Consumers rarely buy anything of significant value on the spot anymore. We spend considerable time doing extensive research even about which restaurant we’ll spend $30 at for lunch. Can you imagine how much research a potential customer might do about a $3,000 television or, more importantly, your company’s $50,000 service?

“ABC: Always Be Closing” is a saying we’re familiar with — even if we’re not in sales. But given the amount of time consumers spend online consuming information, the most important moment in the customer-acquisition process isn’t closing anymore — it’s the journey there. And it’s up to you to guide potential customers on that journey. ABG: Always Be Guiding!

The customer journey

The customer journey concerns the many interactions your audience (current, as well as potential customers/fans) has with your brand before they purchase. Now that the growth of digital channels and capabilities has exploded, the touch points have increased as well, giving brands opportunities to engage with their audiences in new and unique ways. What was once limited to traditional advertising — radio, television, print, billboards, direct mail — has been extended into an almost infinite space.

The image below shows just one possible customer journey. It’s important to note that simply replicating the same message across different channels isn’t the best way to utilize these touch points. Instead, use them to tell different parts of your brand’s story. Ultimately, it’s about creating original media that customers actually choose to engage with, explore, and then recommend to others.

The chapters of your brand’s story

I like to think of the entire journey as a story and the touch points as chapters. No story has ever been told in a single chapter, so we’re not going to start now. Let’s take a look at each chapter and how your brand might use it to tell a piece of its story.

Chapter 1: Search. While SEO was the talk of the digital town around 2005, it’s taken a bit of a backseat to social channels in recent years. It shouldn’t be overlooked, however, because we all know what we do when we’re in need of a product or service: We search for it. As such, search is often the first touch point you have with a customer.

To make sure you’re making a good first impression, understand how your customers are looking for you. What terms do they use? What sites do they use? Don’t think about search/SEO as limited to Google, either. When I’m searching for a new restaurant to try, I use Yelp. For hotel reviews, I’m on TripAdvisor. My wife and I just hired a home inspector we found on Angie’s List. Figure out where your customers are searching for you, and make sure you’re active on those channels. And while you may not be able to control users’ opinions on these sites, you should at least be there to monitor, react, and address problems appropriately.

Chapter 2: Social media. If you’re reading this blog, I don’t have to explain why an active social presence is important; you’re already past Social Media 101. But do you know what your focus is? Are you using Facebook to engage and develop a community of superfans? Are you utilizing Twitter to provide industry-related information?

The biggest complaint about social media is that it doesn’t drive purchase. Even if that’s true (and I think it’s taking a narrow view), it has other benefits that may be more important. Your customers will see the human element of your brand as it engages and communicates. It’s unlikely that a professional sports team’s Facebook page will compel me to buy a ticket to the next game, but you can be sure that it’s humanizing the team for me, providing me with behind-the-scenes access and feeding my passion every day.

Chapter 3: Websites. Considering that the internet is still a teenager, it’s interesting to reflect on how much the idea of a “website” has changed. Some people have even predicted that in five years the website will be a relic.

It’s important to understand that your website can and should be an ever-evolving touch point. Product information and case studies are important, of course, but have you provided a place where your customers can read about your brand’s story? Can they find out who the people in your company really are? Are you connecting them to all your other brand outposts and touch points clearly and simply? If not on your brand site, where would they find your regularly updated, branded content?

Chapter 4: Blogs. So I heard that blogging is dead, but I’m not buying it. Mitch Joel made a great argument in response to these findings that detailed the truth about corporate (branded) blogging and provided insight into why the perception of its death exists. Blogging is hard. It takes time and internal resources and is often pushed down to the very bottom of everyone’s priority list when client work takes the priority. But it’s still content that counts. If you’re providing your readers with valuable content that they’re not only encouraged but also motivated to share, your blog may be the most essential chapter of your story and a chapter that should be revisited often.

Chapter 5: Apps. The previous four chapters of this story were fairly standard; let’s take it to the next level. Building a creative and useful mobile/ tablet application requires not only a great idea but also resources. Not many brands have the resources it takes to create an application in-house, so hiring an agency will require a budget. With risk comes opportunity, however, and the future of content will definitely include apps. Developing an app that’s useful, entertaining, or both can cement your brand’s place in the daily life of your audience. Some successes include Charmin’s sponsoring the global bathroom directory “Sit or Squat”, and outdoor clothing store REI’s creating a “Ski & Snow Report” app that has been downloaded and rated more than 12,000 times.

Chapter 6: User-generated content (UGC). The final chapter is not easily written, yet is the result of using paid and owned media to motivate your audience to create content on behalf of your brand (earned media). Some brands have turned to crowdsourcing to involve their most important allies: their fans. Warby Parker has motivated hundreds of people — many who are only potential customers — to take pictures of themselves posing in its eyeglass frames (which were sent to them for free by the brand), upload them to Facebook, and have their friends and the Warby Parker Facebook community choose the best pair. This chapter not only tells a unique part of the brand’s story (it’s trustworthy, fun, and focused on community) but also puts the brand in front of its potential customers’ social networks, attracting more potential customers who love the brand’s approach.

Guiding your customers

The content items above are just a selected few customer touch points. There are so many more. Don’t think you’re required to take part in every channel. Instead, focus on the appropriate channels — particularly those you’re equipped to handle.

Many brands understand the core concept of content but overlook the guidance. Make sure that each chapter guides your audience to the next one. If they’re reading an eBook you wrote, what should they do afterward? Do you want them to head over to your Facebook page or LinkedIn group to discuss it? Is there a newsletter in which you discuss similar topics every month? It’s not enough to simply create the content without moving them closer to your goal.

As the content-marketing landscape changes, so too does the customer journey. On March 29 in New York City, Content Marketing Institute will sponsor the Post-Advertising Summit, a unique event at which keynotes, panels, and interactive workshops will reveal the power of brand storytelling and provide actionable take-aways, including pieces of real content, for the attendees. CMI’s own Joe Pulizzi will lead a workshop at which attendees will learn how to unearth their brand’s story and propagate it through a piece of useful content.

“Content Marketing Institute” readers can use the code “CMI” to get $100 off the early-bird price of $395. Head over here to learn more and register.

How do you tell your story throughout the customer’s journey? What channels do you utilize, and how do you make them as effective as possible? I hope you’ll share some of your experience in the comments.

Image credit.