In the time it takes you to plan a campaign, your customers can develop different tastes and lifestyles. Your job is to be there for their moments of discovery.

James Glover, co-founder and CEO, Coherent Path

James Glover, co-founder and CEO, Coherent Path

If one core concept has defined digital marketing in the 2010s, that concept is surely the customer journey. From the daily news feeds we check, to the presentations we attend, to the research papers we read, to the meetings we sit in on, hardly a conversation goes by in which we don’t discuss some aspect of our customers’ journey—and how to optimize it.

It might surprise you, then, to learn that there is no such thing as “The Customer Journey.”

Oh, your customers are all on their own individual journeys through life, to be sure. Their tastes are constantly evolving, adapting, responding to the culture around them. Along the way, they’re each discovering their own unique relationship with your brand—interacting with the content you show them, and choosing how to respond to it.

But no two customers’ paths are ever the same—nor can they be mapped out in advance, the way you’d plot a trip on Google Maps. That’s because, no matter how carefully you pre-plan every step, your customers will always find ways of surprising you. They suddenly get bored with their favorite trends. They switch careers. They have kids. They make new friends with completely different interests. And just like that— poof!—your carefully calibrated customer journey goes up in smoke.

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The good news is that it is possible to predict where your customers are heading next—and to meet them there when they arrive. But this requires an upgraded toolkit. Even more importantly, it demands a shift in thinking about the paths your customers take.

Your customers’ lives evolve much more rapidly than your brand strategy possibly can

Whether you’re an established brand with a century-long legacy, or an agile digital-first disruptor, pivoting to a new marketing strategy takes time. You’ve got to organize conceptual meetings, go back and forth on creative designs, nail down your core messaging—and of course, you’ve got to sell all these new ideas at the executive level.

In the time it takes you to plan a single campaign, your customers often develop entirely different tastes and lifestyles. By the time you get to the execution stage, your customers real-world lives may no longer look anything like the personas into which you’d boxed them. “Maggie the Millennial” has gotten married, bought a house, and had a kid. “Steve the CEO” has retired, moved to Montana, and taken up fly fishing as a full-time hobby.

The results? Thousands of email sends that generate no clicks—not to mention vast amounts of time and internal resources spent developing creative assets for personas that no longer align with your customers’ new priorities.

Surely there’s got to be a better way. And there is! But it has to start with a critical shift in strategy. Here are some ideas:

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Your job isn’t to pre-plan your customers’ journeys—it’s to meet them at moments of discovery

Although your customers’ tastes and desires can sometimes seem unpredictable, that doesn’t mean they change at random. Each customer develops new habits, interests and aspirations in response to evolving life circumstances—sometimes a change as massive as marriage or retirement; other times something as minor as getting bored with an old wardrobe.

But here’s the crucial truth to remember: Every time a customer loses interest in one product category, they’re discovering a brand-new interest in a different category.

Your job is to be there for your customers at those moments of discovery—to show them exactly the new experience they’ve been looking for, before they even knew to ask for it. To achieve that magic, you’ll need to leave pre-planned customer journeys behind.

Your product space is a canvas—so help your customers paint

A conventional customer journey is essentially a one-dimensional line: It guides your customers through a series of pre-specified points—and when a customer deviates too much from the predicted path, your algorithms suddenly have no clue where they’re headed.

What you need is a new machine-learning model: a canvas on which your marketing tools help your customers freely paint their own journeys. Instead of mechanically sending out the same series of emails to every customer in a pre-specified segment, the latest personalization software uses customer data to “connect the dots” of each customer’s recent purchases—then uses that pattern to predict where they’re heading next.

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Using a predictive model that’s generated on the fly for every customer, the latest software can even learn which specific purchases will nudge that customer closer to higher-value areas of your product space. In fact, you can even assign the software to meet specific business goals, and it’ll guide each customer toward those targets—adapting its recommendations in perfect sync with the evolving tastes and aspirations of millions of shoppers, all in real time.

Looking back from this advanced viewpoint, it’s clear that the old “customer journey” was a work of fiction—something that never really existed in the first place.  Once you step into this new world of adaptive, multi-dimensional product canvases, you’ll always be several steps ahead of your customers, no matter how suddenly or sharply their paths switch direction.

That means you’ll be equipped to meet your customers at their next magical moment of discovery. And from the first time you connect on that personal level, you and your customers will never want to look back.

Coherent Path provides predictive analytics software designed to surface products and categories that meet consumers’ evolving needs over time.

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