The devices through which we get online, as well as the behaviors we demonstrate once we are online, continue to evolve. Technological advances and wide-spread gadget adoption have had an incalculable effect on our day-to-day lives, which leads to a resulting effect on commerce. “We experience tablets and smartphones as extensions of ourselves,” according to S. Adam Brasel, an associate professor of marketing at Boston College (1). As a result, technological changes will continue to affect how, why, and what influences the consumer’s decision-making process.
In ecommerce’s current state, consumers are spending as much as half of their day online—a reality we’ve never before encountered as marketers (2). Understanding that change has swept over the mechanics of the purchase process, the motivators that propel purchases, and the shape of the transaction process, we have to learn how to influence the ecommerce process going forward. The key to that will be ensuring we are marketing for the journey as opposed to the funnel. People undergo journeys. Brands experience funnels. That’s a critical difference.
Fundamental to marketing’s new status quo is understanding that the consumer’s journey is very personal and far from being a straight line. As Tolkien wrote, not all who wander are lost. Some wander to learn, experience, and—most relevant for marketers—engage. The hows and whys of our marketing programs need to reflect an authentic desire to engage with people, not control the timing and mechanics of a funnel.
The Wandering Consumer
The funnel we used to know and love, and became so synonymous with commerce, gave us a pathway to conversion that appeared to be very neat and tidy. It is safe to say that Pandora’s Box has been opened and it’s simply never going to be closed. The way people buy has changed. Period. It has been widely documented that the funnel as we knew it no longer exists. As reported in McKinsey Quarterly, the funnel is now a journey. While ecommerce has unfolded at light-speed since McKinsey’s article was published in 2009, the impact of the message is still unfolding for how businesses must learn to market and convert. According to the article’s authors, “The funnel concept fails to capture all the touch points and key buying factors resulting from the explosion of product choices and digital channels, coupled with the emergence of an increasingly discerning, well-informed consumer.”(3)
Consumers face more than just additional product choices and channels through which to explore what is presented to them by brands. There are a growing number of ways for consumers to become well-informed buyers. Our behavior is increasingly media ingrained, social, and interactive—even outside the realm of social networks. According to Nielsen, Americans over the age of 18 now spend an unprecedented 11 hours a day accessing and consuming electronic media from their ever-present devices (4). Because the platforms through which we access media are more fragmented, diverse, and available than ever, we also spend more time engaged with multimedia (televisions, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and computers). Of those hours we spend connected, the average American is involved with social media sites for 3.6 hours of the day—what can amount to one-quarter of a person’s time awake (5)! That data reveals the potential to connect with consumers for almost half of the day—either through direct marketing contact or by harnessing the online conversations consumers are having among themselves about products, services, and brands.
Becoming A Well-Informed Consumer
Those hours your audience is spending online are great points of contact between brands and consumers. A lot of that time is spent interacting with your brand. But rather than interacting with messages your brand carefully crafted, consumers are creating content or consuming user-generated content (UGC) about your brand. Socializing online is similar to socializing in person. When we interact, people talk about their experiences, and experiences often involve a mention of recent purchases.
The most compelling part of the McKinsey article may not be the revelation that the funnel has been replaced by the journey. Instead, it might be something that isn’t directly addressed at all. Consumers are better informed than ever, as they say. But how are consumers getting their information? Has that changed too? It has. Consumers are becoming savvy about products and brands by engaging in dialogues with other consumers across multiple channels. The flow of content between consumers themselves is building influence, discernment, and education along the commerce path.
UGC Is the New Word-Of-Mouth Marketing
Word-of-mouth marketing is a powerful force. It has always been around, and brands have always relied upon it, but as with all other things related to commerce in the digital age, it has evolved. Formerly hard to track, as word-of-mouth marketing has moved to the online space, where it can be consumed by many and tracked in different ways, it has become a tangible force with a growing influence. McKinsey indicates that word of mouth is, “the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions. Its influence is greatest when consumers are buying a product for the first time or when products are relatively expensive…And its influence will probably grow: the digital revolution has amplified and accelerated its reach to the point where word of mouth is no longer an act of intimate, one-on-one communication.”(6) What may have formerly taken shape as in-person conversations, word-of-mouth marketing has grown up online, and emerged as UGC.
Online word-of-mouth marketing or UGC creates a kind of community of customer-based reciprocal engagement, but one that brands themselves have little control over—even if their products and services feature front and center. Consumers purposefully wander into the most informative places to uncover authentic content about your brand’s products and services, as well as discover information that will help them decide whether or not to become your customer. The ecommerce decision-making process is now informed by more than just traditionally published reviews or articles, targeted marketing campaigns, and nurturing touch points; it is informed by content that consumers are publishing online about your brand. Other consumers, whether they are within an individual’s social network or complete strangers, are one of the most powerful influencers on the customer’s ecommerce journey.
If commerce has changed shape, marketing for commerce has to as well. At the heart of all of this? People. People and their experiences. Consumers are using technology in ways that are making their journey to conversion a process that is increasingly dialogue oriented and experiential. That’s why, as marketers, we need to stop thinking like brands and simply think like people. Our marketing and sales behavior needs to be people oriented. Our processes have to support a marketing methodology that reflects how people currently become exposed to, learn about, and choose to buy products.
A Funnel Fed By A Fire Hose
Let’s think back to the funnel a moment. At its best, the funnel worked when there was a steady stream of water pouring into it, collecting at a comfortable pace, and then flowing through the touch points and gateways of conversion. Without all of the technological and online developments during the past 15 years, there were fewer gateways. There were fewer points from which to consume media, and fewer conversations that could influence commerce. With people entrenched in (that is both creating and consuming) media for 11 hours a day, we have a wave of content that is pouring into what many companies are still operationally structured to approach as a funnel. A funnel fed, over time, by what amounts to a tsunami of water erupting from a fire hose, will change shape. What happens if the water pressure pouring into a funnel is too strong? Water pours over, collecting outside the parameters of the funnel, doesn’t it? Drip by drip, the water that should be going into the funnel simply falls out. A new way of collecting it is required; a new way of approaching the system is overdue.
As the evolution of technology, commerce, and social behavior has charged forward, we’ve been slowly pivoting from a funnel-based sales and marketing approach to discovering ways of supporting the consumer’s journey. In the larger sense, what we do as marketers is the same. The need for conversion is the same, and the overall process still needs nurturing. However, the tools we employ, the cadence to our messages, the understanding we bring to the process has to become realigned to our consumer’s behavior. Our pivoting process has been a slow dance with ourselves—marketing’s journey into an entirely new era. While we’ve been otherwise occupied, customer behavior has already moved on. The consumer has given us our new tactical approach. Water has collected outside of the funnel. It’s a pool waiting for us to jump in.
That pool is content that has been created by your brand’s audience.
1 Yelena Moroz, “What Made Me Buy That,” Real Simple, October 2014,170.
2 The Nielsen Company, “An Era of Growth: The Cross-Platform Report.” (New York: The Nielsen Company, March 2014), 9.
3 David Court, et al, “The Consumer Decision Journey,” McKinsey Quarterly, June 2009.
4 The Nielsen Company, “An Era of Growth: The Cross-Platform Report.” (New York: The Nielsen Company, March 2014), 9.
5 CrowdTap, “Social Influence: Marketing’s New Frontier,” (January 08, 2013): http://corp.crowdtap.com/socialinfluence.php?submitted=1
6 Jacques Bughin, et al, “A New Way to Measure Word-of-Mouth Marketing,” McKinsey Quarterly, April 2010.