How Are Your Customers Shopping For You?

I touched on something recently during a Hampton Roads AMA panel that really bears repeating, clarifying and driving home for anyone responsible for running a business.

The concept of a purchase funnel is obsolete. Consumers search for information and make decisions based on what they find. Managing what they find, how they perceive your product and how they engage with you is what content marketing is all about.

The goal of content marketing is to facilitate the purchase decision. Over and over again. Your content must be aligned and keep your customer constantly  engaged or your customer will disconnect.

Search for “Purchase Funnel” and you’ll find millions of images and explanations dating back to the dawn of time showing how people move from awareness of a product to purchase. Almost all of them bear a strong resembMarketing Funnellance to the one at right. The consumer or target enters at the top and moves vertically–and in one direction—through the funnel to purchase. Greatly oversimplified of course, but still representative of how marketers viewed the marketing and sales process. In a world where a brand has strong control over the words and the impressions delivered to an audience, the funnel is fairly accurate. Keep delivering messages that build on each other and move the consumer through the funnel. But technology, the availability of big, real-time data and the consumer’s ever-increasing thirst for on-demand product information has made this thinking completely obsolete.

The Audience Has Shifted

No longer can we consider an audience to be a static force that we can “impress.” Even though we still count exposures to a brand or message in terms of “impressions,” the content of that message, the perspective from which it is delivered and the consumer’s ever-increasing lack of desire to “be sold to” have greatly shifted where and how we reach the audience.

Technology is the great enabler here, providing on-demand access through hand-held devices faster and more powerful than the computer systems in spaceships that went to the moon. Social media platforms, blogs, and comparative shopping platforms bombard the consumer with information and opinion (valid or not), that consumers find ten times more believable than “advertising.” The structure and strategy of how well a site is optimized to be found by search engines, or links to the information sources mentioned earlier, now are important to a marketing strategy as the overall brand position. All of these areas of influence affect the consumer in various ways, at various times. None of it happens in a single direction, and none of it happens vertically.

What once was a funnel is now a convoluted path through an almost endless list of information sources.

Information about…

  • You
  • Your product
  • Your competition
  • What your customers think about your product
  • Even what people who’ve never TRIED your product think about it

I describe this experience, rather than a funnel, as a sphere. Consumers enter the sphere through any kind of external influence, advertising exposure, need, life event; anything that could first cause interest in a product or service. But here’s where the behavior shifts. Once inside the sphere, the consumer embarks on a totally unpredictable path of information absorption. Consumers continue to experience the brand, gather information and form opinions based on information they either seek or are exposed to.

Once inside the sphere, the job of content marketing is to keep them inside the sphere and facilitate purchase. The content marketing platforms you manage to keep them inside your sphere, before during and after the purchase, include:

  • BlogsMarketing Sphere
  • Social Media Posts
  • Social Media Advertising
  • Product Ratings
  • White Papers
  • Infographics
  • SEO
  • Paid Advertising
  • Website Engagement
  • SMS Texting
  • Word of Mouth
  • Earned Media
  • Customer Experience

All of these are touch points, and the consumer can experience any of them at any time within the sphere. It’s a three-dimensional journey that requires a consistent, rewarding and aligned experience in order to stay engaged.

If you don’t already do it, you should audit the content you manage as well as the content your current and prospective customers are exposed to. Do you provide information about your product and your product experience? Is the information comparative? Fresh? Relevant? Do you engage your customers, provide insight and seek feedback? Most importantly, do you have multiple paths to capture contact information, and even more paths to use that information to keep them moving within your sphere? Look for all of these principle action points and you will be well on your way to a sound content marketing strategy.

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