Upgrading The Sales Funnel: Using the Consumer Decision Journey for Marketing in the 21st Century

8 mins
#Marketing
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As a modern marketer, understanding the stages your customers go through leading up to a purchase is crucial. 

More importantly, you need to know how to target customers at each stage to maximize your conversion opportunity.

This sounds simple enough, but what might come as a surprise is the fact that most marketers base this targeting on a model of the customer journey that’s over 120 years old.

The traditional marketing funnel may be a solid concept, but it doesn’t quite align with the way that modern consumers make buying decisions.

If you’re looking to truly bring your marketing efforts into the 21st century, you’ll need a model that fits more closely with modern, internet-equipped consumers.

The good news is this:

There is one, and it’s called the Consumer Decision Journey, and it gives a much stronger understanding of current buyer behavior, fueling smarter marketing decisions.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at:

  • The traditional marketing funnel and how it compares to the modern buyer's journey
  • How the consumer decision journey provides some key updates to the traditional funnel model
  • The key changes marketers need to make to their marketing strategies to ensure they align with the modern consumer buying process

By the end of the article, you'll have a better idea of how the modern buyer makes purchase decisions, and be able too better target your marketing efforts all along the consumer's decision journey.

The Traditional Marketing Funnel

The traditional model of the customer buying process is one that many marketers are familiar with.

It’s referred to as a funnel because at each stage, your pool of potential customers (or from the customers perspective, the number of potential choices) narrows, like this:

The AIDA sales funnel model
Image Source

There are a few different ways that the sales funnel is conceptualized:

  • AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action)
  • TOFU/MOFU/BOFU (Top/Middle/Bottom of Funnel)
  • ACD (Awareness, Consideration, Decision)

Let’s take a look at one of the most common conceptualizations, the AIDA model:

  • Awareness - The Awareness stage of the AIDA funnel is where your customer becomes aware of your brand, often through some form of advertisement.
  • Interest - Should your product or service meet at least some of the customer’s requirements, you’ll have piqued their interest. At this stage, the customer is interested enough in your brand to conduct further research.
  • Desire/Deciding - Having conducted appropriate research, the customer has judged your offering as sufficient to solve their challenge and has moved from ‘liking’ your product to ‘wanting’ it.
  • Action - The customer forms an intention to purchase and at this point takes action, shopping around, engaging in a trial or demo, or proceeding to purchase.

Okay, so this sounds pretty solid; what’s the problem?

The Problem With The Sales Funnel Model

On the surface, this seems like a pretty robust model.

However, it’s not really how people buy a product, at least not anymore.

When the concept was first cooked up back in 1898 (yes, that long ago), it was probably pretty accurate.

One or two things have changed since then:

A department store in the 1930s
Image Source

1. Access to information

Fairly limited -> Essentially infinite thanks to the advent of the internet.

2. Information sources

Limited to immediate circle, sales agents, and newspaper and magazine articles. -> Expanded personal circle, and an infinite number of information sources at their fingertips.

3. Place of purchase

Primarily in-store. -> Primarily online. In-store purchases are researched online prior to visiting a physical location.

4. Marketing emphasis

Outbound, one-way marketing communication that aims to persuade the buyer. -> Demand-driven, inbound, two-way communication between buyers and sellers that aims to educate.

5. Recommendation sources

Small immediate circle of contacts. -> Includes a wider circle of friends and associates on social media platforms, as well as reviews, testimonials, and recommendations online.

How do these changes impact the funnel concept, then?

This model rests on the notion that consumers start their journey with all of their available options laid out for them (as you would in a store) and narrow it down from there.

The truth is that in today’s environment, by the time consumers reach the Awareness phase, they typically already know of a few key brands that can help solve their challenge.

It’s during the Consideration phase that brands actually enter (and exit) the consideration set, as consumers conduct further research.

This demonstrates that the funnel metaphor, while still a useful model, does have room for a few crucial updates, making way for the Consumer Decision Journey model.

Though the stages are still reasonably similar, the CDJ is a more accurate metaphor for modern buying processes.

Let’s take a look:

The Consumer Decision Journey Sales Model

What Is The Consumer Decision Journey?

Like the traditional marketing funnel, the consumer decision journey model is a four-stage process:

  1. Initial Consideration
  2. Active Evaluation
  3. Moment Of Purchase
  4. Post-Purchase Experience

While the stages of both models are essentially the same, the consumer decision journey model takes a more circular approach which represents how modern consumers consider and evaluate brands.

The consumer decision journey sales model
Image Source

Let’s dive into each phase and take a look at what they mean for marketers.

Initial Consideration

In the sales funnel metaphor, we make the assumption that consumers start their journey with all options at hand.

It turns out, after extensive research into buyer behavior, McKinsey found that this isn’t the case anymore.

Here’s the thing:

There are so many brands out there now trying to capture our attention that consumers are being overloaded with marketing campaigns.

As a result, a lot of this gets filtered out as ‘noise’, leading to a number of initial choices being overlooked in favor of the brands that stick out.

That, in turn, means that when consumers enter the first stage of the CDJ, Initial Consideration, they already have a few companies in mind that they know could be a good fit.

Essentially, the initial consideration stage does not include all possible options, but only the options that the customer already knows about based on previous experiences and interactions, recommendations, and general brand awareness.

What this means for marketers:

Brand awareness is critical.

Brand awareness matters: brands in the initial-consideration set can be up to three times more likely to be purchased eventually than brands that aren’t in it.

It’s a little easier said than done, of course, as every company is trying to build brand awareness, but it's a worthwhile endeavor nonetheless.

So, what can you do to build brand awareness?

  • Content, content, content - Create content that is informative and helpful, and gives the reader actionable value. That means they can go away with what they just learned and immediately apply it. You don’t need to focus on converting opportunities here, but rather, creating future opportunities by maximizing your brand awareness.
  • Guest content - You can improve your brand awareness simply by reaching more potential customers (that fit your target audience, of course). Find opportunities to work with other brands, create some super informative content, and let them know who created it.
  • Customer reviews - Around two-thirds of a customer’s decision today is based on consumer-driven marketing, the likes of product reviews, recommendations, and previous brand interactions. Offer promotions and incentives to receive customer reviews, and leverage the power of testimonials. 
  • Brand awareness video - Video is one of the most powerful ways to get information across quickly, educating your audience without asking for too much of their time. Creating impactful videos that buyers associate with your brand is a great way to stay on their radar throughout the consumer decision journey.
  • Social media profiles - Your company should be active on the social media platforms that are most relevant to your target audience. Notice we said active, not just present. That means engaging in posts that are relevant to your product or service, or that might share a similar audience.
  • Influencer marketing - This form of marketing is all about tapping into existing, engaged audiences. Find influencers who have a following that closely represents your ideal customer and explore opportunities to expand your brand awareness here.
  • Brand story & positioning - Brand awareness extends beyond your customer simply knowing who you are to knowing who you are. That means developing an engaging brand story that flows throughout all of your content, copy, and social media profiles.

Active Evaluation

The traditional marketing funnel would see consumers narrow down their choice during the Consideration phase as they evaluate their options and cull less suitable contenders.

Consider how this evaluation takes place. 

Back in 1898, consumers would have been limited to magazine or newspaper ads and word of mouth for research.

From there, they would have gone into a store, looked at all of their options, and gone home to mull over the few good ones that stood out.

Today, this research takes place online.

As a result, new brands may enter the consumer’s consideration set through effective marketing tactics, meaning that the number of options under evaluation actually has the potential to increase during this phase.

For most buyers, brands will enter and exit the consideration set as they evaluate, up to the point of decision.

What this means for marketers:

Even companies with the greatest brand awareness won’t be in everyone’s initial consideration set. 

That means your marketing campaigns should include efforts targeted toward converting customers in this stage of the CDJ. 

You’ll need to perform research specific to your industry and buyers to determine the critical points of entry and exit, and determine which of these strategies fit best:

  • Google Ads - Identify relevant search terms that customers use when in the evaluation stage.
  • Social Media Ads - Ever researched one brand and then a few hours later seen an ad on Facebook for a competitor? This is the perfect opportunity to get your brand in the fray and knock your competition out.
  • Formal Product Reviews - These types of reviews are fantastic forms of organic content with which you can aim to rank for relevant search phrases. Find a relevant, high-authority site that could post a comparison review of your product against a competitor, and make sure you’re a winner!
  • Customer reviews - During the evaluation stage, customers are actively performing research. A major element of this research is based on other customers’ previous experiences. Incentivize your buyers to submit product reviews on Google and your social media platforms, as well as relevant review sites.
  • Testimonials - Testimonials are absolute gold for evaluation stage content. Identify customers who could be brand ambassadors and ask them for a customer testimonials. If you can capture it on video, even better.

It’s worth noting that even if you are in a customer's initial consideration set, you can still be knocked out by competitor brands that have excellent Evaluation-stage marketing. 

Moment Of Purchase

The final stage of the AIDA model, Action, is where a purchase takes place, and is a natural progression from the Desire phase.

In the CDJ, active evaluation takes place right up until the moment of purchase, which is defined as the point where the transaction takes place, rather than the decision to purchase.

That’s because up to 40% of customers change their minds at the point of purchase.

There are a few reasons for this. 

For many in-store buyers, the visual dimension is hugely important to the decision-making process.

Things like packaging and display, as well as actually seeing a product in action, are highly influential.

For online buyers (quickly becoming the majority), the physical dimension is less important to the final decision, however several aspects of the online experience contribute, including:

  • On-page reviews
  • Recommendations
  • Comparisons

Not only that, but purchasing online takes far less commitment than in shopping in-store (i.e. you don’t have to physically drive there).

Therefore, it’s a lot easier to back out of a decision at the last minute and continue research, in the exact same place where you very nearly made a purchase.

What this means for marketers:

If you’re selling a product in physical stores, you need to make sure that displays align with the brand your customers experience online.

This includes your product packaging, positioning in-store, and displays, and should be aligned with your other CDJ-focused marketing efforts, such as the use of relevant customer testimonials.

In the online space, it means reducing page bounce rates by focusing on UX enhancements, improving product photography, and finding opportunities to highlight customer reviews or testimonials at the point of purchase.

Post-Purchase Experience

The final stage in the consumer decision journey is the post-purchase experience.

This stage is more or less neglected in the traditional funnel model (though some append a post-purchase stage to the AIDA model).

This a key distinction between this sales funnel and the CDJ, emphasizing the cyclical nature of buying and the potential for recurring sales.

The post-purchase experience is most strongly influenced by the experience the customer has with the product itself, and how well it meets their needs and expectations.

However, this isn’t the only factor.

Your after-sales service is a large contributor to your customers’ post-purchase experience, and this rings true even in product sales which may not require ‘service’ in the traditional form.

With many product sales now taking place online, companies have the opportunity to capture email addresses and provide post-purchase value, such as content relevant to the product purchased.

The post-purchase experience is crucial to marketers because it drives the customer loyalty loop (the potential to activate further sales from the same customer), as well as their likelihood to become a brand advocate

The latter possibility, the potential for your customer to recommend your product to others, is vital.

Why?

Because a surprising two-thirds of buying decisions are based on the reviews and recommendations of other previous customers.

What this means for marketers:

There are three crucial aspects of the post-purchase experience that feed into the customer loyalty loop.

  1. Your product itself - Listen to customer feedback, seek to make constant improvements, and don’t forget that it’s your product that sells your product, not your marketing.
  2. Your after-sales service model - Even if your product doesn’t necessarily need a ‘service’ rep, after-sales service can still include the likes of check-in emails asking how they are finding your product, additional product recommendations, and helpful content that is relevant to customers who’ve already purchased.
  3. Your customer-driven marketing - Focus heavily on obtaining strong customer testimonials, case studies, reviews, and recommendations, and you’ll boost your brand awareness and your ability to jump into the consideration set during the evaluation phase.

Conclusion 

As you can see, the CDJ and the traditional funnel model share a number of similarities, and the phases are essentially the same.

The CDJ however provides a more accurate description of the journey modern buyers go through when buying.

This, in turn, allows you to make a few smart adjustments to their campaigns in order to better align with their customers.


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