Man making a journey
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The End of the Buyer’s Journey—Why Story Is the Better Metaphor for Marketers

5 Minute Read

There are myriad marketing metaphors out there—the customer lifecycle, the loyalty loop, the purchase funnel. We’ve all heard of the buyer’s journey, of course. But why have marketers settled on “journey” as the metaphor?

I have nothing against metaphors or models, but the sheer volume of them can be problematic. First off, there’s the terminology. Is it “buyer’s journey,” “customer journey,” “buyer’s lifecycle,” “buyer lifecycle journey,” or “buyer’s path to purchase?”

Too Many Models

But, even when we decide on one metaphor, there are numerous models. Some say the buyer’s journey comprises three stages. Some say there are four stages. One Content Marketing Institute article says there are four ways to model the buyer’s journey. And some of the nonlinear models out there look more like a buyer’s “labyrinth.”

Complex funnel

Image attribution: Forrester

The Antidote to Complexity

I get it. There are many kinds of products and services out there, and many more kinds of consumers. Having a range of models is useful. But what if there are too many metaphors and models? What if there is so much complexity that we cannot see the wood for the trees?

I’d suggest that the antidote to complexity is story for three reasons.

  1. What all these journeys and funnels have in common is a human being involved in some kind of difficulty (no matter how slight), who desires something that can restore balance, and who sets out on a quest to get it—a story.
  2. Story encapsulates the totality of the buying experience, including what happens after the purchase.
  3. The mind is a “story-making and taking-in machine,” according to Robert McKee—the world’s foremost educator on story form. “The natural way in which people think is to storify their experiences. This is how you remember, this is how you try to anticipate the future.” Story represents how people really think. So if marketers think in terms of story, they are automatically closer to the experience of the consumer.

You don’t need to throw out the models and metaphors, but if you understand story, you see that all “buyer’s journeys” have a human commonality. Let’s look at a couple of real-life examples.

Case Study 1: My Wife’s New Car

When my mother-in-law bought a new car, my wife inherited the old one. One day, the old car broke down. The mechanic said it couldn’t be fixed so my wife did some research and bought a new car herself. She’s had the car some years and is happy with it.

Let’s look at this story from the perspective of the buyer’s journey as defined by HubSpot.

  • Awareness stage: My wife realizes she has a problem (the car won’t go).
  • Consideration stage: She defines her problem (lack of a working car) and researches options to solve it—mechanic versus new car.
  • Decision stage: She chooses a particular new car.

This is all factually true, but it seems hollow. What’s missing?

Firstly, the analogy of journey is itself incomplete. At first glance, journey seems like an attractive metaphor. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. But—as Robert McKee said in his Storynomics seminar—“Life’s not a journey. A road trip to Indiana is a journey. Life’s a f****n’ struggle.”

Now let’s look at the case study through the lens of story.

First, life was in balance. The old car was working fine. Then boom, there’s a breakdown (inciting incident), the event which threw her (protagonist) life out of balance. To restore balance, she needed a working car (object of desire). Of course, she didn’t go shopping right away. The logical first step was to see if the old car could be fixed. When the mechanic informed her that the car was beyond repair (forces of antagonism), she realized she had to buy a new car. She narrowed down her search to two models. She had to make a decision (crisis). She made the decision and bought the car (climax). Having bought the car, balance was restored (resolution).

See how this is more complete? The story model is closer to how the consumer thinks (and talks) about the buying experience. Crucially, story form includes the “before and after”—there’s the initial “stasis,” which is thrown out of balance and eventually restored by the purchase. This resolution is where marketers often forget about their customers. No doubt you’ve experienced first-class customer service during the so-called buyer’s journey but once the purchase is made—the “journey” has ended—the treatment is a little less special.

Case Study 2: My Impulse Purchase of Chocolates

Today, while waiting in line at Starbucks, I bought some dark chocolate-covered espresso beans. This is what happened according to the buyer’s journey:

  • Awareness stage: I noticed the chocolates.
  • Consideration stage: I thought about buying them.
  • Decision stage: I bought them.

Chocolate and coffee

Image attribution: NordWood Themes

Now let’s look at the story version.

I was waiting in line at my local Starbucks. I noticed these dark chocolate-covered espresso beans. I imagined the sensation of crunching on the sweet and bitter beans. My life was thrown ever so slightly but perceptibly out of balance (inciting incident). I just wanted my coffee ASAP so I could get going (object of desire). After all, I’m on a diet, and such treats are “a moment on the lips—a lifetime on the hips.” But the line was taking longer than normal (forces of antagonism) so I picked up the chocolates just to see the price. “Would you like those?” I hesitated (crisis). Then I said, “Sure, I’ll take them” (climax). I was annoyed with myself but I enjoyed those chocolate-covered espresso beans (resolution). The evil forces of temptation had won this time, but I would live to fight another day.

Interestingly, the object of desire was not the chocolates at the beginning. I didn’t want to want them (but I wanted them). The impulse purchase was much more complex than the buyer’s journey model seems to indicate.

As I said, I’m by no means suggesting that we do away with marketing models (or those of political science, psychology, sociology, and economics), but if we want to take a broader view towards understanding the human experience of decision-making, a little understanding of story can go a long way.

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Michael Box is a professional business editor and writer with a background in storytelling and language teaching. As Content Marketing Specialist at Skyword, Michael writes about brand storytelling, marketing trends, creativity, technology, social media, consumer psychology, and advertising. Michael enjoys creative writing, reading, photography, chess, electronic music composition, and classical guitar.

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