In marketing, we divide the customer experience into several tasks: Awareness, consideration, demand and purchase. Advertising campaigns are put into buckets of awareness (isn’t this cool?), consideration (here are your options if you decide to buy this kind of thing) and demand (take advantage of this special offer!). The messaging is geared towards one or the other task. And the writing is different as well: Awareness is supposed to be impartial because potential clients are somewhat skeptical. Consideration adds the kind of detail customers need when making decisions about purchasing, without selling any one option. Demand is more forward about how to buy because actual clients have indicated that they’re interested.
Another aspect of marketing tasks is the assumed sequence. No one will attempt to purchase anything if they are not aware that you offer it. An informed purchasing decision considers all options side by side. These facts in traditional marketing lead to the conclusion that the key to success is moving potential customers through the funnel: from awareness to consideration to demand to purchase.
The third aspect of the sales funnel is that it resembles a funnel: You gather as many potential clients into the top of the funnel as you can; entice a percentage of them to consider your offerings; expect a certain percentage of the remaining to convert into willing customers; and actually make sales to an even smaller percentage. The attrition is expected, just as a 1 percent call rate is expected from a direct-mail campaign.
The sales funnel metaphor doesn’t work on the web, at least not pervasively. On the web, potential customers are in control of the information process. They can choose nonlinear paths. They can jump in at the consideration phase, bookmark their experiences, change their minds and go back to the awareness phase. They can search on specific products, fill a cart up, abandon the experience and jump back to the consideration or awareness phases as doubts creep in.
From bottlenecks to water slides
Instead of a funnel, which conjures up images of traffic jams and bottlenecks, think of digital marketing as a pool—not just an ordinary backyard inflatable, but a water park with slides and fountains and hot tubs. Users of this pool can use any of these features in any order they want. The volume of traffic and attrition rate is the same in every part of the pool. But unlike swimmers in a water park, searchers are in a hurry to get through the experience as quickly as possible. If you make the marketing content experience as enjoyable as a water park, perhaps they will slow down and take the time they need to make good decisions with the information you help them find.
Imagine a treasure hunt in the water park. Users have to decode your clues and move through the various features of the park to find the treasure in the fastest possible time. You just need to help them find the treasure, taking the tasks in whatever order they want. Of course, it helps if you give them clear clues with good writing. But the structure of their experiences should enable the freedom to explore your water park however they want.
Site search and pathing data
I will primarily let readers draw their own conclusions about how this changes the way they do digital marketing. But I wanted to point out a couple of conclusions that particularly struck me.
Fix your masthead search. When sites have good search experiences in the masthead, it frees clients to explore the content they need when they need it. Consider the scenario in which a customer fills up a cart, abandons it and goes to your masthead looking to do more research. If they don’t find the information they need, they are not likely to start filling up another cart.
If your masthead search is not effective, they will go to Google and repeat their queries. This time your competitors will show up in the results. And then you have issues with how your newer content ranks in Google without much link equity. So, not only are you steering your customers to your competitors, you’re making it harder for them to find your content when they really need it.
Don’t fixate on pathing data. One of the things marketers like to do is get an end-to-end view of how customers move through the sales funnel. This can be done with some web analytics packages. You simply track clicks from one page to another by a set of users. The problem with this is that it relies on the false assumption that users consume web sites like books (chapter by chapter, serially) from home page to awareness to consideration to demand to purchase.
If you measure a lot of click streams like that, send me an e-mail. In my experience, they are very rare. And even if you get them, I doubt their veracity. You might get clicks from awareness to consideration or from consideration to demand, but you won’t be able to prove that the same users took those paths. Also, many users who take these paths do so over several visits. Rarely do they go from awareness to consideration to demand to purchase in one visit.
More commonly, a user will come to your site from search and land on the page that is most relevant to her search query. She will then navigate to one or two other pages. When she gets stuck, she either abandons the site or goes to the masthead. At that point, good luck tracking her.
If we stop caring about moving users through the sales funnel, (as though you can just blow the whistle and declare over the megaphone “all water slide users now proceed to the giant fountain”), all we really need to track is engagement with our experiences. If you have a high bounce rate, fix that experience by tuning your pages to your search results. If users are spending a lot of time on your pages but not clicking anything, fix that by making more compelling calls to action. This is the kind of tangible data you can act on.
Following users’ paths for one or even two clicks can give you actionable data. Trying to get actionable pathing data from awareness to consideration to demand to purchase is a fool’s errand.
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