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The Linear Path to Purchase is Gone

Three people pointing at a laptop screen, while sitting on a sofa

What are Brands and Marketers to Do?

We’ve been writing about the evolution of the consumer’s path to purchase for several years now. One of our favorite analogies about the way shoppers have changed is to liken their behavior to a couple of popular video games. We’ve seen them move from a 1980s Mario Brothers approach, that’s very linear with expected jumps, turns and kicks, to something entirely fluid. Rebecca wrote in a past article about this phenomenon: “We’ve moved on to Minecraft; our world is endless, open and full of possibilities. Shoppers are no longer bound by limited channels, limited information, and limited choice. When exposed to all of these options, shopper behavior no longer follows a model.”

As we continue our ongoing research centered on shopper insights, we have seen this evolution speeding up and becoming more profound, almost by the day. Not only is the linear path to purchase gone, but the new path (such as there is) varies drastically from individual to individual, and those individuals take different paths depending on the category in which they’re shopping.

Our most recent research illustrates this trend. We found that not only do shoppers want more information and higher transparency from brands across the board, but they are also less risk-averse about trying new brands. They are more thoughtful about purchases and are researching more. They aren’t following any prescriptive guidelines during this process, and they certainly aren’t passively waiting on you to inform them about your brand.

In our book, we talk about how brands need to make major changes in the way they seek to understand their shoppers. If brands want to win their targets over, then, as we write in our book, “they have to orient their entire organization around a new understanding of shopper behavior.” As researchers ourselves, we saw the need for a new kind of market research methodology. We call it “Shopper Influence,” in which we shift the focus away from the brand and onto the shopper themselves. Ultimately, this provides actionable insights based on the shopper’s views. Since they aren’t following a definable path to purchase, methodologies must change to meet them where they are.

In our book, we also recommend that researchers begin using multi-modal approaches, such as quantitative, qualitative, and even emerging approaches like agile neuroscience. Blending comprehensive market research data with other company data streams can help to create a more holistic audience view. In addition, companies should rethink their brand tracking research to ensure they are bringing in data that applies to today’s shopping ecosystem and today’s evolving shoppers.

A new approach to market research is just the start. With consumers doing their own research, and a lot of it, information overload should be the norm. Brands need to be everywhere, on everything, sharing clear, credible messages that resonate with audiences (market research can certainly help to focus these efforts in the most influential areas). Because audiences are still constantly evolving, brands would do well to look for new ways to engage their consumers by delivering information in a format that captivates and engages.

For example, we’ve published research with Snapchat illustrating the rising popularity of augmented reality (AR). While it may not yet be part of a marketing strategy for most brands, it is a good example of something audiences may be seeking out. We found that purchase decisions are spurred by AR and branded AR experiences increase the likelihood to purchase, particularly in categories like home decor (73%), product personalization (73%), virtual try-on (72%) and product demonstration (70%). It’s important for brands to continuously explore new avenues such as this for reaching their customer on their winding purchase journey.

Brands must look ahead and be ready to adapt. Shoppers are always on the lookout for the next best thing, and you need to be in that space before they even realize what it is they want next. Be ready to pivot, innovate, and make big changes. This needs to be your new modus operandi.

The new consumer journey is definitely turning traditional marketing and research techniques upside down. But it is possible to make fundamental changes that put the shopper at the center of research, communications, and outreach efforts, and thus elevate brands in our new shopping environment. As we write to conclude our book: “Influencing shopper decisions in this new age requires new thinking and approaches that always put the shopper at the center of everything.”