Death of the Customer Journey – at the hands of Customer Centricity


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Few things in marketing sound better than “Customer Journey”. It combines elements of adventure and freedom – and embodies a desire to capture the choices enabled by such freedom. It implies linearity, narrative… and “customer-centricity”.

It is then not surprising that it took off so well. And that “Customer Journey Analytics” seems to be a hotter idea than other respectable flavors of the day (suffice to look at some eMarketer surveys, or this Manifesto by Gartner’s Marty Kihn), including the once unbeatable “Attribution”.

Why would I then be so cruel as to discuss “the death”, no less, of a great idea that we were only starting to hope would fly?

I certainly would not dare if I were not able to provide an alternative – you can be certain that I have as much interest as anyone in making marketers happy and hopeful. But I also know we are getting tired of the empty discourse around “marketing ROI”. The whole promise of digital that just does not seem to ever materialize – and this surely calls for some reflection.

Here’s another try at doing just that.

The Customer Journey is the Customer’s problem

Possible (WPP)’s Jason Carmel wrote brilliantly about this recently (“The path to purchase is really a random walk”). In essence, people have a life beyond your website or digital properties. No matter how big or old, your brand means little in the context of a customer’s daily life.

In other words, CUSTOMERS, not us, will define their journeys. They are their choices and every attempt to map them, measure them, tag them… is doomed to be limited (not the same as “useless”!) for many reasons:  

  • The digital space is still dominated by the web, originally built for documents and not transactions. We had to seriously overstretch it in order to accommodate “sessions”, ecommerce, payments, etc. And we are still paying for that overstretch. Particularly in terms of tracking and measurement. Whatever resembles a “people-based” environment had to be faked. And it shows.
  • The point above does not really mean that we would have ended elsewhere with a different ecosystem (as we may through “blockchain” environments). The closer we get to real people, the more unpredictable and emotional “touchpoints” become.
  • Journeys are not brand-centric, or supplier-centric (even when apparently constrained to a physical store in the offline world). Brands happen to be there when people need goods or services. And we need to get over it.
  • People want to be in control of their choices and their data. Just look at the proliferation of ad blockers, privacy browser plugins or alternative browsers. Upcoming regulatory changes are only a reflection of this.

So, yes, we want to have people-based marketing. But that will only work as long as “people” decide to dance along. And the non-written contract we have so far relied upon may just not be there anymore, if it ever was.

The Brand Journey IS your problem

We do have an obligation to make the most of our resources, and this calls for a good understanding of the “brand journey” you want to make available to potential and current customers. In essence, we want to be present at every possible stage of the customer’s decision-making process. This is very different from attempting to monopolize those stages.

These realizations led us to put together the Journey Distribution Flow in late 2016, which is nothing but an all-encompassing snapshot of any given brand’s “Digital DNA”.

The Journey Distribution Flow will also provide what we believe is a necessary update to the traditional sales and marketing funnel. Under this framework, both investments and gains/value (of any sort) fall within one of four buckets:

  1. Awareness: as in brand equity and trust.
  2. Intent: referring to what has been labeled the “zero moment of truth”, replacing the traditional consideration phase with a certain level of personal research and information gathering at the point where a need has been identified.
  3. Bond: clustering investments and returns tied to the actual moment when a relationship between consumers and brands is forged, either through a transaction (conversion) or any other means (e.g.: newsletter signup).
  4. Experience: referring to all post-bond efforts and cumulative value. This will include influencer campaigns, but also what has been referred to as “second moment of truth” or the actual customer experience of a given product or service.

As shown in the chart below, a second, transversal differentiation can be made between:

  1. What we “Provoke”, referring to paid investments, including PR or brand reach campaigns on Facebook (Awareness), Non-branded pay-per-click investments on Google AdWords (Intent), affiliate and other pay-per-conversion campaigns (Bond), and influencer campaigns (Experience)
  2. What we “Get” as a result of: i) recent, easily traceable efforts on the Provoke side; ii) long-term, hardly traceable efforts on the Provoke side; iii) accumulated value passing from one bucket to the next alongside the “journey” (e.g.: Intent becomes much more effective if it builds on the element of trust nurtured by Awareness), always understanding that Experience effectively closes the loop by feeding back into Awareness. This may be measured in either absolute terms (e.g.: Branded Traffic) or comparative and qualitative terms (e.g.: Share of Industry).

Diagram of the Journey Distribution Flow

Is the Journey Distribution Flow of any use to marketers, bearing in mind that it deals with aggregate data and only provides a frozen picture of your performance at a given point in time?

Absolutely yes. We have found it to provide the best possible framework for the definition of omnichannel metrics, as well as for the representation of the long-term impact that some investments have on specific, measurable outcomes.

It provides a useful way to:

  • Find gaps in a marketing strategy
  • Reallocate resources
  • Measure the real (short or long term) impact of marketing investments
  • Compare the relative health of a brand to that of its competitors

All of it without a dependency on cross-device IDs, “supercookies”, fingerprinting, onboarding, or any other “360-degree view of the customer” efforts happening behind the customer’s back.

Customer Centricity took us here

The best part of dismissing the Customer Journey (or media “attribution”, for that matter) is that it was caused by the very trend we have all agreed on: Customer Centricity.

It was, I believe, a problem of perception all along. As we enter a demand-led world, customers are more empowered every day. This does not mean that we get to see more of them, but the exact opposite: THEY get to dictate and control the data they expose to us and the decisions they make.

Whatever comes next has to take that assumption as a starting point. Hard as it is for traditional marketers used to dealing with voiceless audiences. Tough as it will be for digital marketers held on a short lease by their CFOs, conditioned by short-term returns and the most unrealistic of all promises: Direct ROI.

[This topic has been covered in greater depth by our recent SWEETSPOT POCKET GUIDE TO DIGITAL INTELLIGENCE (free download)]

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Sergio Maldonado

Founder & Chairman at Sweetspot. Author, speaker on analytics, marketing technology, privacy compliance. JD, LLM (Internet law). Once a dually-admitted lawyer. Father of three. I love surfing and cooking.

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