The Buyer’s Journey: What Is It?

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Marketing

Find out what the buyer’s journey funnel is and why it’s one of the most useful marketing frameworks we have.

The buyer’s journey funnel is one of the most essential frameworks in marketing – and one of the most misunderstood. If you’ve ever been confused by terms like ‘ToFu’ or think that marketing funnels belong to 2010, this article is for you.

I’m going to explain exactly what the buyer’s journey funnel is, clarify how it works and why it’s still relevant, and explore related concepts like the AIDA funnel and the messy middle model.

What Is the Buyer’s Journey?

The buyer’s journey (also known as the purchase journey or buyer’s journey funnel) is a theoretical model that illustrates how buyers make a purchase decision. It’s a sequential funnel – buyers start at the top and must pass through each stage to move downwards.

There are varying versions of the journey, but every iteration shares three stages: awareness, consideration, and decision. More recent versions include a purchase stage, post-sales stages (retention and advocacy), and a top-of-funnel ‘unawareness’ stage.

Here’s the full, seven-stage buyer’s journey:

buyer's journey funnel

You might have also seen terms like ‘ToFu’, ‘MoFu’, and ‘BoFu’ thrown about on LinkedIn. Here’s a quick explanation of what they mean:

  • ‘ToFu’ is an acronym meaning ‘top-of-funnel’. It refers to the unawareness and awareness stages of the buyer’s journey funnel.
  • ‘MoFu’ is an acronym meaning ‘middle-of-funnel’. It refers to the consideration stage of the buyer’s journey.
  • ‘BoFu’ is an acronym meaning ‘bottom-of-funnel’. It refers to the decision stage of the buyer’s journey.

Stage 1: Unawareness

The first stage of the buyer’s journey, unawareness, occurs when a buyer has a problem but isn’t aware that they do. In other words, they need what you’re selling, but they don’t know it (yet).

Let’s say you weren’t aware that plaque can build up in between your teeth even when you brush. You have a problem (plaque accretion that can lead to tooth decay), but you don’t know it. Another example: you might not realise that carbon deposits build up inside your car’s engine over time. Your problem (carbon build-up that creates performance issues) exists, but you’re not aware of it.

Acknowledging that buyers may not have a pre-existing awareness of certain problems is important, because, without that awareness, there’s no demand for your product or service.

Stage 2: Awareness

The awareness stage involves buyers developing an awareness of their problem. The transition from unawareness to awareness occurs when a ‘trigger event’ takes place. That trigger event could be an ad that tells someone they have a problem, an enlightening conversation with a friend, or even bodily signals (following on from our plaque example, tooth sensitivity and bleeding gums might indicate to someone that their dental health isn’t great).

Once the trigger event takes place, buyers typically try to learn more about their problem, which – depending on the complexity of the problem – can involve foraging for information online, talking to peers or friends, or getting professional advice.

Stage 3: Consideration

Once a buyer has developed a certain level of awareness around their problem, they start considering different types or classes of solutions (that is, ways to solve their problem).

Here’s an example. You’re out on the weekend and slightly dehydrated, but you don’t know it (unawareness). Then you start feeling thirsty (the trigger event). Now you realise you’re dehydrated (awareness), you start considering possible solutions. Should you get bottled water from the supermarket? Mineral water? A sports drink? Or maybe a refreshing juice from a nearby café? Each one of those drink categories is a class of solution.

A more complex scenario might be a brand that wants to improve its SEO. Do they assemble a team of freelancers? Do they hire an in-house SEO expert? Or an agency? Or do they upskill existing in-house marketers with an SEO course? Each option is a different pathway to solving the problem of ‘bad SEO’.

Like the awareness stage, considering options involves buyers evaluating information and working out which solution type best solves their specific problem. For example, what type of drink you choose might vary depending on your level of thirst, the time of day, whether you’re alone or with friends, and how much you want to spend. The same goes for bad SEO or any other kind of problem.

Stage 4: Decision

Deciding on a solution provider occurs after you’ve settled on a specific type/class of solution. For example, if you felt that mineral water would be the ideal type of solution to your problem (thirst), you might weigh up whether you want to buy Schweppes, Perrier, San Pellegrino, or home-brand mineral water.

The decision stage involves two key mechanisms that are worth noting. The first is the idea of a ‘consideration set’ – a group of potential solution providers that a buyer assembles and then chooses from. Typically, consideration sets are formed at the following levels:

  1. The buyer has successfully used the solution provider before.
  2. The buyer knows people who have successfully used the solution provider before.
  3. The buyer is already aware the solution provider exists and has a positive perception of their brand.
  4. The buyer goes to third-party aggregators (such as search engines, supplier lists, or brokers) to find suitable vendors.

For example, if you previously used Accountant A and had a good experience, you’ll probably go back to them. But, if you were unhappy with Account A, you’d probably go to the second level – ask your friends and colleagues for recommendations. No suitable recommendations? You’ll start thinking about other accountants who are top of mind. But, if you can’t think of anyone, you’ll go to the fourth level – Googling accountants based in your city.

The second mechanism is selection criteria. When you’re forming your consideration set, what criteria are you using to qualify/disqualify vendors?

There are eight basic classes of selection criteria:

  • Price (Is it within my budget?)
  • Value (Is the value added worth the price, relative to the rest of the market?)
  • Quality (How reliable/durable/effective/aesthetic is the offering, relative to the rest of the market?)
  • Utility (How effectively does it address my use case(s)?)
  • Trust (Do I trust the vendor to fulfil their promises?)
  • Speed (How quickly can the offering be fulfilled?)
  • Service (What level of customer service will I receive?)
  • Differentiated features/benefits (Are there specific capabilities, features or aspects that I want?)

Each class plays a role in your eventual decision, but the extent of those roles varies depending on your circumstances. For example, if you were very thirsty, you might be willing to pay triple for a cold bottle of water you could get immediately (versus waiting two hours for one at a normal price) – but probably not 20 times as much.

By the same token, if you wanted to buy a Tesla, you probably wouldn’t even look at a Nissan Leaf, regardless of how soon you could purchase one; the differentiated benefit (the Tesla brand) and quality criteria would outweigh the speed, price and value criteria.

Stage 5: Purchase

The purchase stage of the buyer’s journey is fairly straightforward. When a buyer has decided that a given company is the right solution provider, they’ll either self-serve or talk to sales personnel.

There are two basic aspects that can cause buyers to drop out at the purchase stage: purchase friction and poor solution customisation.

Purchase friction is exactly what it sounds like: the buyer experiences enough difficulty during the actual sale that they decide to switch to another vendor. That could range from a buggy online checkout process to a months-long negotiation that seems to be going nowhere.

Poor solution customisation occurs when there’s a discrepancy between what the buyer wants and what the vendor can deliver. For example, if you needed a specific technical aspect included in your software solution and your vendor of choice told you during negotiations that it wasn’t possible, you’d probably revert to the decision stage of the funnel and start contacting other vendors in your consideration set.

Stage 6: Retention

If stages one to four belong to Marketing and stage five belongs to Sales, stages six and seven should be owned by your customer success function (in whatever form that takes).

It’s important to understand that retention is an aspirational stage of the buyer’s journey. Even if you successfully sell to someone once, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to use you to solve their problem – or that, after that first sale, they’ll even have the same problem.

So, with that in mind, we can see that there are two criteria required for a buyer to move into the retention stage:

  • their problem must occur more than once
  • they must be satisfied enough with your solution that, when they form their consideration set using the four levels we talked about earlier, they don’t move past the first level (that is, they’ve successfully used you, the solution provider, before).

Stage 7: Advocacy

A buyer moves into the advocacy stage when they begin recommending your solution to others. Like the retention stage, advocacy is aspirational, not guaranteed.

Even though the advocacy stage sits below the retention stage in the buyer’s journey (logically, if you’re advocating for a brand, you’ll use it again), there’s no inherent usage requirement for someone to become an advocate. Instead, the likelihood of advocacy depends on two factors:

  • the confidence the buyer has that the solution in question is the best way to solve their problem
  • the extent to which the solution in question meets or exceeds the buyer’s expectations.

For example, if you went to an Italian restaurant and had an incredible experience, you might tell everyone you know what a fantastic night you had. Your expectations were exceeded, and you want to share that with other people.

If you bought a new air purification system, though, and you weren’t sure whether it was the best product on the market for your needs, you’d be less likely to recommend it to people you know – even if the product itself met or exceeded the expectations you had in relation to it.

Can Buyers Move Back Up the Funnel or Drop Out Entirely?

One of the common critiques of the buyer’s journey funnel is that “people don’t follow a linear buying process”. The issue with this argument: the buyer’s journey is linear (no-one searches for a solution to a problem they’re not even aware of), but it’s not one-way.

For example, we talked about how a poor sales process could lead to buyers going back to the decision stage to look for new vendors. Equally, you might start evaluating solution types or vendors, and, in doing that research, realise you don’t actually know enough about your problem to make the right decision (cue a reversion to the awareness stage).

It’s also true that problems can disappear or self-resolve. (For example, you were thinking about buying a new fridge, but then moved into a fully furnished apartment that had its own.) In those instances, buyers will drop out of the buying journey, but retain the knowledge they’ve gained, which is important if the problem recurs in the future.

In some scenarios, the problem might be de-prioritised in favour of other, more pressing concerns. That typically results in a reversion to the awareness stage; the buyer knows they still have a problem, but don’t necessarily have the resources or bandwidth to start thinking about solutions. If the problem is prioritised again or those more pressing issues are solved, their buying journey will continue.

Is the Buyer’s Journey Still Relevant?

LinkedIn is full of marketers saying things like, “No-one buys in funnels. It’s not 2010 anymore!” Of course, people still do follow the buyer’s journey funnel – it’s a theoretical framework that illustrates the purchase process, not an outdated playbook or trendy buzzword.

linkedin post condemning the use of the buyer's journey funnel

Generally, statements like that come from one of two places:

  • The anti-funnel marketer is talking about a different kind of funnel, like the AIDA/sales funnel (which is a flawed model).
  • The anti-funnel marketer doesn’t understand that the buyer’s journey is not literal. (Some people believe that the buyer’s journey funnel implies that a customer goes from unawareness to advocacy after just seven touchpoints.)

So, if someone challenges the use of the buyer’s journey funnel in decision-making, make sure that, a), you’re talking about the same thing, and, b), they understand it isn’t an oversimplified customer journey map.

a marketer on reddit confusing the buyer's journey funnel with customer journeys

Sales Funnel vs. the Buyer’s Journey

The AIDA or sales funnel is another funnel-based model designed to illustrate the buying journey. Here’s a picture, courtesy of HubSpot:

the AIDA funnel

Unlike the buyer’s journey funnel, the AIDA funnel has serious issues as a decision-making framework, to the point where I’d recommend avoiding it altogether. There are some instances when a consumer might follow the AIDA funnel – for example, when intrigued by a new category or particularly good marketing – but it’s not how the majority of purchases are made.

Most people buy to solve a problem, not because they’re interested in a brand/product/category in and of itself (there are exceptions). No-one goes to a car mechanic or buys enterprise software just because they like the brand. The AIDA funnel’s idealistic view of how buyers buy simply doesn’t hold up in the real world.

Similarly, the AIDA funnel doesn’t account for repeat purchases or other non-standard purchase behaviour. It’s an incredibly situational model – and that makes it unsuitable for broad-based use.

With that said, AIDA can be used successfully for other, non-decision-making applications. It has a long history as a copywriting formula, and can be used at a channel level as a communications technique.

Customer Journey Maps vs. the Buyer’s Journey

While a customer journey map might sound similar to the buyer’s journey, the two are completely different. The buyer’s journey, as we’ve discussed, is a theoretical model. Customer journey maps, on the other hand, attempt to document each brand touchpoint that your customers encounter.

customer journey map

Some of the basic differences include:

  • The buyer’s journey is a fixed, seven-stage model that can be applied to any buying process in any industry. Customer journey maps are unique to each brand and will evolve over time.
  • The buyer’s journey applies to all buyers in the world. Customer journey maps are an attempt to map the ‘standard’ or ‘average’ journey of your brand’s existing customers, but won’t match the exact journey of all your customers.
  • The buyer’s journey is a theoretical model. Customer journey maps are created by researching how your customers currently come to you. (Some maps are also aspirational; they document how the brand wants customers to buy.)
  • The buyer’s journey is channel-agnostic. Customer journey maps must include channel-specific touchpoints.
  • The buyer’s journey is most useful for undertaking demand farming (see below). Customer journey maps are most useful for making purchases incrementally easier for existing customers.

There are lots of different ways to present customer journey maps. Uxeria has a range of interesting examples here.

The Messy Middle vs. the Buyer’s Journey

Many marketers hail Google’s messy middle model as the ‘modern’ decision-making framework. Here’s what it looks like:

the messy middle

The messy middle model is accurate, but many of its proponents fail to understand that it’s not an original concept, but a research-based rehashing of the buyer’s journey funnel.

The ‘trigger’ stage in the messy middle is no different to the triggers that move buyers from unawareness to awareness in the buyer’s journey funnel. The exploration mode is a bundling of the awareness and consideration stages. The evaluation mode is a bundling of the consideration and decision stages. And the dual-modal loop of exploration and evaluation is just an acknowledgement that, when a buyer can’t find a solution or provider that meets their selection criteria, they move back up the buyer’s journey funnel to undertake more research.

The authors of the report Decoding Decisions: Making Sense of the Messy Middle, who created the messy middle model, acknowledge that their “model will feel familiar, sharing common elements with [previous models]. This is intentional – our brief history shows how each generation builds on the models that came before, stretching all the way back to AIDA.”

So, if you can’t find purchase in your organisation to incorporate the use of the buyer’s journey funnel, try advocating for the messy middle model instead. It works just as well and looks more modern.

Demand Farming and the Buyer’s Journey

Demand farming is a high-level revenue framework that incorporates the buyer’s journey. It’s a more nuanced version of the demand creation–capture dichotomy.

the demand farming framework

A demand farming approach views market demand as a crop that must be sown, nurtured and harvested, rather than a finite resource or constantly present commodity. In a nutshell, demand farming refers to the actions a brand can take, at a market level, to move buyers further along in their journeys.

Demand farming isn’t a redundancy, either. While demand creation–capture (also known as demand generation) is the same fundamental idea, demand farming differentiates between seeding demand (i.e. moving buyers from unawareness to awareness) and nurturing demand (i.e. moving buyers from awareness to decision). Said another way: seeding demand is “You have a problem.” and nurturing demand is “And here’s why you need to solve it now.

Arguably, demand creation already contains both elements – “You have a problem and here’s why you need to solve it now.” – but too many companies overlook the second half. By splitting demand creation into two separate action states (seeding and nurturing demand), demand farming ensures that buyers are targeted at the first three stages of the buyer’s journey, rather than just the first.

Using the Buyer’s Journey in Your Marketing

The buyer’s journey is a fundamental concept that every marketer should understand. Too often, marketing gets reduced to a single facet, like being good at operations, or knowing how to create high-quality content, or having a bunch of specific playbooks.

Ultimately, though, marketing is about people – what drives them to make their lives better, and how they undertake that process. The buyer’s journey is one of the best models we have for understanding buyer decision-making at a high level, which makes it invaluable for everything from strategy formation to crafting individual pieces of content.

At a company level, implementing a demand farming mindset is the easiest way to incorporate the buyer’s journey. A ‘demand farming mindset’ means having agreement internally that buyers do follow the buyer’s journey model, and that seeding, nurturing and harvesting demand are the three actions a company can pull to drive revenue.

Once that mindset is in place, every marketing activity you undertake should be designed to pull on one of those three levers. For example, you might run Facebook ads specifically to act as a trigger event to take your ICP from unawareness to awareness, or create consideration-stage website articles designed to help your ICP explore potential solutions.

Even if you’re not on board with the idea of demand farming, I strongly recommend using the buyer’s journey funnel (or the messy middle model, if that’s your preference) as one of your organisation’s guiding frameworks. Without consensus around how buyers come to decisions, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to create a cohesive go-to-market motion.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.