Modern Marketing Confessional E01: I hate the customer journey

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Intelligent Demand, its CEO, his dog Izzy, or Izzy’s imaginary friend Kyle, who’s writing his dissertation on trash-eating and employee-lunch thievery.

I was way late to the Game of Thrones bandwagon. I think HBO had begun airing season 4 before I ever brought myself to dust off my stolen HBOGO password and give GoT a chance. A few episodes in, a good friend asked who my favorite character was. “Easy,” I replied, “Ned. Ned’s the man.” She feigned a smile and nodded. I knew something was off. To her credit, she never spoiled what was to come (or in Ned’s case, what was to come off).

What does this have to do with the customer journey? Ned followed the rules. He did his duty. He respected the established practices of the times he lived, and failed to challenge the norms once he realized that others in power had no intention of following the mores. I imagine the moment before he died, he thought, “Someone in charge is going to stop this… any second now.”

So, yeah, that’s basically how I feel about following the customer journey today. And I want to keep my head.

What is the customer journey and why do we use it?

The customer journey, or as I like to call it, “creating fake order from real chaos,” is a rotting horse carcass covered with boot prints. It’s tried and true, and many marketers have essentially followed it right off a cliff. TWEET THIS

In the real world, B2B buying is chaos. Most buyers start with fear-based, selfish, emotional steps, and then once the opportunity becomes real and the contract negotiation begins, a committee takes over and becomes so hyper rational, it sucks any semblance of humanity out of the room until the deal is closed.

The “customer journey” that we have used for years to map campaign content, on the other hand, is a linear, pragmatic series of steps. It supposes that a single member of a given target audience starts a decision-making process ostensibly like all her peers, moves through the same steps, and finally becomes a loyal customer.

Here’s an example of a customer journey:

Modern Marketing Confessional: Customer Journey

Above, we are describing the stage the prospect is in, then attempting to define what they’re feeling, worried about, etc. Finally, we seek to address the prospect’s concerns at each stage. This is how we create messaging, and by following the “customer journey,” we have now mapped content to stage (look for a follow-up post about why this is a really, really, bad idea), which essentially becomes a campaign.

Too often, marketers can’t reconcile the “customer journey” with reality.  TWEET THIS

So they just make things up. This is how we’ve come to embrace one of my least favorite marketing tropes: The Hero.

What happens when you can’t read someone’s mind? Well, luckily, we all know the answer. You assume or simply make stuff up.

Our customer journey has taught us that the early stages of a decision are more emotional than rational. And lower stages are more rational than emotional. How do many of us address the emotional stages in the customer journey framework?  With the tired “hero” message.  TWEET THIS

A quick, related rant:

Most people don’t want to be heroes. They want to win. TWEET THIS 

They want to be the one saying, “I told you so.” They want to watch someone else lose. They want a raise by any means necessary.

Heroes are, by and large, putting themselves at risk for the betterment of others. Sounds like your average B2B prospect, right?

By following a flawed framework, we are left with no choice but to make dangerous assumptions that potentially compromise the effectiveness and ROI of entire campaigns. That’s how we get the “hero” message. We did it to ourselves.

But even outside of this problem, there are plenty of the issues with the customer journey framework itself.

Issue 1: Key decisions along the B2B buyers journey and triggers in most of the stages aren’t rational. Yet we are forced to rationalize each decision and transition from stage to stage because we’re human. If we’re seeking to understand behavior, pragmatism is just more predictable, even if it’s completely faith-based and inaccurate.

Issue 2: Decisions aren’t made by people in B2B; they’re made by committees. Once the larger group has been brought in, unless we are using an account-based approach, the influence of our content may drop significantly.

Issue 3: Customer journeys are linear. Real world buying behavior rarely is. TWEET THIS

Issue 4: It’s very difficult to verify our customer journeys. All we can do is see how someone engaged with an email, landing page, or piece of content. It’s extremely rare that a prospect opens everything. So all we ever get is a patchwork of responses across a campaign.

OK, the customer journey isn’t perfect. But isn’t it good enough for our purposes? No.


That’s my whole point here. There are plenty of alternatives to the customer journey, approaches that we can actually measure that don’t require so much random guessing from internal stakeholders. Here are a few I made up to prove a point:

Topics-based campaign

Why bother with a journey when we know, for the most part, the handful of key topics our prospects might be interested in.  TWEET THIS 

Within those topics, we could define questions we seek to answer, and that becomes the foundation for our content. Instead of a campaign that’s linear in terms of a decision, we could make a campaign that treats various topics (questions and answers) slightly differently based on the depth of the topic itself. The questions are in no particular order; they’re just the most relevant to the topic we identify.

Campaign architecture would look less like a journey and more like a triangular block of questions and answers. For instance:

The picture above outlines a single topic campaign. It spans multiple questions and answers, and identifies the depth of the content (very short to ebook-sized, depending on the complexity of the answer).

Why it’s better: We’re looking at engagement with a topic. Low engagement likely means the topic doesn’t resonate. This is easy to validate and operationalize.

Consulting Campaign

Think about the last thing you downloaded. Why did you want that piece of content? Was it because it finally provided information about a product you were searching for or was it because it enabled you to solve something for yourself?

Many times, people want information so they can solve their own problems or at least better understand them. TWEET THIS

We could probably identify some key problems our audience struggle with and tap the collective expertise within our client stakeholders to provide some great advice. As the campaigns run, we can slowly move from focusing mostly on prospects to focusing on what the company does. It could look something like this:

Modern Marketing Confessional E01

Why it’s better: By following this framework, we wouldn’t be guessing where our prospects are when we create campaigns; we’d be having relevant conversations about how to solve problems—something internal stakeholders likely know way more about.

Test-and-learn Campaign

Wouldn’t it be great to remove guessing altogether? There’s a way. We can make small bets upfront in a client engagement, test and validate the messages we hypothesize might convert, and then build out related content based on the winning messages. That might look something like this:

Modern Marketing Confessional E01: I hate the customer journey

Why it’s better: I’m not sure this approach needs much explanation. It’s straightforward, based on data, and allows us to get in market fast (clients rejoice), test (agencies rejoice), and then make safer bets with budgets (world buys itself a Coke).

What do we lose by ignoring the customer journey?

Here’s my answer to that: I’m not sure we’re losing anything.

If we accept the premise that the customer journey is a set of training wheels, and that most of its value comes from allowing us to brainstorm content creation in a semi-predictable and repeatable way, well—nearly any campaign approach listed above gives us that.

But is the Customer Journey good for anything? Yes.

A couple things, actually. First, it’s a foundation, and for certain organizations, it’s imperative that they set up some guardrails to prevent every campaign from being a journey into the unknown, operationally. The customer journey gives you a starting place. Second, the framework forces you to think outside in, and focus on your customers’ needs first, not last. That’s a valuable lesson. Where the “customer journey” goes wrong is when organizations begin to treat the theoretical as if it were factual.

“We can’t say this on touch 4; just look where this person is in her customer journey.” Here’s the truth that we all need to embrace (hold my hand; don’t be scared). That prospect isn’t in any stage of her customer journey. She’s probably sitting on the toilet checking her email. She’s barely aware of your super strategic content plan.

The reason she’s even paying any attention is because whatever you said seems to resonate. If she’s an ideal customer, and many of her peers also thought this particular message resonated, well, then you got yourself some leads. Build on that. Create more content about that topic. Take it further. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll engage her right up until the point her demand moves from latent to active (let’s hope she’s out of the bathroom at this point).

This is the “top of mind” concept everyone is always blathering on about. This is the “truth” marketers need to constantly remind themselves. Our job is to stay in our audience’s head long enough for demand to move from a dormant stage into an active, volcanic, explosive stage (I think I’m overselling B2B sales here). But we only earn that right if we’re consistently saying something our audience wants to listen to.

Now what?

Let’s evolve. Let’s open up the conversation and make sure that we don’t continue to proceed with business as usual simply because we’re comfortable.  Don’t let the framework you used to get through puberty become the gospel you follow into adulthood. TWEET THIS

Let Ned Stark be a lesson for us all. He knew the queen was poison and her son was a psychopath, but he put his head down and “did his duty.” He followed the framework, right up until the final moments.

Want to confess?

Whether you wish you had a revenue-focused agency partner, or want to vent about some modern marketing sacred cow that grinds your gears, contact Intelligent Demand and be absolved! 

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