IMC evolution: Sales funnel to customer journey

(Images/models courtesy of Fleishman-Hillard)

I’m starting to see a change in marketing mentality. Are you seeing it? It’s happening slowly — change is never a quick thing — but it’s popping up here and there. Part of it is an increased adoption of the IMC mentality. And understanding that the consumer only sees one brand position from his/her perspective so the company needs to be united on all fronts internally. That’s an extremely important business culture change that is moving at glacier speed, but at least it’s moving and we’re starting to see more and more clients nod heads when we talk about an integrated approach.

The second part is one I’m seeing gain more momentum and begin to move faster than the IMC shift. And that’s an evolved POV around the traditional business sales funnel — I like to call it the customer journey and have heard others call it that as well, including colleagues at Fleishman-Hillard who introduced the idea to me. Mack Collier described it in this post earlier this week as a shift from a product to a need mentality. IOW, well, here’s how he actually worded it when talking about a brand’s blog as a selling tool:

“Most companies create blog content that directly promotes its products, because that’s what it wants to sell.  But for the most part, the content we WANT to see is content that shows us how the product will fit into our lives, or solve a problem for us.”

Building relationships in the pre-consideration stage

See, what Mack has hit on here is a a valuable argument to bring up to the social media skeptics if you’re looking for one. Traditionally, the sales funnel started with a mass marketing campaign — maybe a TV ad or newspaper buy — that put the product out there for people to see. From there, companies saturated the market with their message in an attempt to make their product top of mind to a consumer who might be shopping for that type of item. Then, once the consumer actually made the purchase, the company wanted their information so they could continue marketing to them, sending them updates and keep the brand top of mind for that person. I may have left out a step or two, but you get the gist.

What marketing couldn’t do through the traditional sales funnel was reach the consumer in the pre-consideration stage. At least, they couldn’t do that intentionally. And here’s a way that social media provides us an opportunity we never had before. Instead of owning their product, what if companies sought to own the need their consumers have. Or as my colleague Lauren Fernandez always says, “own your industry.”

This could manifest itself in a number of ways. Mack uses the example of sharing with consumers how to become a better basketball player and how their product meets that need than just promoting a new basketball. By searching social networks and online communities for topics like basketball, basketball skills, coaching basketball and more, there’s an opportunity to find prospects in the pre-consideration stage and begin talking to them there. Another example I like is what Ford has done with the Ford Fiesta movement. They started introducing that car to consumers a year before it was even available. And the conversation was about finding out what people wanted in a car and how the Focus might fulfill that need rather than just promoting two years of low-interest financing. Scott Monty and team went much deeper than that.

A third example would be a mattress company. Through the old sales funnel, the focus would be promoting the product and why it’s better than competitor models. But through the consumer journey, companies can use social media to form a relationship with the customer when he/she is just thinking about problems with sleep, i.e. insomnia. Starting the relationship then allows the brand to help the customer diagnose the issue(s) he/she is facing, connect the person with a community of “others like me” who have dealt with the same situation and then to be relevant to the consumer once he/she decides that a new mattress might help solve the need. At this point during the purchase stage, the combined 3rd-party endorsement and company endorsement of their product we’re used to seeing in the sales funnel model hopefully team up to lead to a purchase. But it’s the relationship-building in the pre-consideration stage — made possible by social media — that made the brand top of mind for the consumer.

Customer or ambassador

So how about after the product has been purchased? How does the relationship proceed? From a traditional sales funnel POV, once the customer buys, we hopefully have his/her information. He/she may even be part of a loyalty program and either way, there will likely be some type of consistent communication going out to the customer post-purchase (e-mail, direct mail, etc.). There is absolutely value in this approach. If anything, it keeps the brand top of mind for the consumer and builds on the relationship that was started when the sales transaction took place.

But we can do better by following the customer journey model and our customers expect us to. Customers don’t just want a transactional relationship with the brands they buy from today. Service is under a microscope we’ve never seen before and those who take the extra steps make the extra sales. Just ask Tony Hsieh at Zappos how focusing the company’s culture around customer service has worked for him. Or maybe ask Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who paid almost $1 billion to buy Tony’s company in 2009.

Following the customer journey model allows companies to provide that expected level of service and maintain a more-than-transactional relationship after the product has been bought. Imagine the difference between buying a new car and only hearing from the selling company via the mail and when you go in for an oil change versus a brand that uses its social media channels — and e-mail — to follow up with you post-purchase and make sure the experience is everything you thought it would be when you walked off the showroom floor and they handed you the keys.

What’s the difference? Well, it’s simple really. The former results in a sale. The latter has the potential to result in an ambassador. There are all kinds of stats out there about the value of a brand ambassador. I heard one company in a presentation yesterday propose their brand ambassadors lead to as much as 5X more spending (through purchase and recommendation) than a customer who isn’t activated as an ambassador. Whether those numbers are high or low, we do know from research groups like Nielsen that consumers trust 3rd-party recommendations much more than they do brand messaging. So the value is there, even if we have trouble agreeing on how to quantify it.

The evolution from funnel to journey is an important one. Even the terminology symbolizes the change companies need to make — from key messaging to relationships. For social media to work to its full potential, we as IMCers have to change the way we view our jobs and for some, have viewed them for years. That’s tough when almost every company you can find has a department called Product and has been conditioned to message the product. But it’s the right move to make, just like moving to an IMC approach is the best way to team up internally and connect with the consumer. Changing culture is tough. But I’m starting to see companies come along for the journey.

  • Are you seeing companies make the transition to IMC?
  • How would the customer journey idea go over with your team, clients?
  • What’s the biggest obstacle to change you face in your department or with your clients?

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