The resurgence of the purchase funnel

You've probably heard that the purchase funnel is dead and that the internet has changed consumer decision-making for good.

Well call us Dr. Frankenstein, because the marketers and data scientists behind programmatic marketing are bringing the purchase funnel back to life.

You see, most people assumed that the purchase funnel was dead because the internet disrupted the traditional, linear consumer journey -- from awareness, to consideration, to purchase -- so drastically. In an age of limitless information on products, whether from blogs, social media, e-commerce sites, or product reviews, it became incredibly difficult to determine where consumers were in the funnel.

However, that's started to change over the past couple of years. Marketers can now map behavior and intent more accurately -- and, in some cases, in real time -- by aggregating engagement data across search, social, display, and site visits to create a comprehensive audience profile. As a result, they have the ability to map exactly where a consumer is in the purchase funnel.

How does this work exactly? Say that you're an electronics retailer and want to track the purchase journey of someone interested in buying a big-screen HDTV for Christmas. Search data can inform you, for instance, that a consumer searched for "best HDTV" on Google. In this case, the consumer hasn't expressed any brand preference, which indicates that she's probably open to buying any brand of HDTV -- Vizio, Sony, Sharp, LG, etc. At that point, she's still near the top of the funnel, in the awareness phase, and will be open to a wide range of HDTVs. That will change how you target her significantly.

But what if that same consumer searched for Samsung HDTVs, and then engaged with a video pre-roll ad highlighting features and functions of Samsung HDTVs? That would mean that she's a bit further along in the funnel and in the consideration phase. That changes the type of offers you'll serve her (for Samsung HDTVs, ostensibly) and also her potential value. In the consideration phase, she'll be more likely to convert than in the interest phase.

Or finally, what if you knew that that same consumer had purchased an HDTV from you in the past and had recently liked a Facebook post showing off Samsung's latest 3D TV features? You'd know she's become a brand loyalist, and you'd adjust your messaging to her accordingly, while utilizing that knowledge to engage with her friends through her news feed.

That last example -- in which the consumer has already become a customer -- is where the real fun begins. It's been assumed for a long time that something like Amazon's collaborative filtering messaging of "customers who bought this, bought that" is a brilliant solution for meeting customers' needs. But with audience profiles, marketers can do so much more. Marketers are now developing algorithms that build upon a truly holistic understanding of the consumer. We understand, map, and build models based on factors such as whether the consumer reads editorial news vs. entertainment, considers products from one category vs. another, derives "value" from premium video advertising vs. native content insertions, and so on. That allows marketers to understand how to move a new customer along the purchase funnel to provide and derive maximum value from existing customers.

Better yet, all of this isn't restricted to an online vacuum. Offline CRM data, like in-store purchase behavior and catalog response activity, can be integrated with these treasure troves of digital data to inform both analog and digital communication. That means that online messaging only gets better, and offline messaging finally starts to catch up to online.

In truth, the funnel never died. It's just waiting for marketers to develop the strategic and creative sophistication, paired with algorithmic models, to bring it back to life.

Alex LePage is the vice president of client development at Chango.

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