The Consumer Intention Cube - Part 1

The Myth of the Funnel & the Journey

It occurred to me while I was reading to my kids: People like easy explanations.

I was reading from a book of what is (allegedly) the world's best-known legends. It became hard to not laugh during some of the stories. While reading these tales of extraordinary feats of wonder and characters that were unbelievable animal/man combinations we all started laughing. I finally told my kids something like the following: When we encounter phenomena that are hard to explain, we create myths to make them more readily imaginable. These myths employ unimaginable distortions of reality to deliver a tidy resolution that is easy to digest and pass on to later generations. Until, at least, those generations learn about the real reasons things happen. Then the myth becomes more quaint than useful.

Which brings us to the purchasing funnel and the consumer journey.

In the course of doing my day job it occurred to me that the purchasing funnel and the consumer journey are both portrayed as orderly processes that provide a neat framework for building consumer experiences. They are tidy and easy to digest. Both deliver an assurance that, if you get the previous step right, the consumer will move to the next step. If the consumer doesn’t proceed or abandons, it was something you did wrong in one or more of the previous steps. But these assumptions are not supported by observable, measurable reality; they simply explain the small segment of a consumer's behaviors and motivations that we can see. They simplify a complex process for ease of digestion.

They are myths.

What is needed for today's marketer is a new way to embrace and visualize the consumer journey and the purchasing funnel, which will help frame more accurately the consumer's real experience. Updating this understanding makes the strategies and tactics needed to drive your business and build lasting relationships with your consumers more apparent.

This is a big topic so we will visualize the real consumer experience, identify the opportunities presented by the data thrown off by consumer activity, and highlight the actions you can take to position your business and brand where it needs to be in the hearts and minds of consumers.

The AIDA Model of 1898

The notion of a purchasing funnel was first created by the very improbably named E. St. Elmo Lewis in - ready for this - 1898.  It had 4 steps in its early incarnation: Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action, which came to be known as the AIDA model. This was neither an academic nor an observation-driven innovation. Mr. Lewis was an early proponent of advertising, so he very likely invented the concept of the funnel to reinforce the importance of advertising. Without tackling the entry point of awareness, you can't get to the other three steps, so you had better advertise!

Quite clever, and quite enduring; to this day nearly every marketing resource makes some reference to the purchasing funnel. Personally, I have always wondered why it is a funnel. Obviously one can assume that there are more people at the start of a journey to purchase than at the end, and the funnel is a universal way to visualize the flow of that kind of action. But almost no other motion dynamic accepts an unexplained loss of the core material: Pour 1 liter of water into the top of a physical funnel and you can expect to see 1 liter coming out the bottom.

In the days without much data flow besides observation – walking the sales floor and counting the number of people versus the day before – such orderly funnel-like pattern assumptions served to frame the real impact of advertising as 'effective but not perfect', setting the expectation that success would be relative. Jeremy Bullmore, an executive from the WPP Group of agencies, noted that advertising has the power to deliver "a curiously indiscriminate fame that transcends its particular market sector." Mr. Bullmore continues, noting, "Coca-Cola is not just a famous soft drink. Dove is not just a famous soap. Ford is not just a famous car manufacturer. In all these cases, their fame depends on their being known to just about everyone in the world even if they neither buy nor use."

'Being known to just about everyone in the world' has been considered a clear win for decades in marketing. But consumer activity was, for those same decades, governed by limited access to information and media. Today's consumers are heavily influenced by these 4 key factors:

  1. Simultaneous inputs from many different types of media

  2. Simultaneous distractions thanks to competing interests

  3. Access to a vast store of data from multiple sources

  4. Access to a vast number of ways to have their own biases challenged

At the heart of the question of the recognition brought about by advertising is this: When consumers have taken over control of the brand's narrative, is 'recognition' still a pure benefit? Or can it be a risk? The purchasing funnel assumes that the consumer is in a controlled environment managed by whoever is paying for the ads, or the store, or the web site. But we know this to no longer be the case. Consumers gleefully:

  • Regularly visit a store to physically see a product then buy it online

  • Visit web sites to learn about a product they have no intention of buying at all

  • Actively ignore ads (especially in digital media) and rely solely on the ratings and testimonials of complete strangers

  • Go all the way to adding a product to a shopping cart and then leave to see if they can get a better deal through retargeting

...and the list goes on and on. There are consumers who continue to operate traditionally as though they still had limited access to information, inventory, convenient retail outlets, and external influences. But we e-commerce and digital marketing professionals know well that the percentage of consumers favoring online shopping and contactless commerce – especially compared to physical retail – are higher than ever and continuing to rise.

Then, 100 Years Later...

The notion of the customer journey is 100 years younger, created (according to Wikipedia, at least) in 1998 by an English consulting firm for Eurostar, the high-speed pan-European rail network. A customer journey map depicts the customer's experience across the lifespan of their relationship with a product or brand. It shows key interactions that the customer has with the brand and surfaces key data points about the company's customers (buyer persona), the customer's experiential time frame, contact and transactional channels, and moments in the journey where the consumer drops off (churn) or becomes bonded to the brand and starts to advocate.

The purchasing funnel is a partial view of the customer journey. More advanced customer journey diagrams acknowledge the potential impacts of the four consumer influencing factors noted above, but they do not anticipate them. Google "customer journey diagram" and you will still find illustrations depicting an orderly progression, based in the notion of the closed environment that the brand and/or retailer envisions the consumer to operate within.

There are many other commonalities that the customer journey map and the purchasing funnel share so there's no need to rehash them here. The key is this: Both customer journey and purchasing funnels are neat and linear, representing only what we can observe and measure.

Today we have churn models and algorithms that anticipate next best action for consumers, but they are executed in service of linear progressions that do not reflect reality for consumers today. The customer journey map and the purchasing funnel were both created before the age of digital-first commerce, before any of the tools that consumers wield today to simply survive their daily lives. Like the conversion funnel, the notion of the consumer journey has evolved and has added factors that are relevant today. But their underlying architecture remains a one-way street from brand/product to consumer.

"Tony, give it a rest! It's just a visualization!" you might be saying. But it's more than just a picture, it's a representation of a false reality that causes brands and retailers to misdiagnose their issues and fail to see the real opportunities before them. The purchase funnel and customer journey don't provide sufficient coverage of the independence that consumers have from brand and retail messaging, and they don't account for the number of non-aligned influences that consumers experience (if not enjoy) daily.

The time has come to reclassify the purchasing funnel and the linear customer journey as being more quaint than useful and move on to a more accurate, data-driven story of how consumer's behave today. I call it the "Consumer Intention Cube".


TL/DR - Click here to read the rest of this chapter on our Medium.com blog