The path to purchase

Jun 21st, 2016

When you become involved in an industry, it’s difficult to avoid forgetting that some things remain a mystery to those on the outside

In an article by internationally renowned ‘shed guy’ Stuart Heritage, the topic of behavioural remarketing was tackled in a way, I think, many of the remaining 75% of internet users without an ad blocker will be familiar with.

He mentioned the eeriness of being stalked by items glanced at once on a wet weekend – but it’s not all shedaggedon and zombie shoes. Behavioural remarketing is just a small part of the overall implementation of a brand’s search marketing strategy, one which has the main aim of creating and nurturing a path to purchase that – with too few data points – can lead to overfriendly occasional tables as you browse the internet.

An old strategy in new clothes

While it is more obvious when you encounter an example of search marketing’s attempts to influence your purchasing habits, the most likely reason is the relative novelty of it and, in some cases, the inexperience of practitioners.

What people often ignore is that marketers have been attempting to influence, and have often been successfully influencing, purchasing habits for over a century – whether it’s in the selection of the colour used for packaging (note that Google’s ad labelling has recently changed to the colour green – a colour synonymous to consumers with health, organic sourcing, sustainability and safety), supermarket layouts that present fruit, vegetables and flowers first to present a first impression of freshness and why they encourage a clockwise path around the store in the UK (gregarious animals have natural rotational patterns which are apparently very strong in humans – models of which are used as part of influencing strategies).

Then there are branding campaigns that lead to results such as those of ‘The Pepsi Paradox’ where consumers who tested both Pepsi and Coke expressed a strong preference for Pepsi, while results were entirely reversed when branding was visible.

The novelty of search marketing campaigns, however, and the relative newness of specific, personalised audience targeting over traditional media’s broad audience targeting, combined with stories of American retailer Target discovering a teenage girl’s pregnancy before her father, make the new age of marketing appear intrusive or, at worst, vaguely sinister; however what we’re seeing is really a small sample of badly targeted ads in a relatively new industry.

How it works online

In many ways digital marketing is very similar in aim to those of store layout. The role of digital marketing for a brand is to guide the consumer through the shiny things and on towards whichever page represents a goal completion for the business. The way this is accomplished is by manufacturing an organic and intuitive path to purchase.

While search marketers cannot rely on natural rotational patterns, with enough data it is possible to predict a general response to various stimuli based on consumer personas previous choices, and interactions with the brand’s site, social media platforms and other web presences as well as academic work such as Kahneman and Tversky’s work on ‘Prospect Theory’ (Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk).

The result of this is the rise of Google Analytics and, in this specific case, visualisations such as the ‘Behaviour Flow’ option.

These data visualisations provide an overview of how well a brand’s path to purchase is performing – how well the consumers are being drawn towards whichever page on a site represents conversion. Here we expect the largest drop-off in traffic to be at the first stage, and will be mostly made of those consumers with a vague yet not fully-formed interest in a product or service who will exit the site on having satiated their initial curiosity (and may be followed, until cookies are cleared, by a variety of slightly stalkerish home appliances, soft furnishings and the like).

Following this initial drop-off and, as per the illustration below some drop-offs are unavoidable, the aim is obviously to retain as many consumers at each stage as possible. The ways in which search marketing looks to accomplish this are initially by nurturing traffic flow and making things easy for consumers to convert into buyers.

Nurturing traffic flow and making things easy

It may sound like a string of buzzwords, but this is actually a pretty representative phrase. The days of websites on which every part desperately cried out for a visitor’s attention have been (with the famously bizarre exception of Ling’s Cars) put firmly in the past, the key now is to facilitate the consumer’s natural progress through a site.

The evolution of search marketing has been an intrinsic part of the progress towards a better user experience (UX) on the web, fostered by Google’s search algorithms – which have long penalised behaviour likely to unfairly manipulate search results, or impact consumer enjoyment.

One of the first tasks for any agency, or in-house search marketing team, for example, is the creation and curation of internal links and menus which boils down to the organisation of a site into easily traversable sections and pages in order to ensure that navigation of the site is as intuitive as possible. Not only are various ‘journeys’ tailored to (think men’s shoes>men’s [brand] shoes>men’s [brand] brown shoes>basket>checkout as a simple example) but also that all appropriate areas of the site are accessible from all others to avoid endless back-button clicking.

The aim of all this is to put in place a system which, though rarely perfect at first, is as good as initial data allows – in order for marketers to gather more data from consumer interaction. This then becomes a constant drive to improve the consumer’s experience of the site while reducing the drop-offs at various interaction points.

Using drop-offs to improve retention

Drop-offs represent an important opportunity to collect data for the improvement of the consumer’s journey. By analysing drop-offs on various landing pages, it is possible to carry out improvement work on those pages: are consumers exiting the page, for example, because they cannot reach the next page they want to visit (due to unclear navigation options, or poor link structure), or because there is insufficient content to enable them to make a decision?

By studying pages where drop-offs are outside of the expected or average range for the site, it is possible to carry out A/B tests on various versions of the page, channelling future sections of consumers through multiple versions of a page which have slight tweaks – this enables marketers to monitor performance of the different variations and their effect on the number of drop-offs that occur at this interaction stage.

It is this process of trial and improvement that leads to a better UX – because both sides of the eCommerce interaction require a pleasant consumer experience. It is also part of the reason that bank branch use continues to fall (as consumers embrace online banking services) and digital media and music purchases have consistently led to downturns in physical spend – the digital world is increasingly easy to navigate, it is more convenient to find what you’re looking for due to more and more complex search and behaviour algorithms. The ability that search marketing has to improve consumer experience, the ease of discovery and purchase has led, at least in part, to the increasingly digital economy in which we now live.

If we torture our supermarket metaphor a little more, we can compare the early days of internet marketing and eCommerce to a giant room in which marketers from all available brands hurled the products they represented at you in the hope that, when you fled, you would carry one of their products with you. Conversely, its modern incarnation is far more subtle and developed (though by no means the finished product) and, though there are outliers that persist in outmoded tactics, they are rapidly disappearing, and search marketing is continuing to evolve in the hopes of personalising the mass market.

Some possible mixed signals

For the majority of pages, high bounce rates can be an indication of poor performance – however, pages such as FAQs, contact pages or those set up to answer a specific query, can legitimately have high bounce rates without it being a negative indication. When looking at any performance metrics, they must be examined in-line with the page’s function on the site.

In each of the above, you can see both the longer reading time (3rd Column) of the information pages and the resultant high bounce rate (4th Column) which comes from a query having been answered. In these cases, the higher bounce rate is nothing to be concerned with as the contact us and delivery-returns pages are information only, meaning that consumers bouncing is a sign (more often than not) of an answered query over dissatisfaction. If these numbers were reversed, however, it would certainly be a worrying trend.

Methods of re-engagement

Display advertising

Display advertising’s behavioural remarketing method is, essentially, where we came in – and is very well explained in The Guardian article linked to at the beginning of this post. By monitoring consumer interactions with various pages, marketers develop behaviour segmentation methods which are designed to deliver appropriate advertisements to consumers. These tend to take the form of display and remarketing ads – dynamic ads on host websites or in SERPs featuring items added to subsequently abandoned baskets, or sales/discounts on various items looked at over time.

Organic (SEO)

As dealt with in a recent eBook (The Science Behind Content Marketing), there is more to content marketing than simply attempting to win new consumers, in fact content can be aimed at each of the interaction stages in order to try to reduce drop-offs or reengage consumers. Such content will tend to focus on the subsidiary interests of consumers, attempting to offer them useful and entertaining multi-media content in order to keep consumers coming back until the point is reached when they are ready to convert.

Need some help creating the perfect path to purchase for your brand? Contact us today to see what our experts can do to help your brand achieve the results it deserves.

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