Customer Journey

Non-Linear Customer Journeys: The what, why, and how

Joni Tillström
Customer Journey

Non-Linear Customer Journeys: The what, why, and how

Joni Tillström
November 28, 2023

Introduction: Embracing the Evolving Digital Landscape

The digital world is in constant flux, and so are the customer journeys within it. Today's businesses are challenged to move beyond traditional sales funnels and embrace a more robust understanding of non-linear customer pathways. This shift is not just about marketing tactics but involves a comprehensive strategy that enhances digital sales performance and the overall customer experience. By adopting this approach, businesses can stay ahead in the rapidly evolving digital arena.

What are non-linear customer journeys and why should you care?

Non-linear customer journeys refer to the complex and unpredictable paths customers take when interacting with brands, diverging from the traditional, straightforward purchase funnel. In these journeys, customers do not follow a set sequence from awareness to purchase but instead move back and forth across various phases, influenced by a wealth of information available online, social media, and personal preferences.

Let’s take an example from a consumer electronics brand that manufactures and sells smartwatches for athletes. In a linear path, a prospective customer would first be exposed to brand messaging to build brand awareness and pique interest. Next, the customer would be gently nudged toward the consideration phase through more tactical, product-oriented content, visit their online store to compare models and learn more. As a final step (for now), the customer would be persuaded and nudged to purchase an enticing offer served across multiple channels. In a non-linear journey, the prospective customer could have first landed on a product page without any prior knowledge of the brand, added a product to a cart, and subscribed to a newsletter. The brand might still be completely unfamiliar with them, so they’d then familiarize themselves with the brand, perhaps ask a question from customer service for further details, read a few reviews, make comparisons, and finally return to the online store to finalize the purchase. 

An example of a linear customer journey
...and in comparison a non-linear journey.

As you can probably tell, the stages within the journey share similarities, but customers might (or most likely, will) not follow the path you’ve envisioned or mapped. Factoring in this unpredictable and unique behavior between customers is important to ensure you’re managing and optimizing customer journeys effectively. 

Leveraging Customer Insights as a Strategic Foundation

The cornerstone of personalizing customer experiences lies in deep audience understanding. Businesses need to gather insights into customer motivations and frustrations, coupled with a clear grasp of their preferences. This requires assimilating data from diverse sources, such as CRM systems and marketing automation platforms, using advanced tools like Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) to stitch the data together to create comprehensive customer profiles. Such rich insights are vital for delivering experiences that truly resonate with customers.

The emphasis has shifted towards first and zero-party data. The ability to collect high-quality first-party data and use customer-provided information effectively is crucial. This data forms the basis for collecting and operationalizing all-encompassing customer profiles, enabling businesses to tailor their strategies to meet individual customer needs.

Understanding and managing non-linearity

While customer journeys have deviated from linear paths, mapping these journeys remains essential for understanding customer behavior. Traditional customer journey maps are still very useful, but businesses must be agile enough to recognize and adapt to the various deviations that customers may take from these established routes.

Incorporating the concept of process mining into the understanding of non-linear customer journeys offers a more dynamic approach to mapping customer behavior. Similar to process mining, which analyzes vast data sets to reveal actual processes within a system, approaching non-linear customer journeys involves sifting through extensive customer interaction data. This method helps in identifying real patterns and paths customers take, rather than relying on predefined customer journey frameworks. By applying process mining techniques, businesses can gain a deeper, data-driven understanding of customer behavior, uncovering the true complexity and variability of modern customer journeys.

In the realm of digital sales and marketing, an iterative and constantly evolving approach is the way to go. Continuous experimentation and testing across all channels and touchpoints must be done. This approach helps in discovering the most effective strategies, ensuring that value is added consistently, regardless of the journey's linearity.

Customers are at the core of both linear and non-linear customer journeys. Recognizing the complexities of non-linear customer journeys and incorporating them into decision-making and day-to-day operations demonstrates a firm commitment to customer satisfaction and alignment with customers’ best interests. From an operational perspective, collecting data throughout the stage and attributing them correctly is key. A centralized repository for customer data, that effectively recognizes different actions your audiences are doing and flexibly actioning based on that data is the core of managing non-linear journeys. From an optimization and management point of view, aim to serve your (prospective) customers with the content and experiences that they are looking for instead of trying to ‘brute force’ them through your internal processes. Think customer first, and internal processes second. 

At the heart of managing non-linear customer journeys is the principle of cross-functional teamwork. Central to this strategy is the role of a Customer Experience Lead. This individual acts as a linchpin, ensuring that all facets of the customer journey are considered and optimized across various departments. Such integration is crucial for businesses to effectively respond to the complex and unpredictable paths customers take. We cover this in more detail in Antti’s previous post.

In conclusion

Mastering non-linear customer journeys in the digital age demands a multifaceted and dynamic approach. It calls for cross-functional collaboration, data-driven insights, a customer-centric focus, and adaptability to emerging technologies. By embracing these principles, businesses can effectively navigate the complexities of modern customer journeys. This not only ensures sustained growth but also helps in forging deeper and more meaningful connections with customers in the digital marketplace. The journey, though complex, offers immense opportunities for innovation and excellence in the digital commerce landscape.

If you need help with mapping, managing, or optimizing your digital customer journeys – don’t hesitate to contact us.