands that can meet our needs—but as we interact with brands, we learn more details that reframe our current problem and our perspective on solutions. Thus, we take a step back in the “journey” to restart our research with new details in hand.
This is common to just about every buyer who does his due diligence before purchasing. And with that in mind, a new view of the typical buyer’s journey is developing. It looks something like this:
Initial Consideration <-> Active Evaluation <-> Decision/Purchase <-> Post-Purchase Delight
Customers go back and forth, switching between stages and doing research as needed. This push is driven by technology and how many touchpoints are available to prospective customers. Gone are the days where they would rely on only word-of-mouth and shelf appeal to decide. Today, consumers can read online content, live chat with support agents, download product demos, and leverage information to inform their decisions.
Branding and the Purchasing Process
Given how fluid the modern purchasing process is, brands need to take new approaches to customer outreach that provide them the information they need, when they need it.
Of course, old-fashioned marketing tactics still apply. It’s still worthwhile to invest in traditional advertising, if for no other reason than to create brand awareness in your market’s minds.
Consumers form brand impressions from all kinds of sources: ads, word-of-mouth, current events, and past experiences. Much of this messaging fades into the background, but as this info is internalized, it helps them to form initial impressions of your brand.
For example, a laptop buyer may begin her evaluation by looking up the brands she knows best: Dell, Macintosh, HP, and so on. And while she may eventually find that a different brand, such as Lenovo, better meets her needs, the equity that Dell and HP built through their marketing allowed them to get their foot in the door before anyone else.
But regardless of who gets there first, it’s a cohesive branding strategy across all stages of the research process that really drives sales. Companies need to have informational resources available on-site to give customers information. They need easy-to-access support resources that customers can use to continue through the funnel. And of course, they need to maximize the visual appeal of their product design—whether online or in brick-and-mortar stores—to help their products stand out from the competition.
Consumer Research Is More Complicated Than Ever
In short, brands can’t get away with basic marketing anymore. The consumer product research process has become too complex. Rather than focusing on funneling consumers down a linear path, they need to work on building out their brand messaging assets to meet consumers where they live.
Look at it another way. The buying process used to be a one-way street: marketers shouting down at customers. These days, it’s a conversation. Consumers don’t want to be sold to. They want to gather data and make their own decisions without feeling constrained in their choices.