RIP, good ol' sales funnel. Deep in our hearts, we knew this day would come. Like used-car salesmen, the sales funnel was too polished and slick to survive in the chaos of social media today. Before online marketers and inside sales folks weep into their beers tonight, there may be a silver lining in this chaos.
Social proof is the new currency of credibility today. Because buyers now rule the marketplace, their words carry an incredible amount of weight, which can bode well or not-so-well for the companies at which these words are aimed. I have previously discussed at length about the importance of social proof today.
Image adapted from Edmonton Journal
The bottom-line is this: People follow those around them, and social proof is exactly what companies need to get more people following them, too.
So how can marketers integrate social proof into their sales funnels? The problem you need to tackle, first and foremost, is the fact that the classic sales funnel is dead - thanks to modern technology.
Death of The Sales Funnel
Earlier this year, Forrester published a report declaring that the linear approach of marketing is "outdated". That's putting it nicely - I would go so far as to say it is dead. Here's why: The digital age has ushered in a variety of channels through which consumers can go to to find whatever they want to - mobile, social, and online.
Simply put, since they live in a choice-rich environment today, there is no pre-determined path that buyers follow to a sale anymore. The sales funnel has hence become incredibly complex - I would hardly even call this a funnel anymore - as can be seen in the graphic below.
Image from Forrester
With so much information available at hand, one would expect that consumers would be able to make purchase decisions quickly. The reverse, however, seems to be the case - research shows that one in three purchases (or 33.3%) happened only over a month after initial research began, with an average of 10 sites informing the decision per visit.
The reality is that getting a consumer's attention might be easy, but retaining it as they flit from site to site is extremely difficult - and yet, absolutely necessary to nail the purchase. Consumers today are veritable social butterflies, and hence distraction is very much the number one barrier to a sale. The challenge for marketers now lies in finding a way to keep getting found by the consumer at every point.
The key lies in strategically locating social proof at the respective customer touchpoints. The flip side of having so many distractions is that businesses now have many, many more touchpoints that they could leverage in making their presence constantly felt, and hence keeping their marketing "scent" strong. Since the old model fails to apply at this point, there is a need for an improved version of the sales funnel that appropriately identifies and maps these points out.
The Return of the King - The Customer
In response, Forrester has introduced the rather aptly termed "Customer Life Cycle", defined as such:
Customers' relationship with a brand as they continue to discover new needs, explore their options, make purchases and engage with the product or service experience.
The four stages of the Customer Life Cycle can be seen in the graphic below: Discover, Explore, Buy, and Engage. Pretty self-explanatory.
Image from Forrester
With this in mind, it is crucial that companies follow the consumer even as they enter and exit the sales funnel at these points - to stay at the top of their minds - or they will very easily be drawn away by other alternatives. It is no longer about what marketing wants to achieve at each stage of the funnel, but about responding to what the customer does and needs at each stage of the Customer Life Cycle.
Say it with me again: The Customer is King.
Customer, Meet Social Proof
Social media has a depressingly low shelf life. In 2012, tweets had an 18-minute half-life on average, while Facebook posts performed slightly better at a half-life of 30 minutes. As a result, many pieces of potentially powerful testimonials disappear into cyberspace forever, never to be seen again.
Image from Design Cat Walk
In order to leverage the power of social testimonials to your advantage, this content needs to be captured, and subsequently placed in front of the customer at each stage in the Life Cycle. After all, if no one sees social proof, does it really exist?
Image from Robert W Dempsey
This is especially crucial primarily because these are the moments when consumers are most susceptible to being influenced. By placing social proof in front of new users (telling them you have a great product) and in front of existing users (reminding them why they bought such a great product), consumers at every stage of the Life Cycle are constantly being reminded of your awesomeness.
With that said, here are some ways in which social proof can be utilized in attracting and influencing the consumer at each stage of the Life Cycle.
Note: For the sake of this article, I will be dividing the "discovery" stage into two parts: Active and Passive Discovery. The reason why I am doing so is because due to the similarities between the discovery and exploratory stages - specifically between the active component of discovery (consumers searching for a type of product with intent) and exploring. As such, I will merge the "active discovery" and "exploratory" stages as one single touchpoint, and consider "passive discovery" as another.
1) Passive Discovery Phase: Do Not Overreach
Typically, marketers measure social media success at this stage in terms of quantity. If I can make 1 million people like my product on Facebook, or gain another million followers on Twitter, I am considered to have attained success in this phase.
Image from Carnival News
In other words, the objective is to throw the product at as many people as possible and hope that some stick, and gradually move on to the next phase. The challenge for marketers at this stage is to get found on as many social networks as possible, and then to narrow down and focus on the network that has the greatest traction. Sounds simple enough.
The problem arises when marketers "overreach" by sticking to their guns in every possible social network. It would be far better to focus on a particular social network, and attain a measure of success there, than to spread your efforts across a variety of networks and get mediocre returns, which ends up being detrimental for your brand.
2) Active Discovery / Exploratory Phase: Going Beyond Vanity Metrics
Once the consumer has narrowed down to a specific product or website, the for intentional exploration begins. Social proof, most commonly in the form of "likes", is usually used by marketers here to generate interest and draw a consumer's attention to particular products.
Unfortunately, the quantity of "likes" or "followers" on social media today is a poor representation of reality, giving rise to the phrase, "vanity metrics". The use of giveaways and competitions to juice up social media statistics have ironically decreased the trustworthiness and hence relevance of them. The Facebook and Twitter badges of honor that marketers proudly display have become, unfortunately, a rather shallow indicator of social proof.
Image from PR Web
In other words, forget about pushing a product to customers on the basis of it's so-called popularity. We want the customer to "stumble upon" our product and find out that it is the right fit for them. In other words, we want to make social proof directly relevant for the customer, and not just a general statistic.
Target applied this concept brilliantly in their use of Pinterest's new public API - by displaying pins on category pages, and matching suggestions to user context and purchase intent. Furthermore, users can pin directly from the widget, view star ratings, and view cross-sells related to the trending item by rolling over the thumbnail. In doing so, they have created a host of new possibilities for relevant product discovery, by leveraging existing merchandise data marked with social cues in the form of pins and repins.
Image from Get Elastic
This is not to say that vanity metrics are not useful at all. If 1 million people on Facebook like your product, this is certainly attractive to the consumer at first glance. However, I am just saying that it could be used in a more constructive way i.e. as a lead-in to a relevant product, and smoothly lead the consumer on to the next few stages.
In short: Look beyond vanity metrics in displaying social proof - relevance and popularity go together hand-in-hand.
3) Buying Phase: Authenticity Beats Quantity
Finally, the consumer decides that he/she wants to make the purchase. Having narrowed down their options by this stage, most would turn to customer reviews to see how your product matches up against other competitors.
Image from B2B Marketing Smarts
An average of 67.75% of consumers end up stopping at the finishing line and abandoning their shopping carts at this stage, so it is absolutely crucial to get the right mix and type of reviews in front of the consumer at this point.
In the last article, I talked about how the optimal mix of reviews, in terms of similarity in preferences among the consumer's social group, should ideally be in a 6:4 ratio (more accurately, 63% similar, 37% less so).
Another problem with social reviews lies in their authenticity. Specifically, anonymous reviews left on platforms such as Amazon and TripAdvisor tend to hurt the credibility of the brand rather than bolster it. Because they lack social identity authentication, there is absolutely no certainty that the reviewers actually purchased or used the product, or simply have an agenda in discrediting the brand. Consumers will tend to suspect that they are fake (who could blame them?) and hence deem such reviews less trustworthy.
Unfortunately for small companies, big review sites like Amazon have little to no motivation to make it harder for people to fake reviews.
Image from Foner Books
On the bright side, several companies have stepped up to the plate and are now working hard to combat this problem. Platforms such as TrustPilot, Yotpo and GetKudos are looking to encourage companies to ask for and curate authentic reviews from real customers.
At the end of the day, while it is important to have a large quantity of customer reviews out there on the web for your potential customers to find, but fake reviews will definitely have the reverse effect on them. Strive to gather only authentic customer reviews, and weed out the fake ones.
4) Engagement Phase: Will You Marry Me?
Engagements are a sign of commitment and love. While it is a term most widely used in reference to marriage, it is very similar to what companies should strive to achieve with their customers as well. Having tried and tested your product, the next stage is where they are looking for something more - it is your job to make them fall in love with it.
Image from Fanpop
How does social proof feature in this stage? Well, every engagement starts with a proposal, and what better way to "propose" to the customer than by regaling him/her with stories of good times to come? In other words, show your customers what a good time they will have if they commit to your company.
Image from Hallmark
Loyalty programs, 24/7 customer support via live chat, and stories of happy evangelists on social media or your blog are just some of the many features you can highlight in making the proverbial proposal. Prove that you are worthy of the commitment.