According to Salesforce’s 2016 State of Marketing Research Report, 73% of organisations say that developing a customer journey map is good for their business.

But with the rise of the perpetually connected customer, consumer brands are quickly finding that marketer-defined customer journeys are no longer adequate to describe the different ways that customers interact with content or search for products. In this increasingly complex environment, marketers must change the way they conceptualise a consumer’s path to purchase, and adopt a new paradigm — real-time context is king.

Customer journey maps are limiting 

While customer journey mapping is a useful process that can help brands understand what people expect at different touch points, it doesn’t tell the full story of the consumer. The customer journey is drawn out by marketers, who assume that most potential customers follow a linear path to purchase. In the perpetually connected world, every customer crafts his or her own unique journey — and the number of possible paths to purchase increases exponentially due a confluence of factors. 

A recent ZenithOptimedia report shows that consumers are spending ever greater amounts of time online, meaning there are more opportunities than ever to interact with brands. The volume and variety of content is growing rapidly: more news articles from publishers, more SKUs from retailers, more marketing content from brands.

Perpetually connected customers (“Perpetuals”) can’t be pigeonholed into linear journeys. These consumers are young, well educated, earn an average income of over $110,000 and spend the most money online. As Forrester explains in their Mobile Mind Shift Index Report, “Almost four out of five have a tablet in addition to their smartphone or phones. They connect from anywhere, frequently, and use nearly every possible type of app.” 

Perpetuals reflexively turn to their phones in search of information, whether they’re at the gym, commuting to work, or shopping for groceries. Google refers to these spontaneous instances of discovery as micro-moments, and they’re opportunities for brands to meet their customers at moments of intent. But the linear customer journey model doesn’t take into account that a consumer may impulsively search for products while standing in line for coffee. 

Cross-device behavior has also contributed to the explosion in customer pathways, and content viewed on one device can trigger specific behavior on another. Google’s report, The 2014 Traveler’s

Road to Decision, found that almost 70% of leisure travelers who are smartphone users search for travel ideas during spare moments in their day, but nearly half go on to book their choices through a different channel.

Understanding the consumer’s context in real-time

IBM claims that four in five marketers “strongly believe they have a holistic view” of individual customers and segments across different channels. And yet The Consumer Conversation report from Econsultancy, found that only 37% of consumers feel that their favourite retailer understands them as individuals, and nearly 80% feel that the average brand doesn’t understand them at all. 

Today’s marketers need to tackle the challenge of understanding consumers in context — they need to act on what they know about their customers and what their customers  want in a given moment. Since people transition between different states and different intentions, this information is too complex for marketers to draw out linearly. 

For example, Jane Watson is a young professional in her early thirties living in New York City. As a fitness enthusiast, she may be interested in buying sports gear on a brand’s website on a Monday morning, but later that same day she might browse toys as gifts for her niece and nephew using the brand’s mobile app. As a perpetually connected customer, she will likely search for both types of products on her laptop, tablet and smartphone. Marketers must react and respond to Jane as her needs change, in real-time, across different channels, and with the right content. 

Furthermore, martech has evolved beyond the limitations of ad tech — instead of trying to reach consumers with targeted ads, brands can now hyper-personalise their marketing messages. Marketers have access to systems that develop a continuous understanding of the user’s full context at any given point in time. Unlike customer journey builders, these systems do not assume that customers will follow a predictable linear path to purchase, instead they automatically figure out the most appropriate content for each user based on his or her unique context. 

Jane’s previous shopping behaviour can help marketers figure out what she may want to buy next, but just because she recently purchased a pair of athletic shoes doesn’t mean she should be served ads for shoes ad nauseam. Instead, marketers can leverage data such as the type of content she views, her location, time of day, navigational behaviour and even the weather to reach her with more personalised offers. A retailer may know that Jane abandoned a pair of running shorts in her shopping cart; that information can be used in real-time to send her an email about discount pricing and inventory availability for her size. Even warmer weather means reaching out to the customer becomes especially timely.   

Data science has transformed marketing for good

In a time of smartphones, wearables and the Internet of Things, marketers have unprecedented access to data, and with it, more opportunities than ever to engage and delight customers. Such granular information didn’t exist a few years ago – now that it does, marketers should tap into that data stream and make it actionable. And to fit into this new world, more marketers will need to grow comfortable with data science. 

Forward-looking marketing requires leveraging big data automation and machine learning to assist marketers in going beyond segmentation by telling a hyper-personalized story, relevant to each user’s context. Real-time personalisation has big payoffs — in 2015, a survey by Evergage found that 39% of companies saw between 11% and 30% of improvement in conversions from their efforts.    

Perpetually connected customers enjoy and expect personalised communication and they’re willing to trade their information in order to get it. With the rise of real-time contextual marketing, retailers and brands can finally use these clues to give customers better and more customised retail experiences. Just as Amazon eclipsed brick and mortar stores that were too slow to adapt to the web, marketers that miss out on new paradigms like big data-driven personalisation run the risk of being left behind by sharper, data-savvy competitors.