Young and old, we are all swimming in the waters of digital connectivity and social networks. And what was once a linear purchase journey is now a labyrinth of multiple touch points with a steep new set of consumer demands.
This has been a lot to take in for even the savviest brands. In Zen Media's own efforts to master the modern purchase journey, we realized that though there were road signs aplenty, what was needed was a practical and comprehensive road map. In our quest to devise one, we did some . What we found—from more than 200 surveys and several one-on-one interviews with people who had recently made a large purchase—challenged many of our initial assumptions.
What we learned is not only is today’s purchase journey and consumer more complex than we first appreciated, they are, in fact, paradoxical. And the best way to understand the connected consumer is by embracing four distinct paradoxes.
One of the first things we discovered was that connected consumers have an unprecedented amount of autonomy in their customer journeys. The ability to uncover deep product information from so many resources makes consumers incredibly independent—more so, perhaps, than any generation of consumers before them.
But the paradox is consumers still rely heavily on other connected consumers, as well as brands themselves, to bolster this independence.
For example, Nicole, one of our study participants, was looking for a high-backed armchair to help alleviate her neck and back pain. During her search, Nicole conducted online research, starting with various top 10 lists across the Web. She also searched for reviews of armchairs that mentioned her specific type of neck pain. By the end of her pursuit, Nicole said she had more than 50 options, which she organized via spreadsheet into categories that included price, color, neck support, and back pain relief.
The purchase journey often follows the same general outline: First, there's a research phase (independence). Then there's a search for online reviews that affirm what the consumer believes or wants to believe about a product or service (interconnectedness). The implication is that brands need to become deliberate partners in the customer-led product curation process, making it easy for them to compare products and reviews across categories according to personalized needs.
Consumers increasingly want to be able to see inside brands and the business operations behind them, down to their supply chain, hiring practices, organizational culture, environmental record, and so forth. Social media and the digital age as a whole has afforded an unprecedented level of transparency between brands and consumers, who are holding the brands they support to exceptionally high standards—not just for quality products, but also for service expectations and social responsibility.
At the same time, connected consumers are increasingly skeptical of brands' authenticity. Connected consumers are quick to spot mismatches between a brand's espoused values and actual behavior. One study participant put it clearly: "I want a brand that doesn't just 'talk the talk' but chooses to 'walk the walk.'"
This insight proved invaluable when Zen Media created its recent campaign. Crafted to promote True Religion's new line of eyewear, we used inspiring messaging that championed and celebrated diversity and inclusion. And beyond just talk, we partnered with the global nonprofit Restoring Vision and arranged to have a portion of all eyewear purchases applied to its mission of providing reading glasses to hundreds of underserved communities around the world.
No one disputes the fact that connected consumers are thinking digital first. Even those who didn’t come of age in a digital world are increasingly in the habit of using our computers and smartphones for everything from shopping to ride-sharing to figuring out which restaurant to patronize.
But in-person shopping is still going strong. In fact, reported major growth in store concepts throughout 2018, with mega-brands including IKEA and Barnes & Noble announcing smaller-scale stores, and e-commerce sites, including Casper and Glossier, planning to expand or establish physical retail outlets.
This reflects what we learned from our research, with a majority of respondents reporting they visited brick-and-mortar stores regularly. The difference now is their visits are more often a single step along the purchase journey, rather than the final stop.
Connected consumers are also rewarding retailers that integrate their digital and offline presence. BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in store), self-service kiosks, and mobile apps that provide consumers with coupons or help them locate products are just a few of the innovations that are serving this need.
Our final paradox, and perhaps the most profound one, has to do with the amount of power connected consumers wield today. We all have access to an unprecedented amount of information and countless choices when it comes to products and services. This feeds into the independence in our first paradox. So instead of being passive consumers, we are active drivers.
What was striking, however, is this power has brought along with it feelings of being overwhelmed, anxiety, and a lack of confidence in decision-making. The ultimate paradox, we learned, is the paradox of choice: The more choices we have, the more haunted we feel by the prospect of making the wrong one.
Brands that are marketing to connected consumers today must both respect the power consumers have over their own purchasing journey, while catering to their needs for reassurance and support., i.e., through easy returns or instant chat-based access to customer assistance.
We learned throughout the course of our research that understanding the modern, connected customer journey is as much about brands recognizing the vulnerability consumers feel as it is about customers wielding the power they hold. Consumers and brands that recognize these paradoxical impulses will be more attuned advocates for each other, and better travel guides and companions along the purchasing journey.