The consumer decision journey in the increasingly complex search retail marketplace

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In the retail space today, it’s no longer business as usual. Retail is in a constant state of flux as more and more brands announce store closings; we’ve experienced a staggering 97 percent increase in store closures year over year, according to the National Real Estate Investor.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. E-commerce sales are growing — in fact, according to Business Insider, “Though the US retail average growth rate in the first half of 2016 was just 2 percent for total retail, it was 16 percent for e-commerce.” Digital transformation is taking over the retail space as retailers scramble to adapt, survive and thrive.

One of the unique challenges in this new landscape is how to market brands whose products are sold across multiple distribution channels and online marketplaces. Retailers need to decide if they should sell their product(s) through their own website or across other third-party distribution sites, such as Amazon, Target, Nordstrom, Alibaba or countless others.

Retailers also face challenges in determining how to distribute their budget across marketing initiatives, including co-op advertising, traditional and digital channels. They must also figure out the best ways to create frictionless online-to-offline journeys, especially when consumers can purchase products quickly and easily in either environment.

Today’s leading brands don’t just distribute their products online — they leverage the power of search to connect with consumers throughout each stage of the consumer decision journey. In order to establish meaningful customer relationships, today’s brands need to be present throughout each step of this journey. In this increasingly complex online marketplace, one thing remains clear: search is the glue driving both online and offline conversions.

Now trending: Multiple purchase points

Unlike earlier, simplified journeys that drove consumers to singular purchase points in isolated sessions, today’s consumer journeys are longer, more complex, and often include multiple distributors or purchase points. In order to be kept top of mind and to be considered for purchases, leading brands are leveraging search to connect with customers throughout each of the five stages of the consumer decision journey: Initiation, Research, Comparison, Transaction and Experience.

Search engines today act as guide posts, providing shoppers with the means to research, explore and discover products, as well as highlight purchase options when they are ready to buy. Search is an always-on intelligence — it exists across all devices and at all stages of the buyer journey to guide shoppers to your products and services.

As a retailer, if you are only hyper-focused on the Transaction stage through your own site or other distributors’ marketplaces, then you run the high risk of not reaching potential new customers, limiting your reach and allowing your competitors room to grow. To reach your full potential as a retailer, it is important to have a digital marketing strategy that can maximize the value of each stage.

How does consumer behavior differ on search engines vs. distributor sites like Amazon?

Search engines drive the majority of retail searches

Within the new consumer decision journey, filled with fluid touch points and numerous distributor sites (including Amazon), search provides the pervasive backdrop for the majority of retail search activity.

According to January 2017 data from comScore qSearch, 71 percent of retail searches happen on the top search engines, versus 29 percent on Amazon. On Bing, we see that approximately one in three Bing users who perform retail searches are exclusive to Bing and don’t visit Amazon. This means that if you do not include Bing in your marketing mix, you run the risk of not reaching all of your potential customers.

Search drives dynamic user engagements early in the consumer decision journey

The Bing Ads research team conducted a study on the consumer behavior of retail searchers that visit both search engines and Amazon. The results showed the differences in the search behavior of today’s retail shoppers on search engines throughout each stage, covering the full spectrum from early research stages to searching for products and brands.

Often, shoppers do not start searching with a particular brand in mind, ready to transact immediately. For instance, many people experiencing an unpleasant migraine will start searching for terms like, “How does a sinus headache differ from a migraine?” or, “How do I cure a migraine?” rather than initially looking for a specific brand or product.

Search engines are evolving as intelligent companions to assist people with highly relevant information that can lead them to specific products that they need — and that applies to both online and offline purchase. For example, if I have sinus headache and discover that Sudafed might be able to alleviate the discomfort, I’m not likely to order the product online and have it delivered in a day or two; I’ll drive to the nearest available store and make the purchase now.

In this example, it would be important to market your headache medicine via search — while shoppers are seeking relevant information in the early research stages — in order to find new customers. It’s also important to understand that your existing attribution models are most likely not capturing these online-to-offline sales.

Appearing early in the consumer decision journey drives brand awareness and leads to conversions

Successful marketers will also use this opportunity to build brand awareness before customers are ready to buy. Long before consumers even get to the shopping cart/transaction stage, they establish powerful perceptions of your brand. In the Bing Ads Brand Impact study, researchers found that appearing in early category searches has a powerful effect on your brand, even when your ad is not clicked on (Microsoft, Brand Impact of Paid Search Study, 2016).

Results showed that:

  • searchers who saw a brand’s ad on Bing for a category search were 30 percent more likely to see that brand as a market leader.
  • searchers who saw but didn’t click on a brand’s ad for a category search showed 32 percent higher purchase intent.

[Read the full article on Search Engine Land.]

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

​Christi Olson is a Search Evangelist at Microsoft in Seattle, Washington. For over a decade Christi has been a student and practitioner of SEM. Prior to joining the Bing Ads team within Microsoft, Christi worked in marketing both in-house and at agencies at Point It, Expedia, Harry & David, and Microsoft (MSN, Bing, Windows). When she’s not geeking out about search and digital marketing she can be found with her husband at ACUO crossfit and running races across the PacificNW, brewing and trying to find the perfect beer, and going for lots of walks with their two schnauzers and pug.


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