You can observe a lot just by watching

As always, Yogi Berra is right. While marketers have always been interested in understanding consumer behavior, the focus we place on different parts of the buying process is shifting dramatically. Purchase and customer experience journeys are now distinct categories of marketing research.

Life used to be simple for marketers. There was the purchase (acquisition) funnel and that was absolute. You could create awareness, consideration and purchase by pumping money into intrusive one-way communications (aka advertising) and the market would march down the old purchase funnel in fairly predictable ways.

It was more complicated than that, of course. There was competition, positioning, pricing, placement and all of that. But the purchase funnel was the overarching organizing principle.

Until it wasn’t. Until it was bent, folded and mutilated by changing media habits and new forms of consumer generated communications. Now the purchase funnel has so many twists and turns and loop-the-loops that it is unrecognizable.

Take cruise lines. It used to be you chose a cruise line and a ship that was going to a place you wanted to go…when you wanted to go there. Now there are message boards where cruisers post about their experiences as they are cruising. People looking to cruise can get detailed, instantaneous reviews of trips they may be planning to take.

Take cars. It used to be you had to go to a showroom which, for many, was a daunting and unpleasant experience. Now you can look at many different cars online to compare features and prices, reviews, and get the best deal.

Take your medicine. It used to be that you took what the doctor recommended. Now friends ask friends on Facebook. You can look at consumer and patient oriented educational sites, blogs, and research that had never been accessible to mass audiences before. You are now an informed participant in the decision making process.

The purchase journey is now as much, or more, about the dark caverns of social media—the hidden tunnels of online searches, posts to friends, emails to colleagues—as it is about the well-lit and well-known hallways of TV spots, print ads and paid media.