The customer journey takes a detour

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For years, many manufacturers relied on the same time-tested approach to craft their customer journey: drive consumers to customer service reps and retail stores, where they could ask questions, check prices and, in many cases, experience the product for themselves. But in the digital age, these service intangibles are lost, forcing online shoppers to turn to new ways to make confident buying decisions.

Insight 1: The path to purchase starts online

Without an in-person retail experience to anchor the buying journey, consumers are turning to new trusted sources and experiences to help them navigate options and answer key questions. More specifically, 83 percent of respondents said their online research experience is somewhat important to very important in the purchase process—with 43 percent saying it is very important.

Sources of product research

As digitally centered buyer journeys become the norm, interesting patterns are emerging that can help brands predict the approach consumers will take when they head online. Across product categories, manufacturer websites have become a critical point for consumers to gain new information—and even make purchases.

For example, when purchasing high-priced, high-tech, technical, or complicated products, respondents indicated they prefer to buy directly from a manufacturer rather than through a retailer. Only consumer goods, including health, beauty products, and food, are still much more likely to take place at a retailer.

These divergent pathways suggest consumers are attempting to meet different needs when shopping in highly technical categories vs. when they are buying consumer goods. When it comes to big-ticket purchases, consumers now expect manufacturer websites to provide a reliable starting place by helping them collect key information and discover helpful content about technical features to support more informed decision making.

Yet many manufacturer websites may be missing the mark in this regard. While nearly three-quarters of respondents said they expect these benefits from manufacturer websites, far fewer actually consulted product information on a manufacturer’s website before making a purchase. To reverse this trend, manufacturers must make websites more appealing destinations for product information and purchase.

Additionally, investing in innovative search and SEO strategies can help put a manufacturer’s brand front and center during the online research phase. This also supports consumer demand for personalized product content that is tailored to their specific questions and concerns.

Insight 2: Word-of-mouth matters more than ever to inform decision making

To overcome the inability to try out new products for themselves, consumers are doubling down on the insights they can gain from others’ experiences – via trusted sources and general word-of-mouth (WOM).

This WOM has taken on some new forms in the digital world. For one, online influencers have now largely replaced retail employees as a primary pre-purchasing voice. While 52.69 percent of respondents indicated they still rely on word-of-mouth, 31.34 percent also turn to YouTube review videos, 11.47 percent take advantage of augmented-reality tools, and 9.22 percent use AI experiences to collect product information and insights. Additionally, retailer and third-party reviews are both frequently used to garner unbiased product reviews (48.63 and 49.06 percent, respectively).

These trends suggest consumers are looking for more than just product information during the research phase; they are also looking for answers to specific questions about use, product reliability, safety, and other key questions. Moreover, they suggest that failing to accommodate consumer expectations with the right mix of helpful content, intuitive navigation, and accessibility features can have a detrimental effect on consumer opinions about your brand and its products.

Easy access to reviews, digital product experiences, and comprehensive information all play a role in turning a prospect into a customer, but they also generate positive consumer sentiment. Online, consumer opinions can spread quickly. When a few customers are unhappy, it can jeopardize the bottom line. In fact, research from McKinsey WOM is the primary factor driving 20 to 50 percent of purchasing decisions. Focusing on creating positive digital experiences is critical for brands to begin building a solid foundation for long-term WOM success.