Marketing 101: What Is a Customer Journey?

Melanie Balke
March 12, 2024

You’ll hear many strange terms as you learn about marketing efforts.

You’ll hear about “KPIs” and “churn.” You’ll notice phrases like “customer lifetime value” and “return on investment.” Most of these terms are self-explanatory, but one frequent offender lacks that level of clarity.

That’s the customer journey.

What is this? Why are the customers traveling, and how does that impact your business strategy?

At The Email Marketers, my job is to demystify the otherwise confounding world of digital marketing. My blog is an extension of that mission. So, join me! Begin your marketing efforts with some insight and learn what a “customer journey” really is.

I’ll give you a hint: It’s not a vacation!

Defining the Customer Journey

Dirty keys on a rusted analog cash register. “Rthe Basics: Understanding the Customer Journey.”

The customer journey is the conceptualization of a potential buyer’s trek through your sales funnel.

The customer journey is traditionally conceived as a five-step process:

  1. Awareness
  2. Consideration
  3. Purchase
  4. Retention
  5. Advocacy

(And I’ll discuss these stages in depth. Be patient!)

A holistic visual representation of these stages is collectively known as a customer journey map. Much like a real map, these visualizations act as a guide for your marketing team. Ideally, they should be based on thorough market research and customer feedback. Most will also incorporate different audiences (formally, “segments”), each with unique selling points.

Notably, the customer journey is not synonymous with a buyer’s journey. Although both concepts are similar, the buyer’s journey ends after a purchase, while a customer journey includes post-purchase actions. (Arguably, you could say the buyer’s journey is nested within the customer journey. But that’s a discussion for another time!)

Why You Should Care About Customer Journey Mapping

A person and small dog sit inside a tent. “The Benefits: Why Bother With Customer Journey Mapping?”

Now, you may be saying, “This is great and all, but why does it matter? I already have mounds of customer data. Why do I need to draw a map?”

Strictly speaking, you’re not wrong. A customer journey map isn’t a rigid requirement. It’s not a government-mandated business prerequisite. It’s not a legal ruling like the CAN-SPAM Act. Some business owners may even claim that customer journey design is a waste of time.

However, these facts shouldn’t dim your enthusiasm for the process.

Increase Revenue With Fully Realized Customer Journeys

I’ll start with the number everyone wants to know.

Yes, you can increase your ROI with a well-researched customer journey map. Otherwise, businesses would ignore the idea.

I won’t sugarcoat things; the customer journey mapping process is difficult. It’s an extension of customer-centric marketing; naturally, it requires hours of market research and data analysis. It’s an innately dense and time-consuming process. Nonetheless, it remains a facet of modern business plans because it works.

According to Adobe’s research, the vast majority — 80% — of businesses are investing in their customer experience. They crave the validation of word-of-mouth marketing generated by exemplary customer service. And — again — it works; customer-centric businesses are 60% more profitable than their more detached counterparts.

Amplify Engagement and Shape the Customer Experience

One of the reasons for this strategy’s success is its experiential impact.

Simply put, consumers are more likely to engage with trustworthy businesses. This is no secret and certainly not a new development. Everyone — including you and I — would much rather do business with a longstanding and reputable brand than “Toothpaste That Totally Doesn’t Cause Uncomfortable Thrush, Incorporated.” (At least I hope you won’t buy that toothpaste!)

Fortunately for everyone, most of those burn-and-churn brands popping up aren’t keen on massive investments. They rely on low prices and forced engagement to win short-lived success. The customer’s experience is secondary to their business goals. And that’s where you — and your glorious customer journey map — swoop in!

Leverage Familiarity to Gain Trust

Creating a customer journey is an inherently personal experience. It forces you into the shoes of your consumers.

Leverage that experience against your competition. Use it to gain trust and encourage word-of-mouth marketing. Every time a customer interacts with your content, you have a chance to hammer home those pain points.

Moreover, you have an opportunity to emphasize your brand’s selling points.

Understand Your Customer’s Expectations

Don’t let that effort go to waste! Take every customer interacting with your content as an opportunity.

A customer journey map creates unique segments with standardized ideals. It shows how customers interact with and share your content. In doing so, it helps your content marketing team craft idealized campaigns for many audiences.

A customer journey map is the difference between a weeks-long campaign creation process and a two-day flow. Each idealized buyer persona is a roadmap — an organized collection of otherwise abstract concepts.

Most importantly, the customer journey map covers every stage of the customer relationship.

It provides marketers with a handy guide to interacting with your consumers. In that sense, it acts as a call center script. For new customers, marketing should use this language; returning buyers get that script. And, like a script, these anticipatory guidelines streamline your behind-the-scenes operations without impacting your overall customer satisfaction.

The Five Stages of the Customer Journey Map

A 19th century study by Richard Parkes Bonington of various dogs. “How It Works: The Five Stages of the Customer Journey Map.”

With that in mind, how do you create an effective customer journey map?

I already noted the five stages of a classical map, but I didn’t define the stages.

Each stage of the customer journey is built around a single idea. It may be nested in multiple secondary business goals or enumerated with multiple buyer personas, but the core values remain the same.

These stages are neither foolproof nor necessarily linear.

A particularly eager buyer may leap directly from awareness to purchase. Remember that these are idealized versions of the average customer. Real people (probably) won’t open every email you send or buy something from every sale. Loyal customers may fall off the colloquial gravy train.

It’s okay! That’s part of the customer lifecycle.

However, these stages give your marketing and sales rep groups definite goals. They anticipate concerns and consider the customer perspective, amplifying the efficacy of every customer interaction.

1. Awareness

A 16th century etching by Hendrick Goltzius, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan. “Stage 1: The potential consumer becomes aware of a product or service.”

Every customer journey begins with the awareness stage.

This is the moment a customer hears of your brand. It’s that initial spark of interest. Your potential customers can come from many sources, including:

  • Digital advertising (e.g., email marketing, SEO, or social media campaigns)
  • In-person events (e.g., conventions or trade shows)
  • Traditional advertising (e.g., print, television, or word-of-mouth marketing campaigns)

Regardless of the source, the goal remains the same.

This is your elevator pitch. You have a few precious seconds to shape this critical customer experience.

Wow them.

Do your research! It’s not enough to imagine yourself in your customer’s shoes. You must also survey customers and evaluate your current and potential future approaches to marketing. Aside from anticipating customer behavior, you must also account for the different experiences of your target audience. After all, that Gen Z customer won’t be enamored by the same things as a Millennial!

2. Consideration

Various library books. “Stage 2: Consumers analyze and consider the product’s inherent value.”

After the awareness stage, potential customers begin considering your brand’s value.

Think of this as the “if x, then y” stage of the customer journey map. (Remember that some customers skip this step entirely!)

Where the awareness stage emphasizes personable communication and introductions, the consideration stage focuses on your customer’s perspective. At this point, customers understand the basics of your brand. They know what you do and how it works. However, they’ve yet to commit to the brand.

This is when you push the pain points. You’ve moved beyond cordial customer interactions and vague drip marketing. This is your chance to create a customer who wants your product above all others — to mold otherwise apathetic consumers into target customers.

3. Decision

A man fixes his shoes. “Stage 3: Buyers decide to purchase a product or service.”

Also known as the “purchase” phase, the decision stage of the customer journey is your make-or-break moment. Here, you either create a customer or lose a buyer. In some ways, it’s a unique processing stage; in others, it’s an extension of the consideration stage.

This is when companies really hammer home the monetary value of their products and services. Coupon codes, discounts, and incentives are commonplace. You’ll also see plenty of abandoned cart campaigns.

Ultimately, you can’t please everyone. This is the most unpredictable part of the customer journey map. Success hinges upon customer actions, which can be swayed by forces beyond your control. Customer emotions, personal experiences, and uncontrollable circumstances can make an otherwise perfect customer experience map.

That said, perfection isn’t your goal. Instead, you want to identify touchpoints and outdo your competition.

4. Retention

Friendly soldiers sitting in a train boxcar, circa 1940s. “Stage 4: Focus on maintaining relationships with buyers.”

Like awareness, the retention stage isn’t a universal experience. Even the best marketing team will lose a few sales. However, those successful conversions are the basis of your next step in the customer journey map.

You’ve won their interest and trust. Now, you want to maintain that relationship.

Don’t take that to mean you can ignore customer pain points. You must still remain vigilant and incorporate your buyers’ individual needs into your journey mapping. You’re still striving to meet and exceed customer expectations.

However, this portion of the journey map is more personal. It’s a return to the more amicable language of introductory phases of your sales funnel, albeit with more familiarity.

Focus on crafting a positive customer experience. Entice those fresh buyers with information and deals they can’t resist.

5. Advocacy

The Cathedral of Saint Jakobus in Rüdesheim, Germany, circa 1940s. “Stage 5: Cultivate customer loyalty through engagement.”

It may be the physical end of your customer journey map, but the advocacy stage is an ongoing process.

This is the culmination of your efforts. You gained attention and won the monetary battle. You’ve secured a purchase and cultivated a crowd of loyal customers. You’ve moved consumers through the entire customer journey, but this is not the time to grow complacent!

Create a post-purchase customer journey that emphasizes loyalty.

Most brands utilize loyalty rewards and referral programs to nurture relationships. You don’t have to follow that model, though!

What Are Customer Personas?

A 16th century Cariani painting of musicians. “Personas: What Is a Buyer Persona?”

Of course, you can’t use a single model for every customer journey.

You need multiple models to simulate the experiences of multiple audiences — a buyer persona.

Within the visual representation of your customer journey map, each persona has its own flow. Buyers in Group A are unlikely to overlap with those in Group B for any number of reasons. Thus, each group’s customer journey stages will differ.

At its core, a buyer persona is little more than an idealized version of a customer segment. It’s the collective result of customer data and behavioral analysis. While any of your customer personas may reflect an individual customer’s experience, they’re unlikely to act as perfect analogs of your target audience.

What It Takes to Create a Customer Persona

A customer journey begins with awareness, and your personas are no different! The most effective buyer personas begin with an in-depth analysis of your customer data.

Forget about those other things. Right now, those pain points are irrelevant. The beginning stages of a buyer persona are little more than applied analytical skills. You’ll want to snag your sales rep and ask for as much information as they can find. Begin with demographics and build your ideal customer upon that template.

Take a more general look at the different stages of your customer journey mapping. Many find it helpful to ask themselves questions such as:

  • How are customers discovering my brand? Digital customer interactions are different from old-fashioned advertising touchpoints.
  • What do my customers expect from my product? Every customer needs something — deals, information, and product specifications are just a few examples. Use these customer journey touchpoints to your advantage.
  • What does my customer feedback say? These details can help you streamline your buying process.
  • Who is most likely to interact with my content? This is your target audience.

Learn From Customer Experience

When developing a customer journey map, your customer service team is your best friend.

Aside from knowing your audience’s most common problems, your service team understands the importance of customer touchpoints. They’re often the first point of contact, dutifully serving consumers in those early customer journey stages. I’d go so far as to say it’s foolhardy to even attempt creating a customer journey map without their input!

Your customer service teams know who is beginning that journey and how they interact with your brand. Use them as a resource. Again, many business owners find it easier to think of a buyer persona as a series of questions. As you create a customer journey, you’ll want the most comprehensive view of how any given customer interacts with your content.

In that sense, your journey mapping is as economic as it is behavioral. If you want your research to accurately reflect your business goals, you must seek out the correct information. By now, you’ve made a basic template. Now, build upon it; ask questions such as:

  • How do potential customers interact with the business? Some audiences prefer live conversations, while others are satisfied with chatbots. Some audiences would rather chat over the phone than send an email. None of these ideas are necessarily “wrong” in an objective sense. However, that choice can be the wrong subjective move for your customer experience.
  • How does a loyal customer promote our business? Consider the end goal of each customer persona. Make your brand about more than what the customer takes from your storefront. Add points within your journey mapping to nurture early engagement and recommendations. Never be complacent with what your customers experience as they flow through your journey map.
  • How is customer behavior shaping conversion rates? Look at business trends. Are consumers dropping from your funnel during the consideration stage? Perhaps you’re losing precious audience members to competitors. Analyze the data and see how those consumer actions reflect your current marketing plans.
  • Is the current buying process meeting customer needs? A customer journey map should improve your sales and operations. Begin that evolution early by analyzing each segment’s experience within your buying process. Customer satisfaction surveys are a convenient way to learn more about this particular facet of the customer journey.

Negative Buyer Personas

There are also negative buyer personas. These are the inverse of your ideal customer.

That’s obviously not a personal indictment. These buyers are probably great people! However, they’re not part of your brand’s image. There can be various reasons for this, although disposable funds and geographic location are the most common sticking points for negative personas.

Zero in on buyers with low customer satisfaction and poor customer experiences. Interviewing these individuals will give you another view of your customer touchpoints. In many cases, you’ll also see the entire customer journey from a different view — that of a dissatisfied buyer.

Of course, an individual customer’s journey isn’t an infallible reflection of your customer service teams. A few upset buyers are nothing compared to a horde of loyal customers. Consider each customer’s journey an individual part of your overall customer journey mapping process. It may or may not accurately reflect your current situation.

Nonetheless, a consistent trend of poor customer experiences is worrisome. You want more positive customer touchpoints than negative ones. Fortunately, your customer journey mapping is the perfect opportunity to improve your customer experience!

Note that you don’t have to create a negative persona. It’s just another tool for shaping your customer journey map.

Amplify Your Marketing

Needless to say, customer journey mapping is a long and involved process.

It’s more than analyzing customer touchpoints for a few hours. It’s more than scrutinizing your customer loyalty stats. It’s a full-blown process of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Yes, you can use a customer journey map to improve the customer experience and outshine your competition. However, most customer journeys can take a small team weeks (or more) to develop. Add more time for additional personas in the different stages of the journey map. That requisite investment is a massive pain point. The effort needed to create a customer journey map is beyond the scope of most businesses, particularly startups and small enterprises.

That’s why I founded The Email Marketers.

My team of digital marketing experts understands the complexities of modern marketing. As its leader, I’ve hand-picked the best of the best, and those prodigious minds become yours. They’ll work alongside your brand to develop a strategy that emphasizes pain points without stifling the delicate balance of your customer journey.

Do you have an existing customer journey? Don’t worry! We’ll refine that customer journey map.

Are you just starting? We can make a customer journey map for your business.

Schedule a free strategy session and see how a trusted marketing partner can make your customer journeys shine. We’ll handle those pesky customer journey maps for you, freeing your team to work on what really matters.