Customer Journey 101: Are Your Online Customers Slipping Through The Cracks?

by Rick Elenbaas
29 July 2015

Gone are the days when buyers simply point, click, and buy. In fact, did they ever really do that? Either way, today’s customer journey is long and complex, full of twists, turns, diversions and even breakdowns along the way.

Digital marketers need to ensure they not only know the whole journey, but also have the right mechanisms in place to stop customers slipping through the cracks and into the hands of the competition.

There is no “silver bullet”

Chances are your customer journey is a lot more complex than you realise. Consumers today go through lots of steps, touchpoints and channels before they become a customer – they’ll see paid search ads, receive emails, click through on organic search results and more. Sometimes this journey can take days, sometimes weeks or months. And much to the frustration of digital marketers, there’s no “silver bullet” that will drive them straight to your door.

handful of sand

Adding to the complexity, the journey changes drastically depending on the individual buyer and industry vertical. To prove this, Google has analysed millions of consumer interactions through Google Analytics, looking at how different marketing channels impact online purchase decisions. Take some time to play with this tool and you can quickly see how the impact of each channel varies in different industries.

For example, car buyers in Australia are more likely to be affected by Display Click towards the middle and end of the journey, whereas those buying a holiday are swayed by Display Click at the beginning and middle of their decision making journey.

This isn’t an exact science, but it does go some way to proving that there’s no one size fits all. You need to take the time to work out the journey for your customers.

But wait, there’s more than one customer journey.

There could be thousands of potential journeys a customer might take before converting. And our e-commerce retail clients are living proof.

One retailer had a staggering 4,495 different online conversion paths in April 2015. That’s 4,495 different paths taken by users on their way to becoming customers. More than half of those paths involved two or more channel touchpoints.

Another e-commerce retailer had “only” 2,050 distinct paths to purchase. But 37% of conversions involved ten or more touchpoints.

Let’s zoom in a little closer to see the exact path taken by converted customers. This particular path delivered eight conversions for an e-commerce retailer.  During this journey, the consumers:

  • Visited the e-commerce site three times from paid search
  • Then received an email and came back
  • Came back again from paid search
  • Received an email and came back
  • Then saw four display impressions
  • Came back to the site from SEO
  • Received an email and came back again
  • Then saw another four display impressions
  • Came back to the site from SEO
  • Then saw three display impressions
  • Came back from paid search
  • Then saw two display impressions
  • Returned to the site from SEO
  • Came back twice more from email
  • Then saw two display impressions
  • Then visited from paid search
  • Then saw eight display impressions
  • Came back twice from email
  • Then saw two display impressions
  • Visited twice from paid search
  • Saw two display impressions
  • Then visited once from paid search
  • Saw four display impressions
  • Then visited once from paid search
  • And once from SEO
  • Once more from paid search
  • Then visited directly and finally converted.

buying lifecycle diagram

The lesson here is that purchase journeys can be incredibly complex – far more so than many brands give them credit for. Digital marketers need to know how their target audiences behave online in order to be in the right place with the right message.

Just because the customer journey is complex, doesn’t mean it cannot be navigated.

There are big rewards for those brands that dedicate time and resources to understanding and optimising their digital customer journey.

Take the example above – through each of the various channels and 27 different steps of the journey, the retailer managed to hold onto the consumer and not lose them to the competition.

Your next steps

The first and most important step is to understand the journey your customers are taking. Once you have a handle on what the customer journey looks like, there are a few essential techniques to optimise your digital campaigns and ensure potential customers don’t slip through the cracks:

1.    Review your attribution model

Marketing attribution is the process of dividing up the value of an online conversion and distributing fractions across the different touch points that led to the conversion.

If you’re running a last touch attribution model, you’re probably not evaluating channel performance correctly. Multi-touch, cross-device, cross channel attribution models are on the horizon but until they arrive, use data-driven attribution to track and value all touch points that led to the desired outcome.

2.    Upgrade your Google Analytics

If you haven’t upgraded to Google’s Universal Analytics, do so now. While not perfect, it goes a long way to helping you measure success in today’s multi-screen, multi-device world.

3.    Implement Google’s tools

While you’re there, implement Google Tag Manager and Google Display Network (GDN) reporting. Google Tag Manager consolidates your website tags with one snippet of code and lets you manage everything from a single web interface – and it’s free.

GDN impression-based reporting helps you see how your display impressions assist your conversion, giving a more complete view of the customer journey.

4.    Get your analytics in order

If your analytics set-up is flaky, sort it out immediately. This means paying some much-needed attention to incomplete tagging, inaccurate goal data, and so on. Web analytics is the radar that you’re flying the plane by. Poor radar means you won’t get to your destination.   

5.    Focus on increasing relevant traffic

All channels play a part in the path to purchase. So while it’s a simple goal to shoot for, you need to drive as much relevant traffic as possible from all channels. Then, you can focus on channel-specific metrics for your SEM, SEO, retargetingemail, display, social, affiliate marketing and so on.

6.    Tailor messages per channel

Once various channels are in play, you need to tailor the messages to users based on their stage in the decision process. The continually brilliant analytics evangelist Avinash Kaushik, provides a simple but incisive framework for messaging.

7.    Be realistic with time

Consider the most appropriate look-back window based on the time lag data in Google Analytics. If you’re selling an expensive or high consideration product don’t be surprised to see long lags between first touch and conversion.  

Whatever you do, don’t rely on luck.

Underestimating the complexity of the customer journey means you cannot possibly be hitting your targets with the right message in the right place at the right time. Unless you happen to be very lucky. You need to ensure your brand is there at the very moment the consumer is ready to buy – and that means being on multiple channels in tandem, with a relevant message. Get this right or get left behind.

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About the author
Rick Elenbaas
SEO Operations Manager

Rick Elenbaas is the SEO Operations Manager for Salmat with more than four years of digital agency experience, working for strong brands in competitive markets across Australia. Specialising in technical SEO operations, Rick is passionate about continuously improving and automating processes to accelerate the optimisation and organic growth of his client's websites. He has also strong web analytic abilities and advanced knowledge of web based technologies, including Wordpress.

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