Evolving customer journey perspectives

The notion of a funnel in which consumers are moved from a broad opening that gradually narrows to a spout representing conversion is both ubiquitous and contentious in our industry. Some marketers believe that it’s greatly oversimplified, symbolizing a CliffsNotes®-level understanding of how purchasing decisions are made. It can sometimes seem to get in the way of true customer understanding, the ability to personalize messaging to address specific customer needs and everything else skilled marketers set out to achieve.

Given the proliferation of consumer touchpoints in the last 15 years, which show no signs of easing up, it would be hard to argue that a straight path to purchase still exists—and it probably never did. The main question to ask ourselves is:

Do we really need an anthropological view of consumer behavior (down to the keystroke) to be effective marketers?

I’d contend that the answer is no.

Recognizing the value of the funnel

At the very least, the marketing funnel is an organizing principle for resources, data and investment dollars; at best, it’s a business management process, allowing teams to focus on delivering excellence for the activities and services of their assigned areas. But let’s be honest, it was never meant to be a true reflection of consumer behavior.

In reality, the vast majority of customer journeys only exist on paper, and what appears to be a simple scenario becomes murky once you start to unpack behavioral attributes that cause purchasing behavior to diverge in several directions.

It’s also important to remember that we’re often relying on tiny samples of data to construct customer journeys, so it’s usually not a very statistically rigorous process.

Let’s say your key target is gamers, which may seem straightforward, but this audience is far from monolithic. You have young Millennial gamers, Gen Z gamers, dad gamers and many other cohorts, and their respective paths to purchase vary substantially. For a 22-year-old gamer, cost might be a primary consideration, whereas the dad gamer might be much more concerned about how their gaming system fits in their household’s overall technology package.

Only a small percentage of the overall gamer audience is going to convert in the prescribed number of steps laid out in a marketing plan.

Focus less on the “messy middle”

The industry’s devotion to the idea of a funnel has also made us obsessed with the consideration stage or “messy middle”—where customers and prospects are theoretically being primed to buy or convert. The problem is that consumers are a lot more inscrutable than our methods account for. A click can be accidental, and a video view can mean that someone abruptly stopped scrolling through their social feed to do something else.

On top of this, consumers tend to be making decisions faster than they did 10 or even five years ago. Formerly “considered” purchases with a longer sales cycle, such as cellphones, now happen more quickly. This is due in part to consumer technology being more accessible at lower price points but also to how digital and mobile tools have accelerated the shopping and decision-making process.

If we don’t keep evolving our perspective, we can end up over-engineering and over-measuring the middle in an effort to show that media is effective.

This leads to making tenuous connections between actions like watching a certain type of video and a higher propensity to convert. Instead of wasting time and staff hours on these legacy methods, the industry should be experimenting with AI-driven approaches like pattern mining for targeting and measurement, which have the potential to be more accurate.

Marketers embraced the funnel as shorthand for human behavior because it’s neat, convenient and easy to understand, and it’s also simple to use as an organizing principle to activate a campaign.

But consumer behavior is far too complex to be codified at scale; there are simply too many possible scenarios within the expanding web of paid and owned touchpoints, and it’s easy to hit a wall of diminishing returns when you over-analyze. We can end up in a state of analysis paralysis and miss our real objective, which is to connect consumers with our products and generate value—for both the brand and consumer.

Dissecting the messy middle should never take priority over driving or delivering growth.

What’s next?

We need to start speaking about the funnel differently to clarify that it represents a business management process, not a literal path to purchase. This will help keep brands and agencies on the same page and stop us from getting lost in the weeds of the consideration stage.

We don’t have to care so much about which specific path our customers traveled to make their decision; it only matters that they got there—and that our tactics will influence other people to do the same.