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Six Ways to Identify and Convert Self-Educating Buyers

Six Ways to Identify and Convert Self-Educating Buyers Ross Shanken

By Ross Shanken

As competition for online customers intensifies, businesses continue to look for new tools, technology and insight to make them smarter about how they market, engage and sell to in-market shoppers at every point along the consumer journey. But there’s one segment of potential customers that is proving particularly difficult to reach -- self-educating buyers who complete the majority of their shopping prior to their first touchpoint with a marketer.

Between 60% and 90% of the buyer’s journey is now self-guided, depending on which analyst firm you ask. By 2020, analyst firm Forrester expects that 80% of the buying process will occur without any direct human-to-human interaction.

High involvement purchases, like mortgage, education or insurance, are complex enough to require sales assistance. However, the proliferation of readily available information online has made self-educating much easier. According to Hubspot, only 29% of people want to talk to a salesperson to learn more about a product, while 62% will consult a search engine.

The anonymous shopping behavior of self-educating buyers can be troublesome to marketers because it narrows a seller’s window of influence and can lead to missed sales.  If more people are completing research before they engage with sales, it’s more important than ever for marketers to find ways to connect with consumers and engage them earlier in the consumer journey.

The Under-the-Radar Modern Buyer

Because their searches are mostly anonymous, self-educating buyers can be invisible to an individual brand marketer relying on internal touchpoints. Self-educating buyers are likely among the 90% of site visitors who don’t typically convert into leads during their session. They might or might not open your emails or exhibit trackable buyer-stage behavior on your site like engaging with your content -- especially gated content that requires contact information.

We all know that consumers are searching not just your branded sites, but also your competitor’s sites, as well as third party resources, to learn about a product or service before making a purchase decision. The problem is that we haven’t been able to connect to all those other consumer interactions until recently.

In the mortgage industry, for instance, Jornaya research shows that, on average, consumers who converted into funded loans had four industry touch points prior to submitting a web form. Three of those visits were ‘anonymous’ visits to unique sites, revealing that mortgage consumers are researching on multiple sites before they take any action.

Self-educating consumers can be problematic in higher education, too, where what is called ‘stealth applications’ continue to rise. According to consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz , at private four-year and graduate institutions, 40 percent of adult learner applicants were reported to be stealth applicants—student prospects who applied for admission without inquiring beforehand. These unexpected applications can complicate a school’s admissions planning and projections. In a recent University Business article, higher education enrollment expert Jean Norris says, “Students are redefining how they conduct their college search process, since they are often bombarded with publications and emails from colleges. They want more control over the way they search and are resistant to traditional recruitment approaches.”

Why Some Prospective Customers Remain Invisible

Even with the best marketing stack in place, a marketer is still operating with an incomplete view of prospective customers if its marketing and sales teams are relying solely on internal data and engagement with its own content.  These teams are looking where they can see, not where all the consumers are.

It’s like the drunk man crawling around under a streetlight looking for his keys. When asked by a helpful bystander if he’s sure this is where he dropped his keys, the man replies that he more likely dropped the keys elsewhere in the parking lot, but that the light is better over here.  Marketers can look for answers in the wrong places if they don’t realize there is a better way to get a more holistic view of the consumer journey. 

Marketing has grown exponentially more complex in the digital age. That’s partly because of an explosion of new channels and touchpoints between marketers and their audiences that continually morph and multiply — and the massive clouds of data billowing from that Silicon Valley firestorm. ”

-- Scott Brinker, Chief Martec

Fortunately, there are technologies powered by third party data sets that can help marketing organizations shine a better light on consumer purchase intent behaviors that happen outside their four walls.

These technologies support collecting and then connecting the dots (data), in order to understand the larger, more comprehensive picture or story of the consumer’s journey. This story is built across multiple touchpoints with various brands and web properties, which may include your own properties at one or several intersections of that overall journey.

How the Right Intent Data Helps Shine a Light on Self-Educating Shoppers

Third party data that reveal shopping behavior outside a marketer’s four walls is crucial to understand a self-educating buyer’s purchase intent. Online behaviors are a highly accurate predictor of a consumer’s stage and purpose in the buying journey. The right third-party behavioral data, activated by the right predictive analytic tools, solves the problem of anonymous shopping in two ways:

  • Identification of net new prospects before they interact directly with you
  • Prediction of a prospect’s buying stage once they have interacted with you

Going further, there are six specific areas where external data can be put to work to uncover, engage and convert self-educating buyers and in-market shoppers as a whole:

1.) Audience Targeting

The goal of audience targeting is to target the right consumer to begin with, and increasingly, that means using data from outside a company’s own purview. With the help of third-partly behavioral data, marketers can target people, some of whom were previously ‘invisible’ and invite them to have a conversation.  

There has been significant innovation among third parties to create ads, clicks and calls that they can actually sell. Marketers can work with these third-party data sets to enable them to connect their brands with consumers by getting the shopper to click on something or fill out lead form.  Plus, there are also third-party data sets that help you value this media. Third-party data sets can be used to get a more precise view or ‘predicted value’ of how this click, lead or call might perform.

2.) Recognize High-Intent Shoppers among Inbound Traffic

When the right predictive intelligence enables you to see disparate events associated with the same site visitor, linked over a period of time and in the order in which they happened, you gain the highest resolution view into a consumer’s journey. With that insight, you can discover new, more meaningful ways to engage with these consumers.

3.) Strengthen Segmentation

Third-party behavioral data enables you to expand the range and effectiveness of your segmenting strategies. Without outside data, you can’t effectively segment, identify in-market audiences, or test those audiences. Without it, you have one segmentation strategy and your customization efforts are limited to a/b testing different creative. But once you segment an audience by level of purchase intent, you have the ability to target that segment differently and provide different messages that will resonate more with high-intent shoppers.

4.) Rev Up Remarketing

Remarketing can be a valuable way to capture some of the 90% of site visitors who don’t typically convert into leads during their session. Remarketing strategy, guided by intent, enables marketing to zero in on consumers with the highest propensity to purchase. Plus, it helps you avoid the mistake of taking the same approach with high-intent consumers and those who do not exhibit the same indicator.

5.) Enhance Lead Scoring

If you are using a lead scoring model today that doesn’t include intent data, there’s a vast opportunity for you to improve the effectiveness of that score to help capture self-educating buyers and prioritize other leads more appropriately. For example, in mortgage, a consumer may be looking for a relatively large loan and have excellent credit. On paper, that sounds like the perfect lead. But, those leads are going to have varying levels of intent, and are going to be in different stages of their purchase journey. Meanwhile, other leads may look average on paper but actually have very high intent and are ready to fund. The consumer’s intent should be a key component of any lead score.

6.) Improve Contact Strategy

A marketer that has optimized its lead management processes across its whole universe of customer data can still benefit from outside data to determine the most effective contact strategy for certain leads. For instance, your sales practice might be to stop lead follow up if contact efforts have not been successful by day 14. But if you had data that a prospect had visited four of your competitors’ websites prior to submitting a lead (an indicator of high intent) you might continue to nurture the lead instead of putting it aside after 14 days.

Once you’ve successfully converted a self-educating shopper to customer, third party intent data can also prove effective for growing that customer’s lifetime value (LTV). This data can help you enhance retention, minimize churn and look for cross-sell and upsell opportunities among your existing customer base -- a subject that merits a separate deep dive.

The Bottom Line

These are only a few instances of how intent data can improve consumer engagement and marketing outcomes. When you have access to third-party intent data, you no longer have to determine the quality of a lead solely on the consumer’s age or ZIP code. Instead, you have a sharp view into your consumer’s propensity to convert into a customer.  When a consumer visits your website, visits a competitor’s website, calls a call center, fills out a web form, or searches on multiple device types, she is leaving behind a digital trail that enables you to see her journey toward becoming a customer. When you have that full picture of your consumers’ journeys, you can more strategically segment, prioritize, and nurture prospects to conversion. Third-party intent data is a uniquely powerful way to capture and convert more consumers and turn them into customers with high lifetime value.

Ross Shanken is a digital technology business builder, thought leader, and patent holder who founded Jornaya (originally LeadiD) in 2011 after a 13 year career at TARGUSinfo that culminated in the company’s $650M exit to Neustar. Ross’...

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