The sales funnel is sometimes called the buyers journey. Marketers often neglect the reality of reputation near the bottom of the funnel. When the time comes for the consumer to pull the trigger they often bail due to inferior search results. This article outlines the steps in the journey and how to use search rankings efficiently.
Unlike in a brick-and-mortar store, where our own observations about an item give us a relatively clear idea of whether it will fit our needs, the online marketplace is devoid of physical connections. Consumers must rely on other, less tangible sources of information, including the perception of general brand trustworthiness, and the semi-trustworthy experiences of others in the form of ratings and other forms of opinion.
Getting these sales is important — U.S. e-commerce sales totaled over $340 billion in 2015. Year over year, online sales have increased near or above 15%. Consumers want to spend their money online, but the competition to send them the consumers way is getting fiercer than ever.
Years ago competition was far less intense because for the most part competitive advantage was mostly about physical real estate. Today it's about online real estate and reputation. Things have moved from atoms to bits.
Online buyers go through three stages before they purchase an item. In the marketing world, this is known as the buyer’s journey. It looks like this:
Step One: Awareness
This is the broadest stage of the buyer’s journey, when perhaps they don’t even yet know what it is they need. This is the educational part of the journey. It may begin with a general search query, such as “dishwasher making a weird sound,” or “why do my herbs keep dying?”.
Searches in the Awareness stage determine what it is the buyer will eventually need to purchase. The opportunity is present, but it is not yet defined. Search results are generally broad, helping the searcher narrow in on what it is they need.
Step Two: Consideration
Once the buyer is aware of the problem and the need for a solution, he or she begins the process of finding the item or service that fulfills that need. By this point, they’re educated on what they’re looking for, but they likely don’t know much about what constitutes a best fit. Search queries at this stage are more targeted (for example: “waterproof eyeliner that’s easy to remove” or “do i have to go to a Porsche dealer to get my oil changed”).
In the Consideration stage, buyers are weighing their options. They may turn to a variety of sources to learn more, including product pages, expert guides, and comparison charts. They’re open to buying something, but they’re not yet ready to make a purchase.
Step Three: Decision
By step three in the buyer’s journey, the consumer has zeroed in on what they want or need. It’s at this point that they begin to really evaluate who is offering that item or service to them, and who they want to spend their money with. This is where they seek out information on how specific products fit their needs, how other people have experienced the product, and how reliable a particular company is. Consumers at this stage employ a variety of online services to answer these questions, such as product and company reviews, demos, and testimonials.
For the search queries noted in Stage One, the full journey would look like this:
- Dishwasher making a weird sound
- Mechanics in my area
- Review of XY Plumbing Company
- Why do my herbs keep dying?
- Best herbs for low-light kitchens
- Home Depot seeds versus Lowes seeds
In both examples, searches start broad and get more specific as they progress.
How to Hack the Buyer’s Journey
As a retailer, you may be thinking that you’re only responsible for efficiently marketing in stage three of the buyer’s journey, when they’re finally ready to pull the trigger and purchase an item. In actuality, if you want to do an effective job you’re going to have to start long before then.
Each stage of the buyer’s journey has one thing in common: search queries. Whether broad or targeted, the terms people use that eventually lead them to your product are important. Consumer searches develop organically, but they follow a distinct pattern. At the discovery stage queries are broad, usually in laymen’s terms, and aimed at defining a problem and solution. At the consideration stage, keywords become more specific to particular industries. And at the decision stage, keywords have narrowed in on specific brands.
In order to adequately represent products or services at all stages of the buyer’s journey, you’ve got to ask yourself three questions:
1. What problem am I offering the solution for?
Every product or service exists because it provides a solution for a problem. (Whether that problem is big enough to bring in a significant amount of revenue is another story.) You should already know what your item is a solution for — after all, it’s why your company exists in the first place.
2. Who is my audience?
Once you know what problem your product or service offers the solution to, you can then ask yourself who might have that problem. If you’re a dog trainer, your audience is going to be, first and foremost, people with dogs, and then people with untrained puppies or dogs with behavior issues. If you’re an international arms dealer selling shipping containers full of AR15's your audience is probably far more targeted. Of course if you're an arms dealer you've probably discovered Google won't let you advertise on Google Adwords, nor will Facebook, so you'll really have to rely on search engine optimization and probably reputation management too.
3. What is the nature of my industry?
There are differences in the buyer’s journey across industries due to the fact that the problems are different, the solutions are different, the audience is different, and the final product is different. To compete in your industry, you need to know what the guidelines of the competition are and where you stand out. Ask yourself: Why is my product better than my competitors’? What am I offering that nobody else is? Why is my product worth what it is?
Making SEO Work for You
After you’ve defined the answers to the above questions, you can start researching what keyword searches are most likely to apply at each stage. A tool like Pagezii’s SEO Keyword Analyzer or Google AdWord’s Keyword Planner will help you analyze the effectiveness of particular search terms (again, not so much if you sell guns), including how users are applying it to their search, what they are expecting to find, and how likely you might be to rank highly for that term based on your competition.
Make a list of the search terms that best apply to your product or service at each stage of the buyer’s journey, and then get to work optimizing your site for those terms. This involves creating content (text, images, videos, etc.) that highlight those terms and accurately labeling, tagging, and using organic SEO outreach to get other sites to link to your pages where appropriate. Search engine optimization is obviously more complex than that and will be outlined in later blog posts. The better you customize your site to apply to particular queries, the better chance you have of appearing at one or more of the stages that lead to a completed purchase.
The online marketplace is incredibly competitive, growing steadily in both sales and retailers vying for those sales. Peter Thiel had a good point when he wrote that competition is bad for business and we agree. But most companies must simply deal with it. So efficiency is the name of the game and the buyers journey helps target marketing resources effectively.
While the buyer’s journey can be broken down into three distinct stages, it’s not a concrete science. People often base purchasing decisions on emotion, not information.
In order to achieve that special edge, you’ve got to appeal to consumers outside of the search engines as well. This means maintaining a strong, likable presence on social media, responding appropriately to negative reviews when they occur, and properly conveying the values that matter to your potential pool of buyers. The winners in the world of e-commerce are those that have the most — and the most positive — brand awareness, connecting with consumers on a level that cannot be defined through search engine marketing (SEM) alone.