The linear path customers once took to purchase has twisted and coiled into a web with multiple touch points. AI can help.
Marketers often speak of the customer journey, the linear path a customer takes from consideration, to research, to purchase. Ideally, marketers want to establish a connection with the customer as early as possible in this funneled process, and for a long time that’s been achievable. But as the funnel fractures and expands under the weight of the digitally empowered consumer, marketers have less and less influence on the customer journey. Indeed, the customer journey as marketers used to know it no longer exists at all.
“If you go back 10 years and ask people how they’d map their customer journey, they’d map it very similarly to the way you’d map a linear sales funnel… Today’s customer journey looks more like a beehive,” says Liz Miller, SVP of marketing at CMO Council.
These days, the journey does not need to be initiated by marketers. Anyone with access to the internet has access to unbiased product information and testimony. Marketing communications can now be fact-checked. Information is much more plentiful than in the past. But these are all conventions of the digital revolution that affect everyone.
Marketers must contend with fully autonomous customers. Millennial shoppers who abhor email, and are more trusting of customer reviews than advertisements. Even when marketers effectively reach today’s consumer, attributing their purchase to a display or TV ad (or any marketing for that matter) is notoriously difficult.
“[Customers] are learning about us from all different areas, and, depending on who you read…, anywhere between 60% and 80% of the journey is done in this build-your-own-adventure fashion before they even engage with us,” Miller says.
Viewing the customer journey as a funnel is no longer viable, so marketers must instead focus on the areas where their influence is strongest. By and large, that is the customer experience.
“[Customers] are a lot more informed, and are a lot less patient about the experience that gets delivered to them,” says Jay McCarthy, VP of product marketing at digital experience provider Qubit. “We call this scenario the ‘expectation economy.’ Where you’ve got people who are used to the Uber, AirBnB, or the Apple experience; where everything is so seamless that when it’s not you’ve let them down, even if it would have been a stellar experience a few years ago.”
The most impact marketers can have on the customer journey is in the quality of the customer experience throughout that journey. But with so much of that experience happening outside the domain of the brand, marketers have few options. Of course, there are options, social proofing being one of the more impactful among them.
“[Social proofing] is a basic concept in persuading and influencing customers, where you provide messages or experiences that show how other people are getting value from what you’re telling them,” McCarthy says.
This is, conceptually, the driving force behind much of social media marketing. Customer reviews are also a part of the social proofing method. An extension of branding, the social proofing tactic gives marketers a measure of influence over the general narrative around their products or services. Quality control is paramount, as even with a focus on the social word-of-mouth of the business, consumers still ultimately control the discussion.
The more holistic, long term play here though is to humanize the customer experience at every juncture. Right now, as advanced as marketing automation and technology has become, these new capabilities still map the old funnel experience.
“[A lot of us] are still using the old linear model of getting from awareness to engagement to research to acquisition, and then looping it all together with retention. We still think in this linear fashion, and we’ve set up our technology systems to automate that linear fashion,” Miller says. “Our ‘lifecycle systems’ become, ‘Send them an email. If they open it, send another email. If they didn’t, send a different email.’”
The reality, as Miller sees it, is that the customer may open the email and not engage any further with the message, but will go off and tell their friends on social media, go into a store and touch everything there while price matching on mobile, and finally go home and make the purchase online. “And we’re still wondering, ‘Should we send them another email?’” she says.
Moving existing digital marketing systems to the next step, and finally humanizing the customer experience was largely an impossible task before the advent elements of artificial intelligence—or cognitive computing—machine learning, chatbots, and virtual assistants. It seems marketers have ironically found the key to humanizing the customer experience in robots.
“[Cognitive computing] actually has the brainpower that we don’t have… to take that linear process that we created and called the customer experience, and actually humanize it,” Miller says. “Taking all of the permutations of where how and when we might diverge from that straight line, and meet that customer in real time with the right experience.