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Is the ‘Buyer Journey’ a Bunch of Hooey?

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Written by: John Bell | The Digital Influence Mapping Project

I just got back from my first BMA event, BMA15. This is the association of B2B marketing professionals. (TirelessMC Gary Slack pictured above) The hall held more than a thousand people from brands, agencies and technology providers. Informative, thought-provoking sessions from practitioners like myself (here’s a preview of what I spoke on) were mixed in with the inspirational (like Andrew Davis’ terrific presentation on today’s customer journey). Many speakers referred in some way or another to the need to think in terms of a ‘buyer journey’ – one that is complex, bobbing and weaving between social networks, Google, terrestrial moments, and more.

 As usual, the best parts were the conversations outside the sessions.  Like the dinner chat that started with “All this talk of the buyer journey is crap.”

What’s right with the buyer journey

The funnel no longer adequately describes the progression of a buyer from “unaware” to actually purchasing, but finding a neat, simple funnel-alternative that does describe how we come to purchase is just plain hard.

We are all influenced in new ways and new sources – No big mystery that what leads to a purchase decision for a business buyer(s) or consumer is more complex today than the golden age of advertising. Andrew Davis in his BMA12 keynote painted the most plausible and laughable “path to purchase(s)” for a consumer inspired to eat (or listen to) meatloaf. The path can be long, circuitous, include many influences. It really is a journey. Google’s view of the consumer journey to buy insurance reveals that it can start six months out. 

The journey describes many touchpoints and contributions to a purchase decision – B2B buyers consider 8.9 sources of information today – twice as many as a few years ago. We are all doing more research before and after engaging a sales person. We talk to colleagues. We inspect products at trade shows. We read expert posts on LinkedIn. And so forth. Gone are the days when a handful or less of communications intercept a potential buyer and drive that purchase.

Everyone’s path to purchase can be different with different influences – IBM, Salesforce, Oracle – all of the marketing technology firms – are promoting this notion of the connected customer and that we ought to be addressing millions of individuals…individually versus as “target audiences” or segments or even personas. Conceptually  this makes sense. What drives someone to purchase, repurchase, advocate, behave loyally is different

 Attributing a sale to a single event is incorrect – Rarely is there a single driver for a purchase decision. A journey view acknowledges that and aims to reveal the important touchpoints that a marketer can affect along the way. Understanding what has more influence in a sales-related action (my euphemism for all the actions we hope people will do – buy, buy again, tell others about the product, behave loyally) is the marketer’s job today. Believing only in the last-click, is irresponsibly naïve.

The buyer journey is inherently more customer-centered – We all need to become increasingly customer-centered. And we need to be wary of just giving this aspiration lip service. Thinking and learning about your customer’s concerns and experiences as they try to solve problems via purchasing products and services, demands curiosity and compassion.  It is the buyer’s journey after all and not the path we aim to force people down.

What’s wrong with the buyer journey

Like any broad concept, the “buyer journey” can be stretched too far. A conceptual framework can become the answer to too many problems.

Direct marketers may destroy the idea – It’s in a direct marketers dna to try and “stimulate” people with offers and other action-inducing communications. They focus on efficiency – engineering emails and ads to drive people to take the bait at the lowest cost.  Now with the customer journey, the promise of mapping all these wonderful touchpoints and building a technology platform to coordinate them is too good to pass up. But mapping and instrumenting individual buyer journeys may not be worth the extraordinary effort. In the time it takes to do this, habits will change.

Focuses too much on touchpoints vs. the psychology of buying – A buyer follows an email to a Web page. Days later they read a post in their LinkedIn feed and follow a link to a blog post. Weeks later they Google a business problem and browse four sites with credible expertise. And so on. The temptation of a buyer journey-model is to just think of these as a collection of media touchpoints where your brand ought to be to intercept this buyer. It may be more productive to think about what the so-called “buyer” is trying to get done at various points in their journey. They actually don’t likely start out as a “buyer” but as a business person with a problem.

Without believable attribution, complex marketing against the journey will die under it’s own weight – If we cannot measure and understand the contribution to a sale for the dozen or so touchpoints along a journey, we will lose our will to spend our marketing dollars against them. This is just the way the world turns. Now matter how good the model seems, if it cannot be measured, eventually we will give up on it.

B2B buying decisions involve a lot of people and that’s a lot of journeys – How many people inside an organization influence a buying decision? Four? Six? Ten? We know that the bigger the price tag the more bodies there are around that conference table. How do you manage to understand all those journeys and affect them?  

It’s the right idea

The buyer journey is the right idea. We just have to decide how we are going to change our marketing practices to align ourselves. We could easily go full force in mapping out dozens of personas and complex journeys. Or we could aspire to an increasing understanding of the path people take from the glimmer of a business need to an actual purchase and then try our hardest to be genuinely useful to our prospects and customers.

Attending BMA15 was a good reminder to me that there are a lot of smart people out there trying to figure this all out. My best strategy is to spend more time with these marketers and hope some of their smarts rub off. In my estimation, this is a worthwhile organization and I plan to participate more in the future.

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