Consumer Decision Journey: Decline of the Funnel

That the Internet and its social media offspring have radically transformed how companies should be marketing themselves is obvious and undeniable. Equally undeniable is the growing potential of content merchandising in this shift.

One of the more articulate overviews of this transformation is found in a Harvard Business Review article by David C. Edelman, “Branding in the Digital Age: You’re Spending Your Money in All the Wrong Places.

It’s an insightful study on how our marketing world has been rocked, and how by taking an integrated approach to content merchandising–essentially the multi-tiered approach we advocate–companies can engage more closely with their clients, improve their brand awareness and experience, and increase sales.

The Marketing Funnel Metaphor: Going, Going, Gone

The traditional metaphor of marketing has long been the funnel. In gaining brand awareness, companies would target a disproportionate amount of the marketing budget at the wide mouth of the funnel where consumers, at the very earliest stage of their decision-making process, would consider several brand options for a purchase.

Companies would invest again, to smaller degrees, at various consumer touch points along the funnel where they could engage with and influence consumers and again at the point of purchase, at the narrow opening of the funnel. But the points at which companies could influence a consumer’s choice were relatively limited and easily defined.

And because marketers relied on traditional “push” media (television, radio, and print) to communicate with their consumers, they effectively had monopolistic control over their own messaging.

Unless you’ve been busy the past decade trying to remember your AOL email password and playing Pac-Man at your neighborhood tavern, the limits of this metaphor in today’s marketing world should be obvious. The marketing funnel has been turned on its side.

The marketing funnel has rotated.

The Funnel’s Demise: Web 2.0 and Social Media

Enter into the equation the Internet and social media. Say goodbye to the funnel. (And while you’re at it, stop thinking your grade school tornado-in-a-bottle science project is still cool. It’s done.)

Consumers now have virtual access to seemingly unlimited sources of brand and product information, the vast majority of which is entirely out of the control of the brand: review sites, blogs, peer input, and so on.

And when purchasing products, consumers now enter what Edelman refers to as the consumer decision journey (CDJ): a more dynamic and fluid process than the linear journey that the traditional funnel implied.

Consumer Decision Journey: A Dynamic Process

The four distinct phases of the CDJ–consider, evaluate, buy, and the post-purchase phase, enjoy, advocate, bond–offer a vast array of touch points at which consumers can be influenced.

These new elements mean that at any step along the way, new brands can easily be introduced to the journey. Most points of influence are outside the control of the brand, such as tweets, product reviews, personal recommendations, blogs, and so on.

Companies, therefore, must be prepared to identify which touch points they can continue to affect if they want to win and retain customers.
The consumer decision journey, illustrated.
This is where a multi-tiered approach to content merchandising comes in.

Case Studies on Multi-Tiered Content Merchandising

Edelman offered a case study in which a television manufacturer, in order to determine precisely how consumers acted along the CDJ, put a group of shoppers on task to purchase new televisions (in the full version of the article, now behind a paywall).

Shoppers had, in Edelman’s words, a “highly fractured experience” in their journey to purchase a TV. In their evaluation phase, their first points of contact in their research were overwhelmingly and other retail sites that offered peer reviews, product comparison tools, and in-depth product descriptions. But as they continued into this phase, the shoppers reported extreme frustration.

According to Edelman, “Consumers reported that every brand’s model numbers, product descriptions, promotion availability, and even pictures seemed to change as they moved across sites and into stores. About a third of the shoppers who had considered a specific TV brand online during the evaluate stage walked out of a store during the buy phase, confused and frustrated by inconsistencies.”

Edelman continues: “This costly disruption of the journey across the category made [it] clear that the company’s new marketing strategy had to deliver an integrated experience from consider to buy and beyond.”

The solution? The company built a new content development and management system to ensure consistency and standards across all platforms. In other words, they instituted a multi-tiered approach to their content build.

The results? For a new product launch, the TV became a top seller on Amazon and the company’s best performer in retail stores.

Edelman’s conclusion?

“Uncoordinated publishing can stall the decision journey… in companies where the marketing function takes on the role of publisher-in-chief–rationalizing the creation and flow of product-related content–consumers develop a clearer sense of the brand and are better able to articulate the attributes of specific products.”

By taking this approach, you will, in Edelman’s words, “also become more agile with [your] content,” able to repurpose it for other media tools, like training and sales videos, that will support the consumer decision journey.

The Takeaway

Throw your efforts (and your budget) into making cross-platform contact with customers. Guide consumers through their decision journeys by way of clear and consistent published content.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on 8/15/2011 at content26’s old blog,, under the title “The Decline of the Funnel and the Rise of Content Merchandising.” For this update we improved the images and added a link or two.

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