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If you talk to marketers for any amount of time about what they do, you are bound to hear the term "customer journey" at some point. The go-to exercise for marketers looking to up their lead generation games today is "journey mapping," the exercise by which you try to understand how a potential buyer navigates through content and other offers on the way to a closed deal.
However, the problem with buyer journey "maps" is that they infer you have more influence than you really do, Michael Fauscette of G2Crowd pointed out at last month's CRM Evolution conference. Too many times the mapping exercise is conducted with a view of the customer akin to that of the marble in a marble run -- skipping from feature to feature, hewing entirely to the sequence of jumps, loops and triggers designed by the run's creators.
Who here sells to marbles? We sell to people, who choose their own paths. The research is clear about this: Every one of the 3,000 customers who participated in a 2012 Google and Shopper Sciences study of buying journeys followed a different path to purchase. So, if you fantasize about a simple customer journey akin to a Candy Land board game, sorry. The reality is that your game is more like playing Dungeons & Dragons with someone with multiple personalities.
Your journey map is not going to be linear, no matter how simple you think a sale may be.
Add to this the fact that more people are making B2B purchases -- in some scenarios, by committees of six to 10 or even more, according to Sirius Decisions. Each person has a different role and different concerns associated with that role. That's going to make each journey different, and it will add layers of complexity to the task of understanding and anticipating behaviors.
Mapping out the buyer journey is a fun exercise if you realize that the map you're drawing is less like a subway map and more like a menu, to borrow a very apt metaphor from Epikonic CEO Thomas Wieberneit: People will select what they want and what they need, not what you think makes the best combination.
How do you build a "menu?" You don't do it by arbitrarily creating content -- you do it deliberately and with the customer in mind. Following are a few things to think about as you build a set of journey possibilities that will lead to a successful buying decision.
Marketers love personas, up to a point. They often focus on the top-tier decision makers -- the people who sign the contracts and OK deals. That makes sense, in a simplistic way, but it ignores the increasingly large number of people involved in the buying process.
That process does not start with a CEO or other C-level person noodling around on the Internet for content -- it starts with someone farther down the decision chain. Have you developed personas for those people?
After they've made a recommendation, they may hand it off to one or more senior people, and once they're convinced, it may go to a C-level executive for final sign-off. It might also get bounced back to the CIO for his sign-off, too. (This has implications for lead attribution. Last-contact attribution might suggest that the most important content in such a deal was IT-oriented, when in fact it served simply to confirm a decision that already had been made.)
Without a recognition of the people involved in the totality of the decision, there's no way to create a journey that's anywhere near satisfactory to every member of the decision-making team. Expand your consideration of who's on the team. It won't always mean different content, as the same content often applies to multiple roles, but it will result in richer and better-targeted content on the whole.
You can't control how people move through your content, but you can make suggestions that help them head in directions that lead toward a decision. To do that, be liberal with your links -- make sure there are off-ramps from content item to content item, and base them on both the subject of the link and the target persona of the content. A link about configure price quote software in an item of content aimed at sales managers should point to different content than a link about CPQ aimed at finance pros.
To do this effectively, you'll need to make an inventory of your content by subject, audience, and position in the decision-making process. This link index should be updated regularly and used religiously. Without it, your content team will be forced to provide links from memory, which will result in less-than-optimal content selection and links that aren't always aimed at the right audience.
From a usability point of view, make sure that this content isn't all behind registration. Linking to landing pages may jack up your internal metrics, but it will drive customers crazy. If they've already filled out a form once, don't make them do it again. You can track their movement through content through other, less-intrusive means.
Ideally, your buyers will enjoy their journey. To increase that likelihood, provide pertinent information in a format that works for them. Some may want white papers, others videos, other infographics or webinars or even in-person events.
In most cases, it will be a mixture (again, a mixture that you must provide without knowing exactly how buyers will move through it). The bad news is that this adds some complexity and time to the content-development process; the good news is that you won't be creating new content in most cases -- only repurposing it.
Try as you might, it's almost inevitable that there will be some elements of the journey that you'll overlook in your first iteration. It's also inevitable that customers' desires for steps along the journey will change. Realize that building a menu is not a set-and-forget exercise -- you'll need to evaluate content, revisit personas, and update the menu on a continuing basis.
You can't do that alone. Two great sources of help are your sales team (who will be exposed to gaps in the journey during the sales process) and the customers themselves. Asking a customer, "Is there any piece of content we could have provided to make your buying process easier?" is a simple way to reveal holes in your content plan.
Analytics also provides a glimpse into what may be missing from your content strategy. If there's a content piece that is the final stop before customers abandon their journey without buying, it's a signal either that content needs to be improved, or that you haven't provided the right next steps for the buyers.