Following the Digital Breadcrumbs: How Can We Understand the Dynamic Customer Journey?

I’m working on a report on how companies measure the revenue impact of social media (brands, please fill out our survey here). It’s not only a technically but philosophically complex topic.

Granted, the ability of social media to generate revenue has long been the elephant in the room; we realize that social media is transformative, we realize it creates opportunities to move from an impersonal and transactional to a more intimate and continuous relationship with customers, but…does it really help the business? Can we prove it?

More often than we like to admit, it’s not the notion of brand, but cold hard cash that proves the point. The recent Facebook IPO has brought the conversation about the revenue-generation potential of social media to a head, though that’s a separate post entirely.

I find myself looking for clues. Can we prove the relationship between a more “social” company and increased revenue? What does that look like? How do companies approach it? These are the questions I’m endeavoring to answer in the report.

But beyond philosophical differences of opinion lie the more practical challenges of understanding the customer journey in today’s online world versus the world of the early web. And it really is quite different. Here are a few key ways.

The Owned Website vs. the Open Web

In the good old days, if people wanted to understand online behavior, all they had to do was look at the analytics for their website(s), which they could tag to their heart’s content.

Now, with the open web, so much of the conversation occurs on sites these organizations do not own. Granted, you can add apps and ROI tags and storefronts to Facebook, you can add links to Twitter, but you will never know exactly what is going on from a conversion standpoint because–even if people would permit that level of tracking–you can’t physically tag the entire open web. You can, however, use qualitative methods to collect statistical evidence, but there is no such thing as precision with today’s Internet.

The Desktop Computer to the Multi-Screen World

Back when the Internet was young, we did most of our computing on a single device; a desktop or laptop computer. Today, we are living in a four (at least) screen world, in which (without authentication) it is near impossible to follow a customer’s digital breadcrumbs from laptop to tablet to smartphone to TV–and back again.

The Online to the Offline World

This issue is as thorny today as it was in 1995, not least of which because some companies still operate their online business separately from their brick-and-mortar stores. The key difference today is that we have smartphones, which (as many are betting) will bridge the online to offline worlds, providing customers with a more fluid and transparent experience, and companies with more context about how better to serve and sell to them.

The Impact of Sharing and “Influence”

When we think about the customer journey (and not just a “path to purchase, by the way), we tend to think about the customer in isolation, but the essence of social is, of course, people. We are now digitally surrounded by our friends and acquaintances–as well as perfect strangers–all the time. What we are not (always) able to know with precision is what external influences or influencers contributed to a particular customer experience or decision. (For some of the best thinking on this topic, take a look at my colleague Brian Solis’ latest report on the rise of digital influence.)

The net effect of this digitally fractured world (and the fact that I’ve been watching Grimm lately) reminds me of the Hansel and Gretel story; you can only follow the customer as far as the digital breadcrumbs will take you. Sometimes the trail goes cold, and you have to infer where they went next.

Here’s a tidbit of what I’m finding in my research so far: even though most companies I’m speaking with do measure the revenue impact of social in some way, what do you think is the greatest value they are seeing from their measurement efforts?

A: “Insight that helped us meet customer experience goals.”

Even though the survey hasn’t closed yet, it’s the top response by an overwhelming percentage (details to come). So, as you think about the journey customers are taking, and what we can know about the contribution of social to top line, consider this: whether or not we have all the data points, whether or not we can know to an atomic clock’s precision what customers are really doing and saying and feeling, the primary value of this measurement, according to people like you, is to improve their experience.

It’s heartening that so many are beginning to see these goals–revenue and relationship–as really one and the same. The question becomes: when will we be able to prove it?

Please fill out our survey here.

Additional reading on the dynamic customer journey:

About susanetlinger

Industry Analyst at Altimeter Group
This entry was posted in Altimeter, Facebook, Multichannel, Social Analytics, social commerce, Social media and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Following the Digital Breadcrumbs: How Can We Understand the Dynamic Customer Journey?

  1. I look forward to seeing what you come up with here. It is an important conversation but probably not one that leads in a straight line. The conversation I have with many companies is that when someone comes to your website they have a problem they are trying to solve. Otherwise they won’t be there. So tracking the visits to sales has become more clearly understood. Social is different. People go to social sites because they have an interest in a subject or want to connect with a group of people. They are not there because they have a problem to solve. The opportunity for brands to be be an active, positive member of that community so that when people do have an issue and raise their hand, the community points them to that company to solve the problem. The issue is how do you track that to sales? We have some ideas that we are still maturing but I love this topic and look forward to seeing how you progress here.

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