4 Phases of the Consumer Buying Journey

Analyst Reports
Consumer Purchasing

Mapping the consumer buying cycle used to be much simpler and more straightforward than the path today. Tremendous and seismic changes in the way we communicate, find information, and formulate a buying decision have created self-educated consumers that often prefer to do the heavy lifting of product research on their own.

But, as a marketer, you can still engage with the consumer and influence the path to purchase. Here are a few standard facts every marketer should know about today’s consumer decision journey.


Consumer Buying Journey – The Purchase Process is Changing

  • The 4 Phases of the Consumer Buying Journey
  • Why the Consumer Buying Journey is Important
  • How the Consumer Buying Journey Has Changed Over Time
  • How to Optimize Content for the Consumer Purchase Journey
  • Marketing with the Consumer Journey in Mind

Back in the day, a sales representative was a consumer’s first contact for information and education about a product. The customer was in the very early stages of the buyer’s journey – maybe with a general awareness of a particular product, but not much else.

But today’s consumers have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and they’re not likely to engage with a sales representative until they’ve already done their own research. This consumer is much farther down the consumer decision journey path and must be engaged in an entirely new way. In fact, many consumers choose not to engage with a salesperson until they either get stuck and have an important question, or they’re fairly certain of their purchasing choice.

Within this environment, it’s essential that a marketing team provide content that’s helpful to consumers at each step along the path—providing what they need to self-educate and propel themselves forward to the next phase of the buying journey. Consumers have come to expect two-way conversations with brands, rather than endure one-way communication typified by traditional marketing and advertising.


Consumer Buying Journey – Predict Customer Purchase Decisions

The primary challenge for marketers is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to guide themselves through the buying process. Information must be clear and easily digestible, and the next steps must be obvious and easy to take.


4 Phases of the Consumer Buying Journey

Let’s take a look at the 4 phases of the consumer buying journey, which can help marketers better focus their time and capital. This data is based on a study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.


Phase 1: Problem Recognition & Information Search

At the onset of the consumer journey, all the customer may know is that there is a problem that needs to be solved. The consumer is currently experiencing an unmet need and typically begins a research process in order to find information that can help meet that need. At this point, consumers typically take to the internet to research various products that might prove useful. They may also check out several different brands or different specific products and dive into customer reviews to find out how “real people” have experienced their purchases.

Consumers may also turn to social media to see what the brand ambassadors or influencers have to say about a particular brand or product. Or, the consumer may ask trusted friends for a recommendation. In fact, according to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Survey, 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and 70 percent of people trust the online opinions of their fellow consumers. These reviews and opinions help a buyer narrow down the brands he’ll ultimately buy.

Some studies indicate that the information created and curated by the consumer is the most influential information—at least at this stage of the buyer’s journey. Even considering the wealth of information available about a product on the Internet, people trust people. They want to know what real people think and to hear how real people have experienced a particular product.


Phase 2: Evaluation of Alternatives

Sometimes, a consumer may start with a large list of brands or products and naturally begin to eliminate choices. Other consumers may begin with no idea what kind of brand or product they want, so they build a list along the way. There’s no uniform way to start the process of evaluation. At this point, the consumer will continue to weigh the reviews and experiences of other consumers—whether they be personal friends or like-minded consumers found online and through social media. The important thing is that consumers must be able to find accurate information from brands that can help them make sound purchasing decisions as they begin their search.

Depending on the size and scope of the purchase, this can be the moment in the consumer journey when the potential buyer recognizes the need for expert help to make a final decision. At this point, it is likely that a consumer will reach out to a brand or manufacturer or store sales representative for an expert opinion on which product to choose. The sales associate has a tremendous amount of influence at this stage of the customer journey. Having knowledge and enthusiasm surrounding a particular product, plus the ability to make a personal connection with the customer, can greatly influence the buyer’s final decision.


Phase 3: Moment of Purchase

This is the magical moment of truth when the consumer selects a brand for purchase.


Phase 4: Post-Purchase Experience

The post-purchase experience plays a key role in what’s known as the brand loyalty loop. When consumers try your product and are pleased with their post-purchase experience, they are much more likely to write positive reviews, tell friends about their positive experience (in person and via social media), and ultimately purchase more products from your brand in the future. The positive memories of the buying experience can greatly influence the future buying decisions of the consumer.


Why the Consumer Purchase Journey is Important

Marketers can’t effectively reach their goals without knowing exactly who their target audience is and how they decide to make purchases. Whether the goal is a 1% increase in e-commerce purchases per month or building a whole new community for a healthcare product, understanding the consumer journey is a must-have, not a nice-to-have.

Creating buyer personas and understanding target markets have always been a part of traditional marketing. However, doing so has become more difficult as consumer habits evolve and potential customers are spread more widely around the world. This means that marketers need to understand exactly how consumers are buying (both online and offline) and be able to identify the experts and influencers that consumers consult with along the way. Marketers also need to understand how to better fit their brands into the key conversations that consumers are having as they decide which products and services to buy.


How the Consumer Purchase Journey Has Changed Over Time

The consumer decision journey has historically been presented as a funnel—you have a large number of potential buying choices enter the sales funnel at its widest end, which represents limited product knowledge and brand awareness. Consumers continue to move through the purchase funnel toward product knowledge, trial, and eventually reach brand loyalty at the funnel’s very tip.

Marketing has always sought to engage with the customer at critical decision points within the buyer’s journey. It’s why P&G decided, so many years ago, to market its products during daytime television, leading to the term “soap operas.” This is why Amazon began to give you product recommendations based on your purchase and viewing history. Marketing is all about identifying where in the journey a customer is most open to influence, and then applying that influence with dexterity.

This traditional customer journey funnel has long been touted as the accepted view of consumer behavior. But considering the evolution of buying experiences in recent years, the customer journey is much more complicated these days—it may not represent a straight line down an obvious funnel. The high volume of products and services available forces consumers to do multiple rounds of research before making a purchase.

In fact, some research indicates that today’s buyer’s journey is more circular in nature. This loop includes consideration, research, closure, and post-sale—and it continually starts over. Brands must continue to engage consumers in every stage of the loop so that customers remain loyal. Consumers now continue to engage in two-way communication with brands post-purchase as well, providing user feedback and pressuring brands to continue delivering a superior performance in order to cultivate customer loyalty.

Another seismic change in the buyer’s journey is that today’s buyer doesn’t need to wait for a brand to push information her way. Instead, the consumer can just reach out and ask you directly. In fact, consumers are much more comfortable with this two-way exchange of information between the buyer and the brand. Rather than the traditional “push” strategy of trying to get the right information to consumers at the right time in their customer journey, those same customers now reach out to “pull” information their way—when and how they need it.

Some research shows that as much as two-thirds of a customer’s pre-purchase interaction with a brand is consumer-driven, rather than brand-driven. Shoppers read reviews, ask friends, and may even reach out directly to a brand with specific questions. As technology continues to exponentially expand, consumers keep learning about new products from channels and devices that didn’t even exist before. This means there’s a tremendous opportunity for brands to take advantage of user-generated content—or a UGC marketing approach.

To date, more than 200 social media sites exist as resources for consumers, and this list grows every day. The landscape is changing rapidly—it was only a few short years ago when we were all asking, “What is influencer marketing?” Your potential buyers also can check out hundreds of product review sites, loads of content-marketing offerings and endless product SKUs combined with 24/7 access through their mobile devices. It’s enough to make a consumer’s—and a marketer’s—head spin. Fortunately, with the right strategy, you can be successful within this environment.


How to Optimize Content for the Consumer Purchase Journey

Today’s marketers need new ways to make sure their brands are among the products that a customer first considers. Brands today should be prepared to move beyond a traditional, one-way flow of information into a relationship-based, two-way dialogue with their consumers.

The key step for optimizing content for the consumer journey is to actually put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. You have to switch your mindset to focus on what’s good for the consumer rather than what’s good for the brand—at least in the short term. If your product or service has a real connection with its consumers, then what’s good for them will ultimately be what’s good for your brand.

Instead of taking the traditional approach of touting your brand’s attributes, today’s content needs to be richer and more useful to consumers. It needs to speak directly to your consumer’s concerns and offer information and solutions that extend beyond the simple facts about your product. This may mean tailoring your content more specifically for various stages of the buyer journey. Instead of developing a single message that works for everyone, let consumer research and a two-way dialogue shape specific messaging. This will prove far more meaningful for an undecided buyer.

Keep your content fresh and frequently updated. You should remain a reliable source of timely and useful information for your potential buyers—and your loyal customers. Overall, your purpose is to make your content easy to find, easy to read and understand, and easy for a consumer to incorporate in a personal way. The more work you put in here, the easier you make it for consumers to keep coming back to your brand both for information and for purchases. And the more they come back to you, the more likely they are to tell others about their experiences, which drives the all-important word-of-mouth marketing.

To a large extent, optimizing your content for your customers depends on simply knowing them. What do your customers want? How do they access information? What resonates with them? What do they value? When you know these things about your buyers, it helps you create content that naturally connects with them—and which they’re likely to share.

Take the time to study your consumers. Secondary research, focus groups, and other qualitative research methods can all yield useful insights. Once you have enough data, you can develop buyer personas that represent specific segments of your customer community and develop your content with those personas in mind. What’s meaningful for a fictional persona is likely also meaningful for the real customers your persona represents. Your content should address specific questions within a particular stage of the consumer journey—from developing awareness to identifying optimal purchase opportunities.

Some marketers may also need to evaluate their customer loyalty programs and how they engage with customers at the narrow end of the traditional sales funnel. How do you cultivate your brand ambassadors? Do you leverage their expertise and experience to engage with others in earlier stages of the buyer journey? Is this something you can retool or build if you don’t already have it? Engaging in testimonial marketing using your existing loyal buyers can be tremendously effective.

The best way to optimize your content is to measure it. How do people engage with it? How much of your content do they read? How far down a page do they scroll? Do they watch your videos or download items you make available to them? How do they respond to celebrity endorsements? Carefully studying the way your consumers engage with the content you provide can often give you all the clues you need about how to provide additional content that they’ll engage with in the future. Let consumer behavior be your guide.


Marketing with the Consumer Journey in Mind

Consumers hold more power and sway over the customer journey than ever before. But keep in mind that marketers aren’t helpless within this brave new world. There are several steps you can take to update your marketing methods and bring them closer into alignment with buyer’s journey requirements.


Update Your Media Mix

Awareness advertising is still effective and important—particularly at the beginning of the customer journey. However, you can’t rely on it the way yesterday’s marketers could. The opportunities inherent in social media and other digital platforms, like mobile apps, make it easy to continue engaging with consumers once they’ve made their purchase—allowing you to cultivate a loyalty loop.

This involves a paradigm shift, moving from buying media to establishing online properties that can pull in consumers at the appropriate points in their customer journey. This may also include investing in programs that cultivate word-of-mouth reviews and also systems that customize advertising to particular segments of consumers. If you’re still wondering, “What is a brand ambassador?,” it might be time to refresh your approach.


Invest in the Right Channels

Go where your consumers already are. Find them online, on social media, and in communities where they share product or service information. Engage authentically with them there. In order to be a part of the consumer buying journey, make sure that your brand is a key part of the conversation—wherever it’s happening. You have a chance to be a trusted resource and to engage in meaningful, two-way dialogue with some of your top consumers.

At this phase of the buying journey, brand influencers can help you build credibility and penetrate consumer audiences. Enlist those who love your brand to speak authentically about their experiences. Research shows that brand influencers are 70 percent more likely to be seen as a trusted resource and 50 percent more likely to influence a purchase than a direct brand representative.

By building relationships with brand influencers in your industry, your brand can tap into a more transparent form of marketing, which helps consumers access recommendations straight from people who have firsthand experience with various products and services.


Empower Your Sales Reps

Your brand’s sales representatives still have tremendous power to influence the buyer’s journey. At the point of purchase, they remain the single most influential force, in fact. After all, many buyers are still open to considering the sales rep’s knowledge and expertise, even if they’ve done extensive online research. You can empower your sales reps by making sure they’re trained appropriately. They should feel confident sharing any and all information about your products and should be encouraged to share their authentic experiences. Make sure your sales reps have all the appropriate educational content they need, plus the training and practice to deliver it effectively.


Put Products in the Hands of Influencers

Shoppers trust recommendations from others who have had first-hand experience with your products. Make it easy for them to give their recommendations by ensuring they have easy access to your products. Send products to them. Give them something to believe in—something they can’t live without and can’t help talking about. Many social media influencers, for example, are happy to discuss products and services they’ve purchased as top pro deals.


Consumer Buying Journey

In today’s consumer decision journey, the buyer has taken control of much of the process. Throughout all phases of the buying cycle, consumers actively seek out the information they need in advance of a purchase. They lean heavily on word-of-mouth, online reviews, and recommendations from friends and others whose opinions they believe they can trust. In fact, it’s estimated that only one-third of marketing interactions come from traditional brand or retail efforts, such as commercials, print ads, and billboards. In today’s retail environment, marketing is primarily consumer-driven. Any brand that strives to be successful in this environment should develop ways to help authentically meet consumers on their buying journey.

After all, modern consumers are still influenced to some degree by advertising and traditional marketing tactics. However, these efforts should be used at the right point in the buyer’s journey and in the right combination with more authentic means of consumer engagement. Today’s consumer marketing is about getting the right people to talk about your brand at the right time, sharing their authentic experiences and recommendations with other consumers. By understanding how today’s consumers make decisions, your brand can harness the power of social media influencers and their word-of-mouth recommendations.