At C3 2015, the topic of the customer journey came up a lot. Actually, “the customer journey” came up as something of a myth in several of the thought leader sessions; the idea that there’s a single route people take from vague interest to engaged customer is silly on its face, and as Brian Vellmure said, “customer journeys are fuzzy and messy.” Brian used a statistic of a study of 2000 customers one company had conducted that revealed that every one of them took a different path to purchase. That’s 2000 customer journeys – think about building those for a second.

Freaked out a little? Well, don’t be.

The reality is that you can’t build customer journeys; customers create them.

(Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that customers discover them all on their own.) You can, however, help to populate the “map” of the journey with valuable way points and watering holes. Drawing a map of your contribution to customer journeys is thus a valuable thing, regardless of how customers end up negotiating the map.

Customer-JourneysAnd that brings us to the idea of planning content to populate this map. Most organizations create content somewhat tactically – they realize they lack an important item that can help sales or which will position them more effectively in the market, and they create that content. This happens over and over, and it can lead to a wealth of content – but none of it is properly interconnected. Each is created in the vacuum of “what’s needed now,” so there’s no attempt to make that content fit into a place in a journey.

Essentially, each piece of content ends up being a dead end for the customer. It’s sort of like creating a world where there are cities, but no roads – without thinking about a highway system, customers end up with no place to go.

What you really want is for the customer to take his journey with you for as long as possible.

That sets you up as the trusted source of information and helps you elbow into a premier position when the buying process gets serious. You can’t do this with a single piece of content. So how do you do this?

First off, add a layer of strategy to your content creation efforts.

You still can be reactive and tactical, if sales is clamoring for something (and especially if your customers start mentioning content they want to see), but back up and understand where that content fits in the map of your customers’ journeys. Be conscious about where a piece of content fits into the web of your company’s offerings, and think about the next steps customers might take after using that content.

Second, while you can’t create a journey for customers, you can certainly suggest next steps on their journeys via links within the content itself.

This requires you to understand the content you currently have (no easy feat, especially if your business has been generating lots of content for a while without indexing it), and to build links into content to provide easy ways for visitors to build their knowledge toward a buying decision. That means two things: one, the inclusion of links at the end of the content to more advanced content (or content further down your content pipeline), and two, the use of links within the content to more elementary pieces of content that can help clarify terms, concepts and basic ideas.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. You’ll need to keep track of these links and edit them when content is retired, replaced or re-located. That can be a lot of work – but make it part of the content review process to avoid creating content dead-ends that can chase off prospects. You’ll also need to be able to add links into existing content when new material is added that better serves customer journeys – otherwise, the older content is, the less connected to routes for customer journeys it will be.

Third, as you chart this web of content, look for gaps.

You may find an area where there simply isn’t a piece of content bridging two other items on the way toward the buying decision. Having a map of the opportunities you’re presenting to potential customers for their journeys allows you to remove potential roadblocks and give customers another route toward a decision. (An alternative approach: if you create content and can’t find anything to link it to, you’ve probably got some holes to fill.)

As I’ve said before, customer decisions are not straight-line paths, nor are they dictated to the customer by the seller. But companies can create systems that assist potential customers toward a knowledgeable purchase if they think strategically, put themselves in their customer personas, and make an effort to consider the most likely ways those buyers would negotiate their journeys.

Want to read more? Check out our guide, “How to Make a Smashing B2B Content Marketing Plan

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