Marketers: Steer Right Along Consumer Desire Paths

Desire paths are a concept born in the physical world. You see them in places where there is a nicely planned path of travel — like a paved walkway through a park — and not far away from it, there is an alternate path that has been cut by people choosing their own path. That’s a desire path.

John Long blog image
Credit: John Long

Desire paths are a concept born in the physical world. You see them in places where there is a nicely planned path of travel — like a paved walkway through a park — and not far away from it, there is an alternate path that has been cut by people choosing their own path. That’s a desire path.

There are many different reasons for desire paths. Perhaps people want to take a shortcut through the park. Or maybe the additional path was started because so many people were walking the paved path, people wanted to find an alternate route to avoid the crowd. Or, perhaps, there was unspoken “rule of the road” that paved paths were for walkers and bikers created a new path to make things safer for all travelers.

In any event, the point is this:

People simply don’t always go the way you want them to go. And a ton can be learned by watching the behavior of those people finding their own way.

In fact, some college campus planners are now starting to end sidewalks short of their destination on purpose, so they can observe where people naturally create the end of the path. After they see where people travel on their own, they come back and pave that path. In other words: Designers are giving people a start, and then co-designing the end based on desire paths.

Now to get this in the business realm, the paved path provided would be “marketing.” And the well-beaten path created by people going where they want to go would be “market research.”

As a brand, you most likely do market research to try to understand what products or offerings or marketing messages you should create based on what people are craving, or what they are missing in other brands’ offerings. Then you put those offerings into market and spend advertising and content dollars to make people aware of the value you provide. And, in a perfect world, the dollars come rolling in.

But many brands miss the idea of using their marketing as market research. Desire paths are a good metaphor for an iterative approach to marketing … to learning from how people use content and experiences — the paths we provide. We can also learn a lot from observing how they *don’t* use them … or alter them.

Let’s call that information we gather “digital desire paths.”

When Twitter was first getting started, the idea of hashtags weren’t a designed part of the system.

Instead, people using Twitter who wanted to be able to better identify different topics for others to search for, follow and contribute to started using hashtags to identify words as specific keywords for search. Sometimes, the words were common (like #skateboarding) to allow people to find specific conversations, but not all mentions of the word (skateboarding, sans #). But other times, the words were more branded (like #NikeSB or #SkateYourDunks or even #trashin) to allow brands or power users to “own” specific conversations.

After the idea took hold and people started using hashtags to full effect, the engineers at Twitter added functionality to the system to make hashtags work better. They formalized the convention — like paving the dusty path created by walkers through a park. But the starting point was a desire path of power tweeters. (But just try to imagine Twitter  — and now Instagram  — without hashtags! The experience would be much less pleasant or rewarding.)

Digital desire paths, like hashtags or fan blog posts and more, are the clues for where people are going already. It’s simple market research that’s worth far more than creating functionality in a product, or value in content, and then seeing if people actually want it. This is market research from the bottom up — real indicators of need from the most ardent fans to inform creation. If you’re brand is authentic to the conversation those desire paths intone, they can become your path into the conversation and to more targeted content ideas.

Let’s take a note from college planners in marketing. Let’s create some great starts and see where our audience takes them. Let’s learn from the desire paths, and then create content that’s in people’s natural path, rather than always trying to tell them where to go.