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Mapping Consumers’ Path to Purchase


How would you like to introduce your brand to prospects weeks or months before your competitors?


Today I’m going to show you a way to do that by mapping your prospects’ path to purchase.


My objective is to provide you with a simple method you can use with your online networking and content activities to attract and engage prospects sooner.


Strategic marketing is an attempt to anticipate consumer behavior so we can influence it. And, the behavior we’re most interested in influencing is purchase behavior. Mapping the path to purchase is our attempt to do just that: Anticipate the various steps the consumer takes leading up to purchase so that we might interact with them along the way and influence their decision in our brand’s favor.


The exact steps taken along this path will be different for every product. But, there are six characteristic phases that we use as a framework when mapping this path. They are:

  • defining the problem;
  • defining the solution;
  • identifying providers of the solution;
  • evaluating providers;
  • and, deciding on a provider.

A person can work through these phases in five seconds for an impulse purchase like a cup of coffee, or it can take many months for larger purchases like an in-ground pool for the backyard.


It matters because you don’t want to arrive late to the party. The last thing a strategic marketer wants to do is to introduce themselves to a consumer in the final stages of evaluation of a purchase. The only thing worse would be not being considered at all. What we want to do is to introduce ourselves to the target as far upstream as possible, ideally in the problem or solution phase. The more undifferentiated your product is, the more important this is.


Online publishing and networking allow us to do this. That’s because the target will have different information needs at each phase of their journey. For most consumers today, that means looking online with help of a search engine, social sites, authorities on the subject, or trusted review sites and forums.


If we can anticipate these needs, we can help the consumer with the information they need, and, at the same time, introduce them to our brand. This way, we can start building understanding, interest, and trust. Let me give you an example of someone buying a mattress.


In this example, you’re the CMO of a mattress company. You learn that 63% of your mattress purchases are related to back problems. So, you create a target persona for this prospect you’ve named Scott and then define his path to purchase.


Let’s take a look at Scott’s path to see if you can think of any opportunities where you could use online content or networking to introduce your brand to Scott.


Okay, first step: Scott realizes he has a problem. He never feels rested when he wakes up and he’s not sure why. Once he realizes this, he becomes increasingly receptive to information about sleep, especially from others with the same problem. Eventually, he begins actively seeking out information online. He uses Google and visits some specialist sites dedicated to sleep. He also finds a great video about sleep problems on YouTube. He concludes that it’s his back problem that’s preventing him from entering deep sleep.


Scott had defined what the problem is and now he’s looking for a solution. He begins by visiting medical information sites and forums related to back pain and sleeping to see how he can solve his problem. He learns that a poor mattress can aggravate back problems. His mattress is ten years old and sags in the middle. One site had a simple mattress stress test to determine if a mattress was providing adequate support. He decides he needs a new, more supportive mattress to solve his sleeping problem.


Now that Scott has defined a solution, he begins searching for someone to provide it to him. But, because there are so many mattress options and so many vendors, he doesn’t know where to begin with mattress information sites and forums. He then looks up reviews. After 45 minutes, he has a short list of seven mattress vendors who seem okay.


Next, Scott begins to evaluate the seven options he has identified. Disposing of a mattress is a hassle, so he wants a vendor who will remove his old mattress for free. This narrows his search to three local vendors. He visits their websites and showrooms. One has a very useful app that helps match the right mattress to different types of sleepers. He used that to select the mattress he wanted, but found another vendor who had the same mattress at a lower price.


Since all three vendors seem pretty much the same, Scott decides on the vendor with the lowest price. He does some final checks on that vendor and finds three bad online reviews. He then checks the rating site that recommended the vendor. He finds the site is secretly run by the vendor. He crosses them off his list because he doesn’t trust them and goes with his second choice that was a little more expensive.


Okay, so I’m sure that during Scott’s journey, you were able to think of plenty of ways you could have supported him in his path to purchase. To map your prospect’s path to purchase, first define a specific target segment. In Scott’s case, you identified mattress buyers with back pain.


Now, when I’m doing this, I use a template like this to organize my thoughts and share it with colleagues and clients. I think you’ll find it useful too.


First, there are the five phases we’ve discussed. Next to each one, fill in the steps your target would go through during that phase. Then, jot down content ideas you think may useful to the target at different steps. And, finally, define the online touchpoints you feel would be most effective at delivering your content.


Once you have mapped a certain prospect’s path to purchase, remember it’s a hypothesis. And, an untested one at that. If time and budgets permit, I would urge you to test this hypothesis before you start basing decisions on it. Have a brand strategist interview your target to test and strengthen your assumptions. Then, work with a content and networking strategist to determine the best way for you to put your insights to work for your brand.


So, in conclusion, you can actually preempt the sales process by interacting with your prospect online even before they start shopping. To do that, you need to map their path to purchase and then decide what content might help them at different points in their journey.


Do your best to engage them early in the problem and solution stages. And, resist the temptation to deliver a sales pitch early on and, instead, try to simply help them in an unbiased manner.


If you succeed, you’ll build brand awareness among prospects, even before they start shopping, and reserve your brand a spot on their short list when it comes time to buy.

Remember, use it or lose it. If you don’t put this to work within 48 hours, it will self-destruct.

Good luck.

Like this post? You'll find more marketing insights in my new book: International Brand Strategy: A guide to achieving global brand growth, now available from booksellers globally. Order your copy here.