What is the buyer's journey?

The buyer's journey is a three-step process towards becoming a customer. Whatever the sector and specifics, the three stages of this universal process are:

  • Awareness: a customer realising they have a problem that needs solving

  • Consideration: Defining the problem and identifying all the possible solutions

  • Decision: Selecting a type of solution and a supplier that provides it

Once you understand the buyer's journey for your product or service, you can develop precisely targeted marketing campaigns to meet the needs of your ideal customers. When you think about your prospects you might imagine they see an advert and think: 'that's the exact product we need, let's buy it'. At ESM Inbound, our clients have taught us that it simply doesn’t work that way. For clients considering outsourcing their marketing, content or website design, they begin with a problem, and then investigate a range of options, then they choose a solution.

It’s tempting to focus on that last stage, and indeed, from the 1980s onward, ‘solution selling’ has been the go-to sales methodology for countless businesses. From a sales point of view, It's easy to identify yourself the solution to your buyer’s problem, shout 'pick us' and start competing on price. But Inbound marketing takes a different tack, based on the premise that it’s more effective to position yourself alongside the customer, accompanying them through the entire journey.

In other words, taking an inbound approach means understanding the customer’s problem, helping them explore solutions and find the right provider, whether or not that is you. In other words, you demonstrate that you empathise fully with the pain points of your customer – it’s you with them, looking at the problem together. You’re not champing at the bit to close the deal - which, let's face it, will only come across as desperate. The hardest part about this approach is in being honest about when you're not the best option - especially when you really need to win new business. But being upfront about this is vital. Taking on a bad-fit customer will have negative repercussions not only for them, but for your business as a whole. Being honest will only reflect well on your brand, and customers will be more likely to trust you as a result. You want what they want, and you want it so much that you’re happy to direct them elsewhere if you believe they would be better served by a competitor.

Understanding your customer’s awareness stage

During the awareness stage, buyers are experiencing symptoms but they don't understand the core problem. You should be looking to diagnose the issue for them.

Ask yourself:

  • What goals or challenges do your customers face?

  • How does your customer educate themselves about these goals/challenges?

  • If they don't solve the challenges, what are the consequences?

  • What common misconceptions do customers experience from those selling to them about the challenges they are facing? 

  • How could you demonstrate that you ‘get’ where they’re coming from?

  • What is the process for your customers prioritising these challenges?

Once you have answered all of these questions, you can start creating blog posts and content offers that define the goals, challenge misconceptions, demonstrate your understanding and expertise and help your customers to minimise the consequences of inaction. We like Gartner’s checklist on buyer-enablement content. Why not run content ideas and finished posts past it to ensure they meet the criteria.

Your customer’s consideration stage

Having defined the problem, your buyers have entered the consideration stage. They know what their problem is and have decided to solve it.

They now need to evaluate approaches to solving the problem.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the solutions to this problem (not just your own offering)? Could content based around Vs. and comparisons help you present a range of solutions to them?

  • What do your customers consider to be the pros and cons of each solution? Is this view likely to be accurate? How could you help enhance their level of understanding?

  • What is the process for customers deciding on the right solution for them? What metrics, testimonials and feedback are they likely to want to see. Can you provide these?

With these answers, you will be able to create content that helps your customers understand the range of solutions on offer, and what might make you a good fit for them.

This is a great opportunity to review your lead analytics - which leads are spending time looking at content related to a solution that you offer? These individuals have self-qualified themselves as being someone you can help.

Defining your customer’s decision stage

Entering the decision stage, your buyers have selected a solution and now need to navigate the range of suitable offers.

They will be exploring the benefits and shortcomings of each provider, product and service. It's likely that they are compiling pro/con lists either formally or at the back of their minds.

Ask yourself:

  • What criteria matters to customers when evaluating the offers? Are they able to access more useful information/ data about competitors than your product or service?

  • What do potential buyers like about your offering compared to other providers? How can you play up to this?

  • What concerns do potential buyers have about your offering compared to other providers? Are there any elephants in the room, or knowledge gaps? Can you pre-emptively address these with your content?

  • Who are the gatekeepers for the buying decision? How can you target them?

  • What perspective does each gatekeeper bring to the decision making process? Could you consider targeting your marketing with a range of personas to match?

  • Will customers expect a trial before purchase?

  • Is the purchase the only commitment? Do customers need to invest time and effort into making your offering a success? If so, you should be honest about this, and educating customers on this should form a key part of your content strategy.

For the decision stage, you will want to make sure that you have content that will allow customers to explore your offering and understand its unique advantages. Case studies, testimonials and 'product comparison' resources are particularly useful at this stage. In A HBR report, based on CEB research that gathered insight from interviews with 7,000 consumers and many hundreds of marketers found that:  “the single biggest driver of customer ‘stickiness’, by far, was ‘decision simplicity’ — the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product and confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options.”

The final step – perpetual motion – turning customers into advocates

So far, the buyer’s journey we’ve focused on this post fits with the traditional ‘sales funnel’ idea. But HubSpot updated it in 2018, using the metaphor of a ‘flywheel’ – the type used by engineers to generate and store energy. This idea of generating momentum follows the customer beyond the decision stage and on to satisfaction. The ideal is for that customer to be so satisfied with their experience, they become not only a repeat customer, but an advocate for your brand. This Forbes article explains how thinking in this way can help businesses take a longer-term, more sustainable approach to sales and marketing.

Applying the buyer's journey

With an in-depth understanding of your buyer's journey, you will be ready to plan your next marketing campaign. Approaching your marketing with this perspective will ensure that your resources attract, convert, close and delight your customers, delivering information they need in a way that’s practical, clear and relevant.

If your business has what it takes to meet their needs, then customers will choose you. If not, then perhaps they’ll become active promoters of your brand when they find someone else who is the perfect match.