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Marketing 360® Blog

It’s Time to Embrace the Non-Linear Buying Journey

Today, consumers rarely move on a straight, logical path from need to purchase. To create a marketing strategy, you need to embrace the non-linear journey.

Yesterday, I spent $130 on a travel bag for my motorcycle. Three-months ago, I first realized I could use this type of bag.

That’s a long buying cycle for a product that’s basically just a bag to carry stuff. So what took so long? Let’s break it down.

First I realize I want this type of bag so I go online and start researching. I visit multiple websites, including online motorcycle retailers, brand sites that specifically make motorcycle luggage, and Amazon.

As I research, I learn I have an issue. I have 15″ laptop I need to carry, and many of the bags aren’t big enough.

Some are close in size, so I start researching reviews and forums. I’m looking for positive reviews and details about how well the bags work for laptops.

As I visit eCommerce sites, I sign up for two different email lists so I can get product and promotional updates. Also, after visiting the sites, I see retargeting ads online and on my social media. I frequently click on these, checking out different product options.

I discover a social media influencer that specializes in motorcycle travel. I follow him on Facebook and Instagram. Also, he has many useful YouTube videos reviewing motorcycle products that interest me, so I subscribe to his channel.

In time, I discover one brand of bag that seems to fit my needs best, however, I feel it’s overpriced, so I don’t buy it.

One day, I happen to be close to the physical store of one of the retailers. I visit the store to check out the bags. I have my laptop with me and confirm the bag I’m considering is big enough. But price-sensitivity still keeps me from buying it.

Instead, as I continue to research (hoping to find a cheaper option I missed), I go on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, looking for a used bag. I find one on Craigslist, but when I take a look the condition doesn’t seem worth what the seller is asking.

So I wait. I just keep using my backpack. I check emails, websites, and the used market to see if a good deal pops up. I also continue to research to find other options.

Finally, I get an email showing the bag I want is on clearance. The price still isn’t fantastic, but by now I realize it’s about as good a deal as I’m going to get. I buy the bag on their website.

This is a example of digital, omnichannel buying journey.

Again, this journey was for a bag to carry a laptop – not the most complex of products. It’s a journey that digital consumers tend to follow, as this clip from the show Master of None demonstrates:

If you visualize a person shopping for motorcycle luggage, you probably picture them going from realizing they want to buy something to buying it in a straight path, guided by logic and utility.

If you visualize someone hungry for tacos, you see them making their way to the nearest restaurant.

But as the two analogies show, those are not typical customer journeys in the digital age.

Connecting With the Non-Linear Consumer

As we said, the “traditional” marketing funnel maps the customer journey in a linear way. Here’s a typical example:

But we know that with digital consumers, those middle steps involving interest and desire morph into a circular, repeating pattern.

Of course this has always been true to an extent. The middle part of the funnel is where people raise objections and hesitate.

But in the past, those were not the types of delays that caused a person shopping for a piece of luggage to take 3-months to convert. Nor would people research 10 different taco places to find what appears to be the best one.

These non-linear patterns happen because of digital media. Today, people have a smorgasbord of content available, much of which specifically relates to the business or product of interest.

In addition, consumers get this content through multiple channels – it’s by no means just them looking things up on search. You have retargeting ads, social media, email, and SMS. Reviews and referrals have a huge impact. Local advertising through print, PR, and digital billboards build brand affinity.

The Challenge

Today, it could be argued, that the biggest challenge in marketing isn’t simply getting discovered. So long as you have a certain amount of budget, you’ll make initial contact with your audience.

And with digital technology, it’s fair to say the audience you’ll reach is reasonably targeted. They can find you through search, and you can target outbound ads based on their interests and consumer history.

The challenge, rather, is sticking with the shopper – while maintaining value and relevancy – as they cycle through the research and decision making process in the middle of the funnel. This is where sales are lost.

Businesses that have a long sales cycle understand the non-linear buying journey. They understand value sequencing, which is where the business offers the right content at the best time to walk the prospect through the sales process.

B2B businesses know that two-thirds of the buying journey is spent gathering, processing and de-conflicting information. And much of this learning happens without direct sales rep involvement.

These businesses know they can’t just throw the kitchen sink at people right away, then hope the sale will happen.

But many smaller online retailers and local businesses that offer products with (what they thought) was a short sales cycle struggle with content management as people hesitate and research.

It’s hard to compete when you’re in just one place with your advertising. You have to be effective across the channels your customers use.

As you connect with people, repeatedly exposing them to materials, you create brand affinity. For many businesses, this is the key factor in winning the business. The content journey creates a sense of trust. People who feel a connection to your brand story are motivated to act.

As a retailer, you need to consider the omni-channel experience, which means people research online but come into stores to physically see items before they buy.

It’s not a straight line from need to solution because people want to get the best possible solution for them. To make sales, you have to take this journey with your customers.