Sphere Is The New Funnel: Re-Thinking The Customer Journey

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Today’s technology enables us to make purchasing decisions more quickly than ever before.  There’s an overwhelming amount of product options at our fingertips, ready for immediate purchase.  Looking up product information, reviews and price comparisons can be done in seconds.  The consumer’s journey from ideation to purchase – typically thought of in stages – has never been shorter.

Funnel Funeral

Many e-commerce marketers however, continue to view the customer journey as a linear path to a purchase – often referred to as a conversion funnel.  The funnel mirrors the increasingly smaller amount of traffic in each stage of the online buying process.  Traffic enters the wide top of the funnel and narrows as traffic drops off at each successive stage, from the upper funnel on down to the mid and lower funnel.  The narrow bottom of the funnel reflects how only about 2 out of every 100 people entering an e-commerce website make a purchase.

Using this funnel metaphor is helpful for optimizing the online purchase path, particularly for websites.  It can uncover problem areas where traffic may be bailing out due to poor user experience, design, lack of information or other reason.  But as digital traffic and activation continues to move beyond the desktop, the funnel framework becomes irrelevant.  It’s time to say goodbye to the funnel, and hello to the sphere.

The Sphere is Here

Why a sphere?  Because it best explains how consumer purchasing behavior is evolving.  Buying impulses come from anywhere – online, offline, directly or indirectly.  The vast surface of the sphere represents the expansive range of a potential customer’s physical location or state of mind.  The sparks that lead to an action along that surface mark the beginning of today’s customer journey.  I call these “Moments of Inspiration” or MOI.

The ability to make purchases from anywhere, such as on a mobile device means that consumers can hyperspace to a purchase as soon as they get a notion.  The path to purchase is equally short wherever a person is “located” along the surface of the sphere.

Not gonna lie – viewing the customer journey as a sphere burdens marketers with the impossible task of being top of mind and present everywhere.  It’s a lofty goal – but it leads to more realistic, effective marketing strategies than trying to funnel customers down a pre-defined path.  This is a major paradigm shift from the tactical optimization mindset that focuses on pushing traffic and removing barriers in a linear process of distinct stages.

Success with the sphere requires a broader effort to connect with customers in a non-sequential manner around their ever-evolving set of core beliefs, attitudes and preferences (something I refer to as the Kaleidoscope Effect, which we’ll tackle in a future post).  Such connection requires a focus on customer empathy – meeting people where they are, on their terms – another aspect represented by the surface of the sphere.

We (Marketers and Consumers) Are The World

Now that we’ve established our theory, let’s use a more recognizable sphere – Earth – as a way of understanding how this new paradigm of consumer purchasing behavior maps to the funnel stages to which we’ve grown accustomed.

For starters, take the Earth’s atmosphere.  It’s an ever-changing swirl of currents, winds and weather patterns.  As the outer layer of our marketing sphere, they are the perfect metaphor for fickle consumer tastes and trends.  Just as we check out the forecast before heading out the door each day, so to must we keep in mind the ever-changing trends that are shaping consumer tastes.  That helps establish a rapport with consumers, but it doesn’t move the needle on activation.   For that, we’ll need to have a more compelling, relevant message that reflects an individual’s particular mood which too, may change like the weather.

Journey to the Center of the Sphere

The initial idea or inspiration for a particular purchase must break through the Earth’s crust.  Think of it as an individual’s built-in armor against the thousands of irrelevant marketing message one receives daily.  Understanding the terrain of our sphere is critical to knowing whether an individual is more free-thinking like an ocean, or stubborn like a mountain range.  Cracking this code requires an increasingly sophisticated level of personalization that relies less on past behavior patterns, and more on how an individual is feeling in that moment (a.k.a. the current weather conditions).

If the inspirational impulse such as a relevant offer is strong enough, then a consumer will move into the upper funnel (the Earth’s mantle).  It’s width in the diagram above represents the myriad options one encounters after an initial idea – let’s say a desire to travel to Greece.  The interest is there but there are still many things to figure out.  Based on further information or research, the individual may move around a bit and settle on a completely different destination or perhaps just needs more time to figure out when to go, or with whom.

In the mid-funnel (or outer core of the Earth in our diagram), travelers may have finally settled on a destination but are now presented with a number of booking options.  Here again, we find increasing complexity and the freedom to veer from a direct path.  But with more focused research on price, quality and other factors it’s a shorter journey towards the center, or booking.

Perhaps most surprising of all, the Sphere recognizes that the booking doesn’t end with a single purchase.  There’s still room for more non-linear activity.  Today’s consumers demand flexibility – think free cancellation of hotel rooms or free return shipping for consumer goods.  In this more fluid view of the booking phase, there may be duplicate hotel bookings for the same trip, just to have options.  As more modes of affordable transportation arise, it may make sense to book a “throwaway” flight or bus or train segment as a placeholder to lock in a low fare even if it may not be used (if this sounds somewhat like a confession, it is 🙂

Spherical Strategies for Commercial Chaos

Now that we’ve gone deep into the core of our Sphere, we can see how difficult it can be to connect with volatile consumer behavior.  Our first reaction may be to try to take control of this commercial chaos.  Deploying one of today’s many AI-based predictive modeling tools can certainly provide more insight about consumers, and help guide them to offers.

The problem is that such solutions are often based on past behavior.  At best, they’re a rear view mirror rather than a guiding star.  They may be able to identify patterns in constructing a more personalized view of a customer, but they do not necessarily enable us to connect with an individual’s passions.  For travel marketers in particular, it’s problematic because travel is not an everyday activity, so the data points for a given person are relatively limited.

In lieu of the ability to truly personalize, marketers often create different personas to identify target segments.  These personas may even have their own purchasing journey mapped out.  But as we’ll see, such personas are static representations.  If we’re trying to connect with a person’s current state of mind and inspire them to travel, we need to provide fresh, relevant ideas about where they want to be.  We need to connect with their current aspirations, recognizing they may be in flux as they move across the surface of our sphere.

One way we capture a customer’s current mood at TripTuner is by enabling the real-time input of nuanced user preferences using our distinctive sliders.  Here’s an example of how we’ve leveraged that to activate inspiration for QATAR AIRWAYS.

Sphere Summary

Hopefully this post will spark some conversation and thoughts of your own.  At the very least, keep in mind these three key reasons why the sphere is the new funnel:

  1. Inspiration can happen anywhere.  The traditional marketing funnel assumes customers are already shopping.  The sphere captures those Moments Of Inspiration (MOI) when they decide to shop.
  2. The shopping process is not linear.  We can loosely define stages in a buying process, but it is neither sequential nor tidy.  The path from inspiration to purchase is messy, difficult and short (shout out to Hobbes).
  3. Engage consumers on their terms.  Building a funnel won’t make them come.  Meet consumers wherever they are on the surface of our sphere, physically or emotionally by connecting with their passions via relevant messages and offers.

If you’d like to learn more about applying the sphere paradigm to your online marketing, hit us up.

Till next time,  Stay Tuned!

– Tedd