I joined Percolate to help brands use customer insights and technology to create new, personalized experiences for their audiences. I developed a passion for this space—and a sense of what was possible and what’s holding brands back—while working with marketing and technology leaders at Forrester and CEB.

This is the first of two posts in which I’ll examine the impact on new buyer expectations and behaviors—and the challenges and opportunities for brands and marketing.

In today’s post, I’ll explore these new buyer behavior trends and implications for brands, sketch a new, strategic opportunity for marketing, and identify some common hurdles. (This will set up next week’s post, where I’ll look at some emerging best practices and case studies).

EXPECTATIONS OF THE NEW BUYER

Marketing leaders know where this story of new buyer expectations begins, and many can quote data and anecdotes from memory as to how buyers of all types now expect anytime, anywhere access to information about products and services.

Buyers now use this information—in up to 75% of purchase decisions—to independently develop their own preferences and perceptions as to which products and services best meet their wants and needs, and where and how to best get them.

The consequence to brands is that buyers everywhere are delaying direct interaction with them as long as possible. On average 57%and as much as 70% or more—of a buyer’s journey now occurs before engaging with a brand or sales channel. By the time the buyer begins a dialogue with the brand, she’s already partly commoditized it, and increasingly begins the dialogue by asking whether it can match a competitor’s pricing, colors or delivery options.

These behaviors hold true across industry verticals, regions and business models: B2B buyers open dialogues by asking for competitive quotes; while up to 40% or more of younger consumers use smartphones to check competitor prices while in the brand’s store.

And the impact on brands is disruptive. It’s more difficult to inform the buyer’s preferences, perceptions, or to frame the buyer’s decision in the latter stages of their buy cycle, and also more difficult to build loyalty or emotional connection to a brand when the buyer sees the category as relatively homogenous. The end result is that loyalty, conversion rates, deal sizes and premiums are all at risk.

A DRIFTING JOURNEY AND EMERGING OPPORTUNITY FOR MARKETING

So why is this a marketing (and not merely a sales) story? Let’s go back to first principles for a moment.

At their most basic, buyer journeys are simply the consumption of relevant content, and experience of doing so—ideally with a view toward advancing through classic stages of awareness, consideration, and purchase as quickly and effectively as possible.

Ordinarily this would fall easily into Marketing’s wheelhouse, as marketing is built to create and deliver compelling content. But what’s challenging here is that the new buyer journey is self-directed, begun without notice, and often takes what initially appear to be random paths which criss-cross several channels. Research (and a typical scenario) from McKinsey and this graphic from my former colleagues at Forrester illustrate the point:

Forrester Research's Customer Journey

So even if the new buyer journey may be drifting onto marketing’s terrain (and away from sales), its complexity and apparent unpredictability have frustrated marketing organizations’ ability to act.

NOT TOO BIG OR SMALL; JUST RIGHT

So what thought leadership and new prescriptions do we see for marketing?

Ironically, some of the most compelling new thinking in response has been written for Sales, just as it loses touchpoints.1

Prescriptions for marketing, on the other hand, seem to be of three types: (1) expensive, difficult and potentially overhyped big data initiatives or, (2) rather modest exhortations to train, coach or build sales’ “self-esteem” or (3) to defer to customer experience teams.

These suggestions miss a fourth, more immediate, attainable and yet ambitious opportunity for marketing: to guide or architect these new multi-channel buyer journeys.

As more of the buyer journey consists of consumption of content and experiences, rather than interactions with sales or channel partners, marketing can and should use its expertise to:

  • Collect intelligence by listening to buyer preferences, observing activity and tracking sentiment across channels
  • Leverage this intelligence to guide creation of relevant content for each audience and channel
  • Collaborate across channel silos to plan and even orchestrate multi-channel campaigns and journeys aligned to buyer preferences learned above
  • Optimize these journeys to accelerate sales cycle times and improve win rates by capturing and correlating data from the listening, planning and creation stages with outcome data from marketing automation platforms

As such, the CMOs have a unique opportunity—a mandate, in fact—to exploit this disruptive shift in buyer behavior to improve the competitiveness of their brand. Along the way, they’ll elevate the importance of their discipline within the enterprise, by promoting realignment of the organization, workflows and strategy around the customer’s preferences and behaviors.

Now is a great time to be a marketing leader.

FIVE INHIBITORS TO ARCHITECTING

So what’s holding us back?

Many Marketing organizations which are organized (read: siloed) by channel teams may, to greater or lesser degree, cause them to independently develop strategy, messaging, tone, timing, spend allocations as well as tools and technology to achieve these team-specific initiatives.

This siloed organization gives rise to five inhibitors to guiding and architecting multi-channel customer journeys:

  1. Difficulty planning multi-channel campaigns, organized around the customer and his/her preferences
  2. Inconsistent digital and social skills and competencies across the ecosystem
  3. Difficulty managing for relevancy, consistency and brand governance across multiple channels at requisite scale and speed
  4. Difficulty assessing and optimizing cross-channel effectiveness
  5. Fragmented technology stacks can frustrate, rather than enable coordination and alignment around the customer

EMERGING WAYS FORWARD

Progressive Marketing groups are starting to take notice of the opportunity to guide and build the buyer journey, positioning themselves to capture it.

While some are employing traditional, longer-term approaches (such as retraining, reconstituting and reorganizing Marketing), we’re seeing other organizations overcome these inhibitors with new lightweight tools and workflows.

To preview my next post a bit: We’re seeing leading brands—such as Unilever, GE and IBM—start to find success with tactics including:

  1. Planning multi-channel campaigns collaboratively, across siloed teams, using a single, interactive calendar. Ideally this links directly to briefs and content, to further #2 below
  2. Extending digital skills and brand guidelines throughout the marketing ecosystem by transmitting a single set of digital tools, prompts and brief elements for use in creating campaigns and content
  3. Managing for relevancy, consistency and governance during the planning and creation process, and not merely after creative has been produced. It’s far easier to ensure messaging and tone are consistent across channels as creative is being planned, than to go back and revise several pieces of disparate content after they’ve all been produced
  4. Capturing data from planning, creative and publication stages of campaign development to understand which combinations of messaging, channels, timing and even images are most effective for each particular audience. In essence, this allows brands to confirm and adapt their content and campaigns to each buyer’s (new) journey.
  5. Integrating or consolidating disparate channel platforms to permit cross-channel planning, creation, monitoring, insight and optimization.

Conclusion

The evolution of the buyer journey we’re witnessing offers a challenging, but also a uniquely exciting time for marketing.

As brands work to navigate and thrive in this new environment by engaging with buyers in new ways, time is of the essence. All the reason to examine how leading marketing organizations have found simple and effective approaches to overcome inhibitors and take on more strategic roles within the enterprise from which to competitively position their brands for growth.

Next week, I’ll look in more detail at some of these emerging approaches, and their potential impact for the Brand and for Marketing. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the meantime.

I’m excited to share a few observations below, and welcome your thoughts as well—please find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or at kent@percolate.com.

1 CEB’s Challenger sales model is perhaps the best of these, and offers new approaches for sales professionals to (re)shape buyer needs and preferences. This is obviously more difficult if the sales professional finds the buyer after they’ve begun their journey, and also requires significant investments in experienced sales talent and training.