“In the era of machine learning, intelligent assistants, and artificial intelligence, the customer journey is often an afterthought,” writes Adam Audette (@audette), Senior Vice President of SEO at Merkle. Marketers might take umbrage with that statement. After all, their whole focus is on the customer journey; which today increasingly means understanding the digital path to purchase. “Sure,” Audette concedes, “we’re accelerating in our ability to leverage data to create ever more personalized advertising, and we’re making strides developing algorithms to target individual people, not just audience segments.” His concern is that we are focusing too much on technology and not enough on people. He asks, “Are we forgetting that human beings (you and I) are at the heart of all this technology? The customer journey has never been more important, if we are to capitalize on the promise of personalized advertising. But how?”
Losing the Consumer the Digital Path to Purchase
Like Audette, Louis DeJianne, director of consumer goods, apparel and retail for UPS, is concerned the customer (i.e., a real person) can get lost on the digital path to purchase. He explains, “The retail and logistics industries have developed a number of terms to define how consumers purchase products. Single channel, multichannel and omnichannel are just a few of these buzzwords. While these terms have their place, they can contribute to a disconnect between merchants and their customers.” The digital path to purchase can be complicated. Google analysts note, “The path to purchase, from start to finish, is rarely linear — it’s more akin to a scavenger hunt.” Marketers are trying to develop strategies that ensure the consumer doesn’t get lost on his or her buying journey. That’s where technology can help. Google analysts note, “Moments of intent don’t exist in a vacuum.” Cognitive computing systems can help marketers discover and leverage the context in which “moments of intent” are taking place so that the consumer doesn’t get lost on his purchasing journey. Google analysts point to seven suggestions emerging from Luth Research’s opt-in panel. They are:
1. Consider location and convenience. “In a world where consumers expect to have everything at their fingertips, brands and retailers must offer flexible delivery and pickup options to clinch the sale. … Consider targeting by location to reach people not only while they’re on the go but also based on where they are. Highlight your delivery options in your messaging and be sure to show your product inventory online so that customers can easily see what’s in stock and where.”
2. Count on an informed consumer. “Ads don’t always have to center on a transaction. Be helpful throughout the research process and establish your brand as a trusted resource early on.”
3. Expect that search will lead to discovery. “As you refine your understanding of the customer journey, consider the moments you want to capture at every step of the way. Think beyond the last click.”
4. Think about complementary categories. “Think about your customers holistically and know that one seemingly unrelated search could trigger interest in your brand. Consider partnering with related brands in different (but connected) verticals to reach similar audiences.”
5. Prepare for the unexpected. “Keep an eye on the customer journey and maximize your presence in those places where people may change course and consider related products.”
6. Don’t underestimate the power of reviews. “Embrace the importance of ratings and consumer perception online. Consider building these into your ads and messaging.”
7. Remember the world is mobile-first. “Recognize the role that mobile plays in the research process. Orient your messaging and targeting plans around a cross-device customer.”
Those are great suggestions, but, obviously, some type of artificial intelligence program is going to carry them out. The human touch has to go into the front-end planning so the technology can help ensure a customer doesn’t get lost on his or her consumer journey. Audette explains, “The customer journey sits uniquely at the heart of content strategy. Paid media does not create the customer journey (although it can influence it). SEO does not create the customer journey, although it too can influence it. The customer journey is, to simplify, uniquely created by the content experiences that digital teams design and create. This is where new opportunities lie, because the content experience should be informed by the same rich data insights that drive outbound marketing campaigns.” Those rich data insights can best be generated by cognitive computing platforms. Audette states, “Content that is created using rich audience insights and includes personalized elements will result in higher engagement and sharing.”
To the Consumer, Shopping is Just Shopping
Although today’s consumer has technology at his or her fingertips, DeJianne points out, “To consumers, it’s just shopping.” If retailers and marketers can grasp that simple truth, they will be better situated to ensure the consumer doesn’t get lost on the digital path to purchase. DeJianne explains, “The convergence of the online and brick-and-mortar worlds creates an exciting — and challenging — environment for retailers. Some technologies considered cutting-edge just a few years ago are now commonplace or less revolutionary than expected.” The touchstone for consumers on the modern path to purchase is the smartphone. Google analysts assert, “When people shop, their smartphone is now their go-to advisor and assistant. For retailers, this means big opportunities to be there and be useful in shoppers’ micro-moments.” They go on to explain, “Six in 10 internet users start shopping on one device but continue or finish on a different one, and 82% of smartphone users say they consult their phones on purchases they’re about to make in a store. They get ideas, look up information, and make decisions, all from their smartphone anytime, anywhere.” DeJianne agrees that mobile strategies are important. He explains:
“Shopping can be strolling through a shopping district, searching online or stumbling across something new or different on social media. The product’s point of origin is less important than a customer’s ability to find and easily purchase it. Personalized experiences can create value-driven experiences, which mitigate price differences. Providing a single, seamless experience that reinforces the merchant’s brand promise and desired customer experience is critical. … The convenience factor is key as on-the-go mobile shoppers seek efficiency at every turn. Mobile coupons and high-quality product images are two of the most important app features, shoppers say.”
The digital path to purchase has clearly had a significant (and negative) impact on the retail sector. But not all the news is bad. Google analysts note, “Foot traffic in retail stores has declined by 57% in the past five years, but the value of every visit has nearly tripled. What’s happening? Mobile is driving local.” Their bottom line is this, “In this mobile-fueled shopping landscape, the retailers that thrive see the opportunity to be there and be useful for shoppers in what we call micro-moments — those intent-rich moments when people turn to their smartphones or other devices to know, go, do, or buy something.”
Whether shopping online or in-store, today’s consumer is likely on the digital path to purchase (thanks primarily to mobile technology). In order to ensure consumers don’t get lost as they wander the non-linear path to purchase, retailers and marketers need to understand what consumers want and when they want it. To be there in those micro-moments of decision, retailers and marketers need to leverage the computer speed of cognitive computing platforms. These platforms can help develop and execute thoughtful digital advertising campaigns. Audette concludes, “We’re not far from being able to truly capitalize on the promise of people-based marketing at scale. As we drive toward this vision, it’s critical that marketers keep an eye on content strategy and its critical place at the center of the customer journey.”
 Adam Audette, “People in the Era of Machine Learning,” The Huffington Post, 20 June 2017.
 Louis DeJianne, “Shopping Redefined,” Longitudes, 7 June 2017
 Staff, “7 Ways to Win Consumers on Their Path to Purchase,” Think with Google, October 2016.
 Staff, “How Mobile Has Redefined the Consumer Decision Journey for Shoppers,” Think with Google, July 2016.