Customer Journeys Don’t Start on Your Website

Let’s forget about all the technology and data stuff for a moment, and bring in some common sense here: We all are the sum of our past experiences, not just a snapshot of the present moment. Without having a degree in psychology, anyone who has any long-term relationship with other human beings knows that.

Winning Over Consumers: The 4 essential content considerations that drive prospects to choose you over your competitorsDuring my startup CTO days, which were a relatively long time ago in tech years (much like dog years), I’d met with folks at Google to see if there was any synergy to be found. This was way before they became almighty; you could say that it was when they were just a search company, though they were already the best one in the industry at that. But the short story is that the meeting went south as soon as it started.

Our company was one of the first behavioral targeting companies based on SKU-level transaction data from more than 1,000 sources. (Now I hear that the same co-op database is much bigger.) In those days, the first page of our presentation deck said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” a statement that I still stand by.

But one of the mid-level executives from Google cut our CEO off in mid-sentence and said that the company did not subscribe to that point of view. He said the only thing that matters is what the user types in the search box right at this moment. I was too shocked by such bold statement to refute, but I thought that it was such a myopic view.

Obviously, based on what we hear in the news and our user experience, we can see that Google has been collecting every bit of data that comes its way, and actually uses everything it collects. I wonder if the person who made that statement properly represented Google’s view of the world, even back then.

Let’s forget about all the technology and data stuff for a moment, and bring in some common sense: We all are the sum of our past experiences, not just a snapshot of the present moment. Without having a degree in psychology, anyone who has any long-term relationship with other human beings knows that. Likewise, if marketers want to stay relevant with their customers and prospects, yes, they simply cannot ignore their pasts.

Luckily for marketers and data players, human beings constantly leave trails behind, digital or otherwise. Data are everywhere, from the past to the present moment. With all of the technologies available to us, we can do almost magical things in comparison to the early days of marketing analytics and targeting. Then, why aren’t we impressed with modern-day marketing as consumers? Aren’t we living in the days of Big Data? And why do you think the very word “Big Data” doesn’t sound so promising anymore?

I dare to say it is because of decision-makers with tunnel-vision occupying the marketing world. No amount of data will help the matter if the users lack vision. If a marketer thinks that the so-called “customer journey” starts only after someone lands on some site, well, he is already stuck in that small world. Unfortunately, customers do not live in some one-dimensional channel, and their journeys started long before they ever landed anywhere, or before they typed in any search word in that little box. Someone — maybe the channel manager’s colleague a few doors down the corridor — did something to evoke curiosity for the search. And that trigger may have happened because yet someone else collected and analyzed the data from an even earlier moment.

In this world, there are marketers who create “needs,” and there are ones who react to customer action, and we obviously need them all. “Omnichannel” marketing is a popular term, but even that is based on a flat point of view. We need to see the world along the timeline, as well. It is just that the situation often is misunderstood, because not all channels may seemingly be relevant at the same time. When marketing departments are divided based on channels, it becomes nearly impossible for any one player to obtain such a timeline view.

To part away from the pusher’s side, let’s follow a journey of a consumer. For me, as a consumer, to receive a catalog or an email for golf equipment, someone must have collected a lot of data about me. Then someone else must have carefully consolidated all kinds of data around me (i.e., creating a 360-degree view of “me” based on demographic, transactional, behavioral, psychographic, attitudinal, movement, geographic data, etc.). When treated right, such data trails would lead to proper targeting, so that I get to see relevant messages or offers, through appropriate delivery channels, digital or not.

Author: Stephen H. Yu

Stephen H. Yu is a world-class database marketer. He has a proven track record in comprehensive strategic planning and tactical execution, effectively bridging the gap between the marketing and technology world with a balanced view obtained from more than 30 years of experience in best practices of database marketing. Currently, Yu is president and chief consultant at Willow Data Strategy. Previously, he was the head of analytics and insights at eClerx, and VP, Data Strategy & Analytics at Infogroup. Prior to that, Yu was the founding CTO of I-Behavior Inc., which pioneered the use of SKU-level behavioral data. “As a long-time data player with plenty of battle experiences, I would like to share my thoughts and knowledge that I obtained from being a bridge person between the marketing world and the technology world. In the end, data and analytics are just tools for decision-makers; let’s think about what we should be (or shouldn’t be) doing with them first. And the tools must be wielded properly to meet the goals, so let me share some useful tricks in database design, data refinement process and analytics.” Reach him at

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