Out Of Chaos, The Path To Purchase

by , Apr 17, 2013, 7:13 AM
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There is one diagram that any marketer would be capable of sketching from memory, even after being awakened from the depths of an REM sleep cycle. It is a trapezoid with a shorter lower base -- or, perhaps, an overturned truncated cone --featuring several rows of words such as "awareness," "consideration," "engagement,” “product discovery," "purchase" and "loyalty" placed within.

Recognize it?  Yes, it is the good old purchase funnel.

For some marketers, this is all they remember from their MBA courses. But the industry has collectively concluded that the traditional purchase funnel is dead. Several obituaries have already been posted in the trade media -- including on these very pages.

The explosion of digital channels and the always-on media ecosystem, coupled with the emergence of an increasingly discerning consumer, are usually identified as the culprits in the funnel's untimely demise.

In fact, McKinsey & Co., a consultancy, recently came up with an alternative to the purchase funnel. Called Consumer Decision Journey, this model was derived from an analysis of data collected by traditional means -- interviews and surveys.

McKinsey depicts consumer decision-making as a cyclical loop with four phases representing potential "battlegrounds” where marketers could win or lose: “initial consideration,” “the process of researching,” “the actual conversion,” and “post-purchase.”

Perhaps this is indeed the path consumers take. The challenge, however, is in mapping the abstract McKinsey vortex to a specific brand's situation. It ‘s not easy, to say the least.

The best way to illustrate a dynamic system in flux such as path to purchase is through closed feedback loops. What the circularity of the McKinsey model really reflects is that during their journey, consumers are all over the place -- scientifically speaking. It only takes a click for them to embark on a ride that would take them away from the brand --but then it also takes a single click for them to come back. The model is indeed a good metaphor for what is happening in the field, but it’s just not actionable.

An alternative way of dealing with this clickstream chaos is to start from the lowest common denominator --an individual consumer path to purchase -- and build from the bottom up.

Granted, each individual path is different -- both the actual activities and their timing and sequence vary widely between consumers. But the combinations are not infinite. A deep hard look into the data trail that consumers leave behind and a meaningful summarization can and should be attempted by any company who is interested in how their consumers really arrive to the purchase decision.

There are several data reduction techniques that deal exactly with this problem of condensing information into manageable insights so that they can be used in the decision-making process. Only this time it is marketers, not consumers, who will be making the decisions. A typical approach is to cluster around behavioral variables. Ad exposure, search queries, visits to the brand website, visits to competitors, repeat visits, reading reviews, visits to aggregator stores and eBay and purchase reviews are all typical touch points that consumers encounter on the way to purchase.

What's important is not just what consumers do, however -- it's also how and when they do it. The intensity of interaction with touch points, as measured by time spent on them and the time elapsed between visiting each consecutive one, are factors in their own right that might indicate levels of evolvement with the process. Or it might suggest engagement with the product or brand.

The goal is to extract the commonalities found in individual paths and identify a manageable number of distinct behavioral patterns. Every brand is somewhat different, but in our experience three to seven path groups are usually both sufficient to describe the main ways of the majority of  consumers in their progress toward conversion, and also parsimonious enough for a marketer to craft separate messaging strategies. This helps to engage consumers with the right message and impact the decision process at the right time.  It is also important to consider marketing costs in order to isolate the digital paths that are driving the most ROI for the business – and steer consumers towards them.

Unlike consumer journey abstractions, this data-mining approach allows marketers to extract prevailing path characteristics of their consumers and brands -- and, by revising their marketing strategies, influence consumers' actual journeys toward the purchase.

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