The Death of the Purchase Funnel

First published June 21, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

A recent series of three posts on the Harvard Business Review blog by Karen Freeman, Patrick Spenner and Anna Bird explored some of the myths about how consumers make decisions. I think each of these has direct implications for search marketers, so over the next three weeks I want to explore them one at a time.

The first, titled “What Do Consumers Really Want? Simplicity,” talks about the breakdown of the purchase funnel. The HBR bloggers contend the funnel, which has been around for well over a hundred years, no longer applies to consumer behaviors. I concur, and said as much in my book, “The BuyerSphere Project.”

We differ a little on the reason for the demise, however. The HBR team credits the demise to cognitive overload on the part of the consumer. We’re simply bombarded by too much information on the purchase path to fit it all into the nice, simple, rational filtering process captured in St. Elmo Lewis’s elegant funnel-shaped model. The accompanying research, a survey of 7,000 consumers, shows decision simplicity was the number-one thing people wanted when making a purchase.

I agree that information overload is part of it, but I also believe that two other factors have led to the end of the purchase funnel. First, the purchase funnel assumes a rational filtering of options based on careful consideration of a consumer’s requirements. I don’t think this was ever the case. Emotions drive our decisions, and more often than not, rationality is applied after the fact to justify our choices. Prior to the Internet, emotion was tough to distinguish from rationality, as buyers didn’t have much control over the content they accessed during the consideration process. They were limited to whatever the marketer pushed out at them. So, whether driven by emotion or logic, they tended to go down the same path and display many of the same behaviors. Given the pervasive believe in humans as rational animals at the time, it was not surprising that a logic-driven model emerged.

The other factor, as I alluded to, was that the Internet shifted the balance of power during the purchase process. Suddenly, we could choose which paths we took during the consideration process. We weren’t all forced down the same path, according to some arbitrary notion of a funnel-shaped model.

What became clear, when consumers could choose their own path, was that the simplicity of the funnel model bore little relation to the actual paths consumers took. And those paths were driven by emotion. People bounced all around, depending on what they were looking to buy. They could go all the way to a shopping cart, then suddenly abandon it and go back to a destination that would be considered “upper funnel” and start all over again. From the outside looking in, this resembled a bowl of spaghetti much more than it did a funnel.

So, we have a trio of suspects in the death of the purchasing funnel: cognitive overload, emotion trumping logic, and consumers gaining more control over their consideration path. All lead to an interesting concept to consider: laying an online path that anticipates the emotional needs of the buyer, and yet keeps the information presented from overwhelming them. For example, marketing has traditionally taken a “turf war” approach to persuading a prospect: “as long as they’re on our turf, we do everything possible to close the sale.

But this doesn’t really match up with the three trends we’re talking about. What online consumers are looking for, according to the HBR research, is a safe online zone that will make their decision easier. Rather than going from site to site, collecting information and filtering out overt marketing hyperbole, what consumers want is a single information source they can trust. They want to be able to lower their “anti-BS” shields, because being a rational, cynical shopper takes a lot of time and effort.

Today, it’s extremely rare to find that trustworthy information on a site you can actually purchase from, but it’s starting to happen in some high activity categories, where independent portals facilitate this simplified approach to shopping. Travel comes to mind.

But let’s consider what would happen if a brand’s website took this approach. Rather than bombard a prospect with exaggerated sales pitches, putting them on the defensive, what if a more neutral, objective experience was provided?  After all, why shouldn’t the decision path be built on your own turf, giving you a home field advantage?

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