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Mapping customer journeys: The role of qualitative market research

Published 08 Feb 2022 7 minute read

Market Research
Consumer insight

Before the internet and social media, it all used to be so simple. A prospective customer would become aware of your product or service via advertising or other marketing communications or, maybe, by word of mouth. They would consider their options by shopping around on the high street, reading the latest articles on the subject, or perhaps getting a catalogue, and then purchase via one of the channels available to them such as in a bricks-and-mortar shop or via mail order. This was the extent of the purchase journey.

The online world has turned what was a simple process for companies to track and manage into one that is complex and nuanced. Customers and prospects can interact with your company and your product or service in what seems like an infinite combination of ways - and they expect you to provide them with a seamless experience regardless of where and how that interaction takes place.

At the same time, you need to find a way of tracking and understanding how they are interacting with you across these multiple touchpoints so you create the ideal journey - the journey that offers the best customer experience and, at the same time, maximises sales and customer retention.

What is a customer journey?

Again, it sounds so simple. A customer journey is the combination of all the touchpoints your customer experiences as they interact with your brand, starting from before they are aware of you, going through consideration, purchase and after-sales customer service. But within that simple description lies a world of possible encounters.

For example, a customer may hear about you via an influencer on social media and click through on a link to explore your website, which offers them a special offer as a first-time customer. They then later conduct their own competitive analysis by reading a review blog in which you are mentioned, and click-through via an affiliate link in that blog (expecting to see the same offer).

If they decide to purchase your product, they might later need to contact you for support or to resolve any issues they have encountered. They may wish to do this via your app, if you have one, by phone, by using an online chat-bot, via your social media channels, in-person; in a store... and at every stage of the entire customer journey you need to ensure that their experience with you is consistent with your brand values and an easy, frictionless, enjoyable experience for your customer. 

This is true regardless of your sector and product or service - it is no less important to understand the customer journey to buy a low value, low-involvement product like a tin of beans than it is for high value, high-involvement products such as cars or holidays.

customer journey map

Why is customer journey mapping so important?

It is only by understanding the stages that a customer goes through to buy your products and interact with your brand that you can understand your customer and become truly customer-centric.

Customer journey mapping should be a key part of marketing strategy. It is critical throughout the marketing process; understanding how to reach customers, how to communicate with them, how to convert them from consideration to purchase, how to differentiate from competitors and how to service them to engender repeat purchase, loyalty and advocacy.

The role of online qualitative research in creating a customer journey map

To create a customer journey map, you need to understand both the 'what' and the 'why' of the journeys that customers and prospects go through as they discover, consider and purchase your products and services.

The 'what' is the detail of what customers and prospects are doing as they interact with your brand - which channels they choose, which touchpoints they encounter etc.

The 'why' digs deep into the feelings and motivations behind the 'what' and helps you to understand how to create better journeys.

One of the key ways you can understand the 'what' of customer journey mapping is by using the quantitative behavioural data you already own within your company, such as website statistics, CRM data, social media data, etc.

In order to understand the 'why' of customer journey mapping, you need qualitative market research to help you dig deep into customers' needs, emotions and experiences.

All customer journey mapping exercises should include a quantitative and a qualitative market research phase to look at how customers behave as well as how customers feel and what drives them.

An effective customer journey map accurately reflects the key moments that a customer will experience together with a thorough and nuanced understanding of their motivations and emotions. Using online qualitative research, you can explore the key milestones of the customer journey in depth.

Qualitative research gives participants the time and space to reflect on their choices and give in-depth thoughtful contributions to the research; you can also use online qualitative research to get in-context and 'in-the-moment' responses and observations at the most influential of your brand's touchpoints -  participants can share their activities with you in real-time, as they use your website or browse the supermarket shelves, for example.

Types of qualitative research in creating a customer journey map

Online qualitative research is extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of ways to explore the experience of doing business with your company from your customer's perspective.

As customer journeys are so complex, you will benefit from using multiple methods to get at the details and to ensure you really put yourself in your customer's shoes and understand customer pain points across the entire journey.

online diary studies

1. Online Diary Studies

An online diary study gives you the opportunity to study a customer's journey with your brand over an extended period of time. This type of customer journey research is ideal for the type of products or services that need careful consideration - usually higher ticket items such as technology and devices or complex items such as financial products.

Once you have identified your target audiences - usually those who are actively planning to buy in your category - and recruited them to your online research, you can ask them to document all of their activity around researching, choosing and buying in that category.

This will give you a detailed journey map for every customer or prospect that takes part. Analysing the similarities and differences in these journey maps will enable you either to create a generic map or to create separate maps for each differentiated buyer persona.

You can also extend the research into the period after the purchase, so you can understand how they feel once the product is in use, track any encounters they have with customer-facing staff and explore the journey through your customer service experience.

Participants can contribute to an online qualitative diary by uploading text, photos and audio or video of their experiences so you end up with a rich set of data which will help you map the process of their journey.

To find out more about the benefits of online diaries, why not read our blog The How, Why and What of Mobile Diaries.

2. Online Focus Groups

Online groups work well when you want to explore a particular aspect of a journey in more depth. A group will enable you to have a synchronous experience with customers -  conduct the customer research in real time - which can get you to a more spontaneous set of answers.

It also enables customers and prospects to compare and contrast their experiences with those of other participants, which can help to uncover some of the more nuanced and detailed elements of the journey.

To learn more about how to conduct focus groups online, explore our article on How to conduct online focus groups using zoom. You can also read about the benefits of online research communities vs online focus groups here.

3. Online user experience studies

You can use online qualitative research to ask customers to show you how they move through specific parts of the journey, such as comparing prices via your different channels, or buying via your website. You can set up tasks for participants to complete - such as 'find the best price for this product' or 'find our website and buy this product' and they can record every stage of the process.

This will enable you to identify bottlenecks and problems and to find answers for how best to resolve them. They can take screenshots along the way, to give you a visual representation of how their journey is progressing.

best practice customer journey map

Practical tips for conducting customer journey research

1. Get senior buy-in

A customer journey map is more than just a tool for the marketing department. It should be used across the company to show all of the ways that customers and prospects interact with your brand, and it can be seen as a blueprint for achieving desired business outcomes.

If every stage of the journey is optimised that will lead to greater customer satisfaction which will contribute to improving the future state of the organisation as a whole.

Fortunately, qualitative research is a great way of building empathy and bringing customer feedback to life as stakeholders can attend online groups or view the content in online diaries, all of which helps to get them on board.

2. Create customer journey champions in other departments

As above, a customer journey map should not just be the preserve of the marketing department.

It is likely that stakeholders from across the business will have a perspective on the customer journey process within their part of the organisation that will help you to put the journey map together. It is also likely that they will benefit from the output of the customer journey research as having a customer journey map will enable them to improve their part of the path to purchase.

3. Create multiple customer journey maps

You don't just have one type of customer so you won't have just one customer journey. Customer journey research should help you to pull apart the multiple different ways that people and personas engage with your company. Each journey that you map should align with a distinct buyer persona.

4. Combine qualitative and quantitative research

The most effective customer journey map will be one that brings together data provided by a variety of sources - internal customer data, secondary data such as Google analytics, primary quantitative data and primary qualitative data - to gain a deeper understanding of each customer's experience.

5. Start with today's journey before planning tomorrow's

You need to map the status quo before you can design the customer experiences you want to implement. Customer journey mapping is a great way of understanding what needs to change, and where to focus your investment.

6. Recognise that journeys are evolving

Most companies make regular changes to elements of the customer journey, introducing new potential touchpoints or different marketing communications. Ongoing research will help you keep your customer journey map up to date, and enable you to respond more effectively to customers' needs.

In conclusion

A customer journey map should be a tool that is used throughout the organisation to help plan and strategise as well as ensuring that all customer touchpoints are on-brand, maximise customer experience and drive business growth.

The best way to create a customer journey map is to conduct research, both quantitative and qualitative, to map the current journeys that customers take on the path to purchase, to identify gaps and bottlenecks that you can use to improve. 

To explore how our experts can help you identify and understand the complex interactions that customers experience across their relationship with your company - as well as all the other ways you can use research to understand your customers and prospects - read more here or contact us here.

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