4 Phases of the Consumer Buying Journey

Analyst Reports
Consumer Purchasing

The Consumer Buying Journey is Changing

Is Your Brand Ready?

Marketers can’t reach their goals without knowing exactly who their target audiences are and how those people make purchases. Whether the goal is a one percent increase in e-commerce purchases per month or a whole new community for a healthcare product. And while creating buyer personas and understanding target markets have always been a part of traditional marketing, doing so has become more difficult as consumer habits evolve and potential customers are spread more widely around the world.

That means marketers need to understand exactly how consumers are buying (both online and offline) and who those consumers are consulting along the way. Marketers also need to understand how to better fit their brands into the key conversations consumers are having as they decide what to buy.

Here we take a look at modern buyers’ behaviors, how they’ve changed, and how brands should not only be reacting, but also getting ahead of the curve.

THE BEHAVIORS OF MODERN BUYERS

The traditional sales funnel has long been touted as a favorite view of consumer behavior. It includes awareness, consideration, decision and delight. But considering the evolution of buying experiences in recent years, things are much more complicated these days. The sheer amount of products and widgets available for consideration forces consumers to do multiple rounds of research before making a purchase.

Furthermore, as technology expands exponentially, consumers continue to learn about new offerings from channels and devices that didn’t exist before. There are more than 200 social networking websites available to consumers, and that list only seems to grow. Additionally, there are numerous review sites, loads of content-marketing offerings and endless product SKUs combined with anytime-anywhere access through mobile devices.

THE FOUR PHASES OF THE CONSUMER BUYING JOURNEY

Today’s consumers operate in a much more complex way. Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has determined four primary phases in which marketers can focus their time and capital: initial consideration, active evaluation (the process of researching potential purchases), closure (the point of purchase), and post-purchase (the ongoing experience with product or service).

1. Initial Consideration: The consumer considers an initial set of brands, based on brand perceptions and exposure to recent touch points.

2. Active Evaluation: Consumers add or subtract brands as they evaluate what they want.

3. Moment of Purchase: The consumer selects a brand at the moment of purchase.

4. Post-Purchase Experience: After purchasing a product or service, the consumer builds expectations based on experience to inform the next decision journey.

Let’s take a closer look at these four steps.

Consumers form opinions of brands by gathering conscious or subconscious impressions from advertisements and media. This’s why traditional advertising is still so important — so important, in fact, that brands will spend millions for 30- second commercials during highly-watched television events or billboards in Times Square. These consumer impressions form what McKinsey & Company refers to as the “Initial Consideration Set: the small number of brands consumers regard at the outset as potential purchasing options.”

It is argued that these companies get the most business since consumers who are often faced with too many choices tend to fall back on those brands that somehow made it through the “wilderness of messages.”

Considering the immense amount of advertisements consumers absorb on any given day (more than 5,000 ads and brand exposures daily), savvy consumers’ reactions have been two-fold: they’ve begun tuning advertisements out and, more importantly, trusting ads less. In fact, only 4 percent of Americans think the marketing industry behaves with integrity That’s why they turn to family, friends, online acquaintances and other credible experts for honest reviews.

According to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Survey, 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and 70 percent of people trust the online opinions of their fellow consumers. These reviews and opinions help buyers narrow down the brands they’ll ultimately buy.

It’s important to note that the number of choices being assessed during the evaluation phase may grow rather than narrow. Brands may replace those choices the buyer had on a short list during Step 1, especially if a positive word-of-mouth review encourages them to do so.

Consider a young couple looking to purchase a new smart television. They’ve always purchased LG TVs in the past, but they’re intrigued by a sale on Panasonic televisions. A friend just bought a Samsung they can’t stop raving about. Suddenly, there are three brands in the running instead of two.

While this couple will most certainly take reviews into consideration and do further research online, make no mistake: consumers still crave expert guidance. In a case like this, they often want it from retail employees in specialty electronic stores or big-box electronics departments.

Retail sales associates have the power to make or break a purchase like this. Their knowledge and enthusiasm for the product can ensure a brand is chosen —or not chosen. In fact, up to 40 percent of consumers change their minds just before a purchase due to something they see or hear. That’s why interactions with salespeople are immensely important.

Once a consumer brings a product home and begins using it, an opinion forms. Hopefully it’s a positive one, and the consumer will share that review with friends and family, continuing the word-of-mouth marketing that so many brands desire. If that review is negative, though, the brand may experience a marketing challenge that no amount of advertising can overcome.

Positive experiences encourage consumers to enter what’s referred to as the loyalty loop. Perhaps that young couple continues to add TVs as their household grows and upgrades to larger models as their income increases.

The most important aspect in the new buyer’s journey is the consumer-led information they encounter about your brand. Even with extensive research being completed via the Internet, people are still the key to influencing what’s being purchased — and brands need to align their media mix to hit this reality.

WHAT MARKETERS NEED TO KNOW

Consumers today have taken control of the purchasing process, actively searching out information that will help them make the right decision, whether it be the highest-quality product, the cheapest widget, or the most pleasing subscription service.

According to McKinsey & Company, two-thirds of touch points in the active evaluation phase of the sales process involve consumer-driven marketing activities. These include internet reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family, in-store interactions and recollections of past experiences. Just one-third of touch points involve company-driven marketing, such as print advertising, billboards, television commercials and owned media online.

Marketers must move aggressively beyond purely push-style communications and learn to influence consumer-driven touch points such as word-of-mouth and Internet information sites.”

Consumers are demanding two-way conversations with brands, as opposed to the one-way conversation traditional marketing has offered. So brands marketing to the modern buyer will require efficient yet authentic ways to satisfy customers’ demands while managing word-of-mouth about their brands.

HOW MARKETERS CAN GET AHEAD OF THE CURVE

To reach consumers at the moment they’ll most likely be influenced, marketers will need to offer modern buyers exactly what they want. Exactly the way they want it. So how can marketers influence this new buying journey? To move ahead of your competition, keep these considerations in mind:

1. Rethink your media mix. Great brand advertising is still important, especially in the awareness phase, but you need to rethink your marketing mix to focus on the entire (new) consumer journey. Consider an orchid retailer that has built up its consumer audience by offering high-quality, awareness-stage content. To continue its relationship with customers, the retailer creates a watering reminder that buyers can receive via text or email. This once-a-week interaction keeps the retailer top-of- mind even in the post-purchase stage of the buyer’s journey — all while helping and delighting its customers.

2. Invest in the channels your consumers are already using — and form relationships with their leaders. Your brand needs to become a part of the conversations happening in relevant industries, both online and offline, to win during the evaluation phase of the purchasing process.

This is where determining and forming relationships with industry professionals and category influencers who are already leading those conversations plays a key role. Jeff Hester, for example, created and runs SoCal Hiker, a site where he creates guides and “shares practical advice on gear and outdoor skills.” This is perhaps the perfect opportunity for hiking boot and gear brands to form a relationship with Jeff in which he can become a brand advocate.

Why? Brand advocates are 50 percent more likely to influence a purchase and 70 percent more likely to be seen as a good source of information by people around them.

By building relationships with influencers in your industry, your brand can tap into a more transparent form of marketing, which helps consumers aggregate recommendations straight from people who have firsthand experience with products.

3. Prepare retail sales reps to impact sales. Sales reps hold the power to affect millions of dollars in sales since they’re the closest influencing factor at the physical point of purchase. Remember, many buyers remain open to suggestions even after their online research. Additionally, shoppers will leave a retail location without making a purchase if they don’t find the expert guidance they were expecting.

How do you prepare sales associates? Create relevant and engaging content specifically for them that helps them better answer customer’s questions about your product or brand. This helps them do their job better, which directly impacts consumers’ buying experience.

4. Get your products in the hands of influencers. First-hand experience makes advice and recommendations from industry experts more credible. That means your brand needs to not only connect with these influencers, but also give them the opportunity to experience your product. Give them something to believe in. Something they can’t live without. Something they can’t help but talk about.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Modern consumers are still affected by advertising and traditional marketing tactics. However, these efforts only scratch the initial consideration phase of the new purchasing process. Today, it’s about getting the right people at the right stages talking about your brand and sharing their experience and recommendations. By understanding how today’s consumers make decisions, your brand can harness the power of influencers and empowered sales associates and their word-of-mouth recommendations. This will help your brand stake its claim in the evaluation and moment-of-purchase stages — where today’s consumers are most likely to be influenced.