The “Why” Game – What Marketers Can Learn From Kids

I have four children.  They’re all adults now, but  I vividly remember the “why” game and look forward to playing it with grandchildren some day.  It went something like this:

Me: “Kids, get your coats on! We need to go to the store!”

Kids: “Why?”

Me: “Because we need to buy food.”

Kids: “Why?”

Me: “Because we ran out.”

Kids: “Why?”

Me: “Because we ate it all.”

Kids: “Why?” (by this time, they had wide smiles on their faces)

Me: “Because we need food to live!”

And so on…

Admittedly, I probably let it go on a little longer than I should have, but what’s interesting to me now is how many times the “why” questions, when asked repeatedly, ended up touching on much deeper human issues, needs, wants, etc. If you understand marketing, you’ll immediately see where I’m going with this. The importance of the “why” in marketing cannot be overstated. I am innately curious about “why” and it’s part of why I enjoy what I do. I get to help people understand “why”.  This is part of what makes working in digital marketing so exciting!

Digital platforms and technologies have changed the playing field in marketing forever. What social media and an explosion of digital technologies and platforms has done is put control of the sales and marketing dialog squarely in the hands of consumers. This has demanded a massive shift toward customer-centric thinking. It’s seems like a no-brainer now to anyone in marketing, but this hasn’t always been the case – and for many (unfortunately) the “why” is still not understood as clearly as it could be.  The result is that, sometimes, our products, services, and messages fall short of speaking directly to our customers’ deeper needs, wants or motivations.  The good news is that this same explosion we’ve seen in digital technologies and platforms has made tracking user activity on the web (in alarming detail) a reality.  These patterns of activity form a digital “buyers’ journey” which can help us understand some of the unspoken “why”.

For those unfamiliar with marketing lingo,  a buyer’s journey is a series of actions a user takes from the point of becoming aware of a need or want, to purchasing it.  A search for “buyer’s journey ” on Google will pull up many definitions and a list of steps that all contain some variation of the following:

  1. Awareness: Becoming aware of a need
  2. Consideration: Researching and comparing alternatives
  3. Decision: Making the purchase
  4. Evaluation/Validation: Evaluating the decisions after the purchase. 

A “digital” buyer’s journey simply tracks the actions users take in a digital world as they move through this buying process.  The patterns that emerge from digital buyer’s journey data can can help shed light on the “why” for the marketers with the patience, and know-how to look. The benefit is that we can meet those customers with appropriate content based on the steps they are taking.  The bad news is that buyers’ journeys are growing increasingly complex.

Google did a study back in 2016 of one buyer’s digital journey as she bought a car. What they uncovered was over 900 digital transactions over the course of this consumer’s car shopping experience. While (thankfully) not all digital buyer’s journeys involve 900 touch points, the reality is that the sheer volume of information at users’ fingertips is facilitating a more complex buyer’s journey than most of us are comfortable with. If I’m being totally honest, the deeper tension (borderline panic) I wrestle with when I consider a 900-step digital buyer’s journey, is more related to who truly owns the narrative in the marketing relationship and how much work I’m committing myself to once I accept that reality. It’s so much easier to make quasi-informed assumptions about our audiences and push a message out that we think will resonate with them.  But at the end of the day, that approach will begin to alienate us from the customers we’re trying to serve. 

So where am I going with all of this?  If we can move beyond the discomfort and the extra work associated with tracking, collecting, and analyzing large volumes of data, we uncover a huge opportunity to learn about our customers with each additional action they take in a digital space as they move through their buying process. Once we do, with the right tools we can move beyond the “why” and focus on the “because” across the digital landscape our customers are navigating within.

Eric Olson
Eric Olson is an adjunct professor of marketing at University of Northwestern - St. Paul, and founder of Illumagine Interactive, a digital marketing agency serving higher education.