If there is one concept marketers need to embrace in 2019, it's this: The customer journey is no longer a straightforward path from A to B. Today, brands are marketing to connected consumers, and their customer journeys are complex, paradoxical and fraught with gaps that brands must fill.
Here's the problem: Most brands don't have a clear understanding of how to fill these gaps. This is understandable; after all, the digital landscape and the way consumers interact with it evolves quickly, and there has historically been a lack of research to explain why connected consumers behave the way they do.
That's why my team and I at Zen Media decided to undertake some research of our own. We conducted a study on the connected consumer's customer journey and found that there are four main paradoxes inextricably bound in the customer journey, and with that, four correspondent gaps -- or opportunities -- for brands to fill.
Paradox 1: Independent, yet interconnected
In our interviews with study participants, we found that connected consumers are extremely independent and in control of their own customer journeys. Even so, they still rely heavily on other consumers, as well as brands and products, to affirm and define this independence.
Consider one of our study participants, Nicole, who was looking for a high-backed armchair to help with her neck and back pain.
First, Nicole conducted online research for top 10 lists and for reviews of armchairs that mentioned her specific type of neck pain. Ultimately, Nicole told us she ended up with more than 50 options, which she organized herself into categories, including price, color, neck support and back pain relief.
Gap 1: Create highly personalized, curated content
Nicole created her own highly personalized content so that she could compare a large number of products and ensure she was purchasing the best one to fill her specific need.
And Nicole was hardly the only participant who reported doing this. Personalization and ease of comparison are hugely important to the connected consumer, especially when they're considering a large or luxury purchase. In fact, Salesforce reports that 80 percent of consumers say the experience a company provides is just as important as the products and services.
Brands can capitalize on this gap by offering customers easy, built-in ways to compare brands and products and by continuing to emphasize highly personalized content.
Paradox 2: Digitally native, yet highly hands-on
Even though many of today's connected consumers are digital natives, they're not abandoning brick-and-mortar retail -- far from it. According to RetailDive, there has been major growth in store concepts throughout 2018. Traditional retailers such as IKEA and Barnes & Noble have announced adding smaller-format stores to their brick-and-mortar offerings, with several e-commerce sites, such as Casper and Glossier, unveiling plans to establish or expand physical stores.
This tracks with what we heard from our respondents. A majority of the study participants we spoke to said they regularly visit brick-and-mortar stores, although it's more often a single step along the purchase journey, rather than how they make their actual purchase.
Instead, they're rewarding forward-thinking businesses that can integrate their digital and offline presences. Think of innovations such as online ordering with in-store pickup, self-service kiosks and mobile apps that help consumers access coupons or locate products while within a physical store.
Gap 2: Bridge the online and offline consumer experience
Customers already hold powerful technology in their hands -- retailers simply need to find ways to capitalize on that technology. Chat-based tools accessed through mobile devices can offer customized rewards and messaging, summon in-store support and offer real-time product information. According to marketing and research firm SmartHQ, 50 percent of millennials report that they prefer to shop in-store, as long as it's an engaging, seamless experience.
Retailers don't have to rely solely on mobile, however. Many larger retailers and mall operators are using the internet of things infrastructure to include built-in kiosks that allow customers to order out-of-stock items, search for products and more.
Paradox 3: Idealistic, yet discriminating
Thanks to the transparency (both real and imagined) created by social media, connected consumers are holding brands to extremely high standards -- not just for quality but for service and social responsibility, too.
But while they hold high ideals for the brands they engage with, they're also increasingly suspicious of brands' authenticity. As one study participant told us, "I want a brand that doesn't just 'talk the talk,' but chooses to 'walk the walk.'"
Gap 3: Strive for authenticity
As our study participant said, brands need to "walk the walk" and show their commitment to their professed values and demonstrate their authenticity in incontrovertible ways.
Connected consumers are not shy about calling out brands for hypocrisy, so before hopping into a conversation on values, ethics or social justice, ensure you're communicating in a principled, honest way and not dressing up your brand as a virtual, marketable agent of social activism.
Paradox 4: Gods, yet all too human
Today's consumers wield almost god-like power when it comes to purchasing. They have access to an unprecedented amount of information, as well as a massive number of choices of products and services. They are no longer passive consumers, but active drivers.
Yet, the result of this power, according to our research, is that connected consumers regularly feel overwhelmed, guilty and not confident they're making the right purchase decision.
Gap 4: Respect consumers' power, while alleviating their pain points
Brands can help consumers resolve these conflicting issues by easing customers' anxieties with streamlined online interfaces, "try before you buy" models and live-chat assistance. Creating a smooth, easy purchase process can go a long way toward earning the connected consumer's loyalty. In fact, the quality of that purchase process is just as important as the quality of your actual product or service.
Marketing to the connected consumer is a complex undertaking that must take into consideration the many paradoxes that characterize their behavior. Once brands understand these paradoxes, they can effectively give connected consumers the authentic, personalized experience that they crave.