Direct marketers need to understand their customer's buying journey

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It's a brave new world out there for direct marketers, and it's being largely influenced by a prospect's purchase path. Brent Adamson, managing director-advisory services at CEB, said that by the time a prospective customer reaches out to a company, they are already 60% along that path. That means they have already done a significant amount of research. They also know the options and the market; the product they are reviewing; and, likely, your competitors' products, too. They might even know pricing. In other words, prospects know companies even if the companies don't know much about their prospects. But that must change, said Sheryl Pattek, VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. “A lot of your success depends on how much insight you have into customer behavior,” Pattek said. “And you get insight by building a decision tree in your marketing automation system. So, if a prospect does this, then you do that. If he doesn't take any action in seven days, then you do another thing.” Unlike in the old days, when companies controlled the information landscape, today's marketers need to understand the buyer's journey—most of which happens before any actual contact between sales staff and the prospect. That journey is characterized by three key moments, Pattek said:
  • A decision to take action in response to a business need;
  • An Internet-based research period or contact with a company;
  • Embarkation along a more traditional sales path.
For marketers, Pattek said, the crucial step is stage two, when prospective customers take to their computers to learn everything they can about their problem and how to solve it. Pattek said smart marketers work to litter potential buyers' paths with actionable data to help solve those problems, then devise ways to contact them when they are most open to receiving marketing messages. Automation and metrics are key to this process, said Martin Doettling, CMO at Webtrends Inc. “Marketing used to be a pure cost center; but, with today's metrics, the impact of marketing on the top and bottom lines can be measured,” Doettling said. “The accountability of the CMO has fundamentally changed. It used to be winning brand and creative awards; now, it's about how he can drive leads and conversions, and augment the sales process.” With the rise of digital marketing, testing has also been greatly enhanced to measure both the effectiveness of content and the precision of targeting. “I tend to use the words "personalization' and "engagement,' ” Doettling said, of the targeting process. “What customers are looking for today online is digital engagement. When a prospect comes to a website, they don't expect to be anonymous. In fact, prospects and customers expect that a site can interpret the intent of their searches and offer content based on that intent as well as their profiles and previous purchases.” Understanding the buyer's journey and responding effectively produces better sales enablement, Pattek said. “You score people based on how engaged they are with you, and [that] influences how you respond,” she said. “And scoring can be integrated now, so you can keep track of every move they make, whether via mobile, on websites or through email. The only things that are not quite there yet are the social platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, but they're almost there.” The trend toward customer education is also changing the nature of content marketing. “There's so much content out there now, and the average adult attention span is eight seconds long,” Pattek said. “Content should be interactive and in snackable pieces to draw prospects in a little bit at a time.” When it is time to actually make contact, the two most cost-effective ways are email and banner advertising, Pattek said. Ultimately, she said, understanding the buyer's journey and all it entails is key to successful direct marketing. “We're still in the early-adopter stage,” she said. “Tech companies were the early adopters, but I think in the next 24-to-36 months we'll see this idea going mainstream.” Christopher Hosford contributed to this article.
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