Messy Middles and Customer Journeys

A recent Marketing Week article really caught my attention. The author proposes dealing with the “messy middle” of your marketing funnel by examining probabilities of various paths through your content. What struck me – and forgive me if this is self-congratulatory – is that I’ve actually been working toward a very similar concept, albeit specifically regarding website content.

As has been repeatedly lamented, the neat and tidy marketing funnel has been edged out by the customer journey. For website content this has been driven largely by the evolution of search and its increasing focus on satisfying particular user intent, but also by social media. Indeed, your efforts to design a step-by-step top-down funnel, from awareness to interest to engagement to consideration to conversion, goes largely out the window if people can enter the funnel at any step. And they do enter at any step, especially your website content. And they do want to create their own journey through your content.

For marketers, this means your job is to facilitate each customer’s journey, making it easy for them to find content that meets their needs, while simultaneously shepherding them toward conversion.

An Example for Higher Education

Since admissions marketing is projected to be an increasing priority for many institutions, let’s consider admissions content. It has been my experience that a solid and workable framework is to structure your website content around Brand, Offering and Conversion (BOC). Sounds rather like a funnel, right? More on that later.

Brand-level Content

Content at this level is broader, with a focus on overall positioning and differentiation. It should also have a stronger emotional appeal.

Offering-level Content

This content focuses on specific offerings (e.g., programs), with two sub-levels:

  • Offering Overview: salient and/or differentiating program points, infused with brand and value proposition.
  • Offering Details: more nitty-gritty, factual. Should be structured around typical prospect interests or queries. This can have the additional benefit of improving SEO for your pages/site.

Conversion-level Content

For admissions, this content will typically provide details about the application process with a link to the application, while maintaining an appeal to brand value proposition and associated emotions.

This illustration presents an overview of what BOC website content could look like:

This looks rather funnel-like, and it fundamentally is. But please note the absence of arrows going from box to box, or level to level. That’s because prospective students will create their own journey through the content. For example, from a particular Google search query, a prospect may enter your site on a conversion page, which traditionally would be considered bottom-of-funnel. But now that may be the beginning of a particular user journey, and the user may very well work their way “backward” through other content as suits their interests or needs in the moment.

What I hope is meaningful, if not entirely novel, about this framework is that it is not mapped to particular stages of a top-down funnel. It maps to user intent: their interests, questions and goals as those play out in a variety of user journeys. Your content framework doesn’t have to be Brand-Offering-Conversion; use whatever concepts or terms make the most sense to you. The point is to think in terms of user intents and journeys, not funnels. Again, our job is to facilitate those journeys while guiding toward conversion.

With all of that in mind, here are a few things you may wish to consider:

  • Be sure your website’s main navigation easily facilitates a variety of journeys. This could necessitate some user testing.
  • Do market research to understand what content prospective students are looking for.
  • Use Google Analytics and Search Console to understand how searchers are arriving at your site, and which pages are the top landing pages for what queries.
  • If you have site search in place, see if there are recurrent searches being performed by users. If there are, do you have existing content that needs to be more easily accessed, or does new contact need to be created to satisfy those user queries.
  • Use on-page links and calls to action to emphasize particular pathways, especially toward conversion content.
  • At the Offering level, begin narrowing the ability to navigate away from the offering-level content, always emphasizing links to conversion content.
  • At the Conversion level, further narrow the options to navigate away from those pages. Place great emphasis on the ultimate action you want users to take, e.g., starting their application.
  • Use website analytics to gain insights about the paths people are taking through your content:
    • Which paths are taken most often?
    • Which paths are most likely to end in conversion?
    • How can you optimize those journeys to conversion?
    • Perhaps some content restructuring is needed?
    • Some of the new features in Google Analytics 4 promise to be especially useful for this kind path analysis. (You may be interested in my overview of GA4.)

Learn to Love Your Messy Middle

Orderly funnels have been displaced by journeys, and the “messy middle” is just what it promises to be: messy. But a content framework such as BOC, coupled with robust analytics and a set of meaningful KPIs, will help you map content to the journeys your customers want to take, help them achieve their goals, while helping you optimize paths to conversion.

For more about the “messy middle,” this Google article gives an excellent overview of the concept.

Google Analytics 4: Preliminary Takeaways for Marketers and Website Owners

GA4….great, another upgrade! 🙂 And a major upgrade it is.

In general, I love the direction Google Analytics is taking, but there are a few things to be aware of. As you ponder the transition to GA4 from Universal Analytics (UA), here’s a round-up of what I think are some important considerations.

What’s New in GA4

Unlike prior versions, GA4 is not focused on websites, and is built for future extensibility. In 2019, App + Web started this transition with the inclusion of data from mobile apps. GA4 continues that evolution with a flexible approach that enables it to accommodate new platforms or technologies. This is a net positive, but requires a shift in our approach to using it.

Part of that shift is an orientation around data streams in GA4. Data streams can come from a variety of sources, only one of which is your website analytics.

Another is the shift from a page-based orientation to a broader and more general event-based orientation. The concept of web pages still exists, along with screens (mobile apps and/or other devices), but the implementation is different and completely event-based. E.G., session_start and page_view are default GA4 events.

Events are also highly flexible and configurable. Along with this flexibility comes a responsibility on our part to do the configuring. This will be a common theme in GA4.

Regarding page metrics, you’ll notice the absence of Entrances, Bounce Rate and Exit Rate. FWIW, I think the utility of bounce and exit rates is highly variable or even questionable. I will miss the Entrances metric, but presume it can be replaced with the session_start event?

GA4 is also substantially focused on users and user insights, rather than mere metrics. Again, this makes it powerful and…insightful, but requires a little more work on our part to gain those insights. An interesting feature will be GA4’s heightened emphasis on AI-based insights.

Funnels in GA4 are much more robust and flexible than in UA…finally! Supposedly, the new funnels are also retrospective. Wonderful. However, yet again, this power and flexibility requires more configuration work from us .

Conversions are also more powerful and flexible, and are completely event-based.

The new Analysis Hub provides templates for a variety of data analyses. It’s almost as if Data Studio features have been pulled into GA4. Not sure what that might mean, but given that I’ve increasingly been using Data Studio for analysis and reporting, I hope this does not bode ill for Data Studio.

Some Limitations and Problems

For those of you accustomed to UA, there are a few missing features and/or problems to be aware of and to plan for.

Historical data Is not available. At this time GA4 only reports data collected for your GA4 property, and does not include historical UA data. You will need to plan for how you’ll use data and reporting to bridge that disconnect.

No annotations. That’s right, there is currently no way to add an annotation. Hopefully this is forthcoming.

Limited filtering, e.g., for filtering out traffic from specific sources. The filtering in UA was much more robust. Again, hopefully forthcoming.

Real Time Analytics in GA4 is not quite real time, with a lag of a couple-ish minutes.

Self referrals seem to be a new problem for many of us, e.g., traffic to your website coming from your website. I’m experiencing this and have seen this complaint in several places online, with all of us noting that we are not seeing self referrals in our UA properties. Not clear if this is a problem in our GA4 implementations, or a problem in GA4 itself.

The Final Take

I thought the transition from Classic Analytics to UA was completely painless, but GA4 is sufficiently new and different that there will be growing pains. But love the new features or hate them, GA4 is the future of Google Analytics, so you should start getting your head around it.

Given some of the limitations and problems, as well as the magnitude of the transition, I think it advisable to run your new GA4 property in parallel with your old UA property, which can be done.

As you gain proficiency with GA4, also begin planning for the transition, e.g., how UA conversions will be replaced by GA4 conversions, the kinds of events you need or want to track, etc. This will be an excellent opportunity for marketers to re-approach and refine their metrics and KPIs.

Note: it appears that first-time Google Analytics users may have no choice but to begin with GA4.