“What is the most important skill a marketer should cultivate?” I got asked recently. It didn’t take me more than a heartbeat to reply.
“Empathy and curiosity.”
Technical skills can be learned or improved. The innate willingness to understand your audience is much harder to develop.
But thankfully, some tools and methodologies can help you understand your target audience and serve them better. And chief among them stand two elements: the audience persona and the customer journey map. Today, I want to tell you more about the latter.
The Goldilocks zone of customer understanding
There are many customer understanding frameworks, and it makes sense to explain why the customer journey map is the best for me. So let’s look at some of the standard formats and compare them.
Marketing funnels: too broad
Traditionally, marketers are used to thinking in terms of funnels. People go in through the top stages (where awareness is generated) and pass to the bottom ones (the land of purchases and conversions). A simple Google search of “marketing funnel” will give you a myriad of different versions:
The problem with funnels is that they provide a very rigid and static understanding of how your audience behaves. And that’s no wonder – the funnel is old! The concept was devised in the 19th century (in 1898 by the American advertising and sales pioneer, E. St. Elmo):
Here are some of the implications that come with thinking about the customer experience in terms of a funnel:
- Funnels feel one-directional. Customers actually can jump through different stages or go back and forth between stages;
- Funnels are rigid. It’s hard to add or change stages depending on the persona you’re working for;
- Funnels are not industry-specific. It’s hard to believe that an FMCG brand and an enterprise services company should be looking at their customers’ experience through the same lens;
- Funnels are broad. There are a ton of different ways to get awareness. Lumping everything up in one place might prevent you from appreciating the finer details.
- Funnels are not customer-centric. The funnel almost gives the impression that the customer is falling down like Alice through the rabbit hole and not moving by his own accord.
If funnels are too generic and broad, let’s look at the other end of the spectrum.
Micro-moments: too detailed
Another popular way of describing the customer journey is through micro-moments. This concept is much more recent and applicable to the digital age. Google introduced it to describe the moments where we instinctively reach out to a digital device to satisfy a need. This video will show you the diversity of micro-moments:
I appreciate the fact that micro-moments show the details of every customer interaction. The takeaway is that people’s behavior is much more dynamic and specific than funnels give them credit for. Here’s what an entire customer journey looks like if described through the lens of micro-moments:
This is an excellent visualization if you want to showcase how complex customer interactions are. But it holds little practical value if you’re going to base marketing or product decisions on it. It’s as specific as the fingerprint of that customer. And it’s too detailed for any actionable insights.
Customer journey maps: just right
And here we come to my main point: customer journey maps provide enough flexibility to describe your particular business case. But they’re also general enough to allow you to make decisions based on it.
There’s also a shift in perception when we look at a customer journey map. Its structure allows for the possibility that some customers might skip stages or jump to a “previous” or “next” stage in the journey. It’s a subtle difference, and it might not look like something important at first. But just as our language shapes our understanding of the world (cue in the obligatory “Eskimos have a ton of words for snow” mention), our visualization of the customer journey helps us understand the actual experience.
Customer journey mapping basics
So here are the basics. If you’re already familiar with customer journey maps, just skip to the how-to section. I won’t hold it against you!
What is a customer journey map?
A customer journey map is a tool that helps you gain a deeper understanding of the process a customer goes through to achieve a goal with you. By “you” I mean your brand, website, product, or business. The customer map encompasses the user behavior across each stage of the process. It can highlight pain points and unanswered questions you can address to make the experience better.
A customer journey map is not only a diagram of the different stages or a timeline of the customer interactions. It’s a way to understand what customers go through and find ways to serve them at each step better.
What is a customer journey map used for?
Although it may seem like a wholly theoretical exercise, building customer journey maps will benefit your business. According to the Aberdeen Group, companies get 25% higher incremental revenue from marketing campaigns, 21% lower service costs, and a 17% shorter sales cycle by mapping and managing the customer experience.
There are many different applications for journey maps and several other names they go by. You’ll hear about “UX journey maps”, “buyer journey maps”, “user journey maps”, “experience maps”, and other variations. Let me alleviate the confusion – the approach to create all of these is the same. The difference lies in what the map is used for (and often which department is working on it).
Journey maps are versatile, and they allow you to gain insights in a lot of different directions:
- Planning marketing activities and channels to be used;
- Prioritizing product improvements;
- Changing the customer service process;
- Improving your UX and UI;
- Designing the handoff between different departments;
- Identifying gaps in the messaging used in various stages of the journey;
- Defining what materials to provide to prospects in the sales process;
- Aaaand probably many more that I can’t think of right now!
A customer journey map can be used whenever you need to dive deeper into the steps customers go through, their needs and pains, and how you can help them succeed and gain their trust.
This versatility is both a blessing and a curse. You need to be crystal clear about what you want to achieve with the customer journey map. Designing one just to fill up a wall in the office and look more startup-y is a waste of your time.
Customer journey map types and examples
If you look for customer journey maps on the Internet, you’ll see a ton of different versions. That’s because there are quite a few different shapes that your customer journey map can take:
Broad or narrow: A broad map represents the entire customer journey and can help you better understand the overall customer experience. A narrow map focuses on a specific issue or interaction you want to explore in-depth.
Current or future: A current-state map explains what is happening right now. It’s a way to take stock and look for improvement opportunities. A future-state map will present an idealized improved version of the customer journey. It will allow your team to get away from what is possible and describe what is ideal. The next step will be to explain how to get there.
Day in the Life map: This variation is closer to the description of micro-moments. It outlines a generalized case and represents each step of the customer’s journey in the context of their broader life. It’s an excellent way to get a better understanding of what your customers are going through. But it’s so specific that it rarely brings a lot of actionable insights. As the Empathy Map further down, it’s more suitable as a warm-up activity.
Service Blueprint: This format represents the inner workings of a business. It is often used in service design. It shows not just the client’s point of view but also the internal business interactions that need to happen for you to service the customer.
Empathy map: The empathy map doesn’t represent the step-by-step journey a customer goes through. It zooms into their emotions and thoughts. It’s a great tool to create more empathy (well, duh!), and I find it useful as a first step or a warm-up exercise for the actual customer journey mapping.
If you want to go through more examples, User Interviews did a great job collecting a bunch of different customer journey maps in a handy Google Slides file.
How to create a customer journey map?
If you’re here, you probably don’t want just to learn – you want to act. So let’s get down to business – and the steps of creating your customer journey map.
Defining the goals and scope
As you’ve seen by now, there’s a ton of different ways to use a customer journey map. So you need to make sure everyone is on the same page about what you’re trying to achieve and what exactly you’ll be working on. Answer the following questions:
- What are the questions we’re trying to answer, the issues we’re trying to solve, or the changes we’re trying to prioritize? In short, what do we want to achieve with the mapping process?
- Which stages of the customer journey are affected? Will we be analyzing the broad overall journey, or will we focus on a specific section?
- What personas will we be mapping for? Different personas often have different journeys, so you need to be working for a specific one.
If you’re creating your customer journey map in a workshop setting, these are some details you can include in your initial email to the team.
Conducting research and data collection
Once you have your general research direction, you need to collect any information that will enable you to build a better customer journey map.
- Look at Google Analytics, Amplitude, Mixpanel, or other user tracking tools. They can help you see the user flow, what channels they come from, and any additional relevant information. The key here is to understand how people travel from one digital place to the next, what information they seek, and how they move in your site or product. The Goals Flow report and the Behavior Flow report in Google Analytics can be helpful here, as well as any funnel reports your analytics tool has to offer.
- Since a lot of the customer journey mapping I do is related to content strategy, I also look at the content pieces that drive the most traffic and highest engagement. Bonus points if you can link that to the user’s intent.
- You can also zoom into interactions on specific pages. Heatmap tools like Hotjar will show what parts of the page people read in detail and what elements they just gloss over.
- You can record visitor sessions to see the entire user’s interaction in detail. Hotjar can help here, too.
- Any will come in handy, too – Net Promoter Score, customer satisfaction data, and so on. If you’re continuously tracking customer feedback, you’re sitting on a treasure trove of data. And if you aren’t, it’s time to start tracking now!
- If you have the time to do it, I’d recommend conducting some interviews with customers. They will allow you to understand a personal journey fully. The critical thing here is to focus on what happened rather than what people think now. As we are all social creatures, we tend to say what we think others want to hear rather than what we truly believe.
- Any form of customer feedback you have access to can be helpful. Review any feedback forms, customer support chats, discussions with sales reps, social media messages…
- You don’t necessarily need data from your own customers. If you’re new to the market or you’ve never done customer research before, you can start by reviewing what your target audience is saying online. Message mining can help you learn from actual discussions online.
Data gathering is an essential step in the process, but you’re always running the risk of getting stuck here for ages. So do your best to find some information but put a time cap on the research process. A few days up to a week should be enough for you to collect what’s available and even run a few interviews.
Once you’ve collected all available data, summarize the key insights and open questions and send it to the other team members who’ll participate in the mapping process.
Gathering the team and setting the stage
All the steps from here on can be conducted during a workshop session with your team. I’d advise including people with diverse points of view and involvement in the journey you’re mapping. This can include marketing, sales, UX and design experts, customer success managers, etc.
If you can conduct this in an in-person setting, all you need is a blank wall and some sticky notes and markers. Use them to create the stages and add the sections for each one. Here’s how Hotjar does it:
There are digital equivalents of a sticky note wall (Miro is my favorite). But I find it easier to just use a spreadsheet with the different sections you want to focus on during mapping. Here’s my format, also available for download:
Once you’re all together, remind people what’s the research’s goal and scope, what persona you’re working with, and what were the key insights from the research stage.
Defining the journey phases
The first step is to define the broad phases of the customer journey. This will give you a clear idea of the whole process you’re mapping and ensure everyone understands the scope. It is usually a quick first step, and the consensus is easy to get. If not, keep in mind that the phases are not set in stone but drafted in a spreadsheet. You can always merge two phases that are too intertwined or split one big phase into two separate ones down the line.
Another thing I’d advise you to add here is what’s the nature of the interaction for each phase. This is a way to explain how customers behave and how much time they can spend at each step. There are three types of interactions:
- Linear interaction – this is your typical A-to-B type of activity. There are clear starting and end points. The steps in between are set, as well. If you’re registering for software, for example, you may need to set up your account and password, fill in your profile, and choose a plan. It’s not possible to perform these actions in a different sequence.
- Non-linear and not time-based – these are usually learning or information gathering phases. A customer can stay in such a journey phase for an extended period, and there needs to be an internal or external trigger to move to the next one.
- Non-linear with time restriction – these interactions can happen in a bunch of different ways, but there’s still a clear end goal. A good example is the collection of initial options for new software to use. The person can ask colleagues for recommendations, look on Google, check review sites. They don’t need to perform one action before another, but in the end, they need to arrive at a list of alternative tools to test.
I’ve seen a behemoth of a journey map with close to 20 phases! But I’d generally recommend you keep it simple – anywhere between 3 and 7 phases will be enough for most journey maps.
Adding customer behavior details
Once you have outlined the big picture, start analyzing each phase in greater detail. The first bit would be describing the customer behavior. Depending on the focus of your journey map, you can include any of the following sections that fit your goals:
- Customer goals and jobs: what is the person trying to achieve at this stage? What are their functional goals and major tasks that need tackling? How do they want to feel or want to be perceived by others (emotional and social goals)?
- Actions, feelings, thoughts: what does the customer do? How do they feel, and how does their mood change?
- Sources of information, influences, touchpoints: what channels does the customer use to succeed in this stage? Who influences their behavior or helps them move forward? This can be actual people, brands, media, and so on. Finally, what are the potential touchpoints where you can meet the customer at this journey phase?
Identifying Aha moments
I’m setting this up as a separate step because it builds on top of the previous one. If you’re doing a journey map for product development or growth marketing purposes, now is an excellent time to take a step back, look at the journey stage you just outlined, and ask yourself how it can become an Aha moment.
How can you delight the customer in this phase? Is there a way for you to substantially surpass the user’s expectations? Is there a way for you to give them a sneak peek of the benefits they will get once they reach the end or a pivotal point in the journey?
Listing pain points and questions
We know how the customer is acting and feeling. Now is the time to go into the dark side of the journey phase:
- What questions are going through the customer’s head?
- What information does your customer need to be successful in this phase?
- What are some doubts or anxieties that are preventing them from moving forward?
- What’s difficult, unclear, or painful about this phase in the journey?
These are a gold mine for content ideas, and they will help you understand how you can improve the customer experience.
Brainstorming content pieces and marketing campaigns
If you’re mapping the customer journey for marketing or content purposes, you can add a section at the end of the journey phase here. It can show some of the vital content pieces you’ll use or the marketing campaigns you plan to bring customers from one phase to the next.
This isn’t an extensive list of your entire marketing backlog. But it will showcase some key ideas and existing pieces. I find it especially helpful when I need to bridge the content plan with sales goals. Since you already have different stakeholders in the room together, you can quickly get their opinion on what materials they need.
Opportunities and tests
If you want to make your journey map more forward-looking, you can add a section explaining how each phase can be improved and listing some quick experiments you can run. This will help the CRO, UX, or growth team fill their backlog with ideas.
Here’s what a map with all elements would look like – but, as explained earlier, you can mix and match different sections depending on the scope and goal of your customer map:
Create once, update often
Just like a buyer persona, your customer journey map is not static. It changes and evolves with your customers. So as your audience develops and as your understanding of that audience improves, you’ll want to update your journey maps, too.
It may sound like a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. And it’s also a friendly reminder that the map is not set in stone – so go ahead, draft the first version now and improve it later!