A Complete Guide to Customer Journeys (And How to Effectively Track Them)


Customer journeys, both digital and offline, are becoming more complex and intertwined and so the need for marketers to be able to track prospects effectively across them only increases.

But what is a customer journey? And how do marketers get their hands on customer journey analytics that are not only focused on lower funnel conversion metrics – but provide a view of top of funnel activity that is just as important in the conversion process?

We take a closer look including considering how newer attribution solutions are providing the opportunity to more accurately measure brand activity alongside direct digital marketing.

What is a customer journey?

A digital customer journey is a series of interactions and touchpoints that a buyer goes through from the point that they first discover your product or service, right through to becoming a customer – and beyond (as you onboard them and they become potential advocates for your business).

In terms of timescale, these journeys can last anywhere from under a minute – for routine, small value purchases – to 18+ months in situations where the marketing and sales cycle is more intricate. Along the way buyers are influenced by a wide range of marketing media, channels and content that ultimately make different levels of contribution to the final conversion to sale.

And, as marketers, it is up to us to put ourselves in the customers shoes and learn as much as we can about this end-to-end customer buying journey and customer journey stages. So, we can improve the customer experience, while also focus on marketing activity that brings more of right type of prospect into our net. Identify behaviours, and content, that make a tangible difference to conversion. And drive prospects down through the funnel as quickly as is possible.

The customer journey provides the ideal mechanism for focusing on that type of activity.

What are the stages of a customer journey – and why do you need them?

Visit any reputable marketing website and it is odds-on you will find some variation on the theme of customer journey stages.

But the reality is, although they might be packaged slightly differently, they are more or less based around the five key stages included in the customer journey map below (for example, the diagram maps on to Google’s See/Think/Do/Care model with only a slight extension for loyalty.)

Customer journey map example

What is the value of a framework like the one above? Digital customer journeys are complicated affairs which involve a broad range of media touchpoints, interactions and customer objectives at different stages.

The customer journey provides a mechanism to break these complex journeys into manageable chunks. So, you can better segment and understand what your customers need and are feeling at each stage.

And, crucially, identify where to best spend your marketing budget – getting the right balance between brand and direct digital marketing spend – to nudge them down through the funnel as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

Let’s take a quick look at each of the stages in turn:

  • Awareness stage – at this stage your buyer is typically researching their options around brands and products of services that might meet their needs. Brand and content have a role to play here – and catching them higher up the funnel and moving them to conversion earlier in the journey can be particularly cost effective. As CPAs at this stage are significantly cheaper than at lower stages in the journey. The challenge, however, is that traditional attribution solutions typically don’t provide the type of data on conversion performance and customer journey analytics for media used at this stage – so justifying the investment can be difficult.
  • Consideration stage – here, the buyer has identified a finite number of alternatives to choose from and is carrying out an evaluation of each – including yours. At this point, independent reviews and social proof can help tip the balance.
  • Purchase stage – at this point they have explored multiple options, they understand key aspects of the purchase like pricing, features and costs and they are in decision mode so reinforcing that you are the best provider for the job is key. In the early stages of the phase, it is entirely possible that they might still walk away so media like re-targeting can be key.
  • Service & Loyalty stages – these two phases are very often an afterthought but once the customer has signed on the dotted line it is important to deliver against the brand perception you have created earlier in the customer journey. By providing unrivalled customer experience and developing customer loyalty by continuing to deliver value to them.

The challenge for marketers in all of this is having the ability to effectively track users as they pass through the various customer journey stages.

Why accurately tracking customer journeys is increasingly difficult

However, it is not typically a linear path down through the stages and unravelling the complexity is becoming increasingly difficult for a number of reasons.

The increasing complexity and fragmentation of journeys

Part of the issue is that customer journeys are becoming increasing complexly with prospects being exposed to a wider range of new media options both online and on offline customer journeys. From digital adverts in train stations – and instore – to paid social advertising that is becoming an increasingly dominant part of the mix.

And social channels are a case in point. Despite the fact that, on the face of it, advertising on these types of channels is in theory highly trackable they have also contributed to the rise influencers. Who have become a key touchpoint in many markets but create a trackability issue all of their own. If you factor in an increasing amount of content being shared on untraceable peer-to-peer sharing apps like WhatsApp you begin to get a feel for the challenge facing marketers right now.

There are no customer journey analytics available for the type of interactions and customer journey examples above. And these are only the tip of the iceberg.

The problem of ‘Walled Gardens’ and trust in social platform data

In an increasingly siloed world, where you are often heavily reliant on data from a small number of AdTech vendors, marketers are also increasingly querying the validity of the data being put in front of them. It’s that niggling feeling that what you feel is happening on the ground isn’t playing out in your platform reporting.

In fact, research by QueryClick, indicates that an eye-opening 80% of marketers are concerned about the issue of bias in AdTech channel reporting in platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook etc.

Take the client example below, where we uncovered the fact that Google Analytics (GA 360) is showing attribution at a fraction of the level that Facebook is reporting for the same campaign activity.

Source: QueryClick client data

So, trust in the accuracy of platform tracking and reporting data is a real issue.

Industry changes are hampering attempts to track journeys effectively

It is also fair to say that there are fundamental structural changes taking place that are significantly impacting marketers’ ability to target and measure the impact of their digital marketing activity.

Two of the most notable of these are:

  • Death of the third-party cookie – the decision by Google to phase out third-party cookies by the end of 2023 has profound implications for marketers. Third-party cookies are the rails that large swathes of the digital marketing industry have run on for years. And the implications of the decision to effectively switch them off for targeting, and in particular re-targeting activity are profound. And that is leaving aside the fact that they have been proven to do a particularly poor job of tracking user journeys anyway – and generate data this around 80% incorrect.
  • The advent of iOS 14 – the decision by Apple to ask users to opt-in for tracking on their apps is also having huge impacts on tracking capability. Not least for Facebook advertisers who have seen a marked downturn in the ability to target and track ads due to the change. In addition, Apple had also previously taken the decision to refuse 3rd party cookies in its Safari browser

Between them Google and Apple hold around 86% of the browser market so these changes are nothing if not significant for tracking and measurement of the customer journey.

Tracking limitations in existing attribution approaches

There is little doubt that effective attribution is the key to better understanding customer journeys.

However, many marketers continue to rely on outdated First-Click and Last Click attribution models which are over-simplistic in the 100% weighting that they give to a single touchpoint in the customer journey.

These are the standard attribution models inherent in industry standard solutions like GA and Adobe and by their very nature have a bias to measuring activity at the bottom end of the funnel. Such as re-targeting activity – which is focused on only a very small part of the customer journey.

In many respects, the big ad platforms are happy to let this happen – because increased focus here has had the effect in recent times of creating intense competition for ad space in the ‘Do/Purchase’ phase of the customer journey. Which in turn has inflated CPAs and, in turn, revenues for these large networks alongside.

What marketers really need access to are attribution solutions that provide better customer journey analytics that enable them to better track and analyse the impact of campaigns and content further up the customer journey. For example, in the ‘See/Awareness’ phase of the customer journey – where customers are making decisions about the brands and products that might be suitable for them. Where there is less competition for ad space, lower CPAs as a result and better return for your marketing buck.

It is certainly something we have experienced with our clients who have reduced CPAs by a whopping 87.5% by re-allocating underperforming generic search spend back up the funnel to programmatic video.

How to ensure effective attribution across customer journeys

Concerns around the limitations in existing marketing attribution approaches has led to the development of a new breed of attribution solution.

This type of solution overcomes the limitations in cookie/pixel based approaches and is specifically designed to provide the type of effective attribution view needed – right across the customer journey. They involve:

  • Rebuilding your customer data – we highlighted it above, but in our experience customer data is typically up to 80% incorrect due to limitations in the way it has been collected and the inability of third-party cookies to accurately track activity right across the customer journey. So, priority number one is to rebuild your raw clickstream data – and advances in technology mean Machine Learning and AI do a much more effective job than cookies
  • Unify offline and ‘Walled Garden’ data – to get a true picture of the impact of your marketing right across the customer data is it essential to integrate or ‘join’ data from offline customer journey activity, store activity and even third party ‘walled garden’ digital data. Such as data from Facebook, Google Ads or YouTube. Which is then ‘stitched’ into the overall customer conversion journey
  • Attributing and quantifying the true incrementality of your marketing activity – finally you need to score and give a single attributed revenue outcome for every engagement point right across the journey.

What this does is to remove all of the double-counting and cannibalization of data that is inherent in siloed marketing measurement approaches.

Only then are you able to perform the type of “what if” analysis that enables you to compare the conversion performance of higher funnel activity in the ‘See/Awareness’ phase of the customer journey – directly with activity in the ‘Think/Do’ phase. On a like for like basis. And make investment and ROI decisions that truly impact conversion and the effectiveness of your overall marketing approach.

5 tips for tracking customer journeys

We think there are 5 key customer journey tracking takeaways to leave you with as follows:

  • Find a solution enables you to track and compare activity right across the customer journey – not just as the bottom of end of the funnel
  • Dig into the quality of your data – it is foundational in terms of your ability to track and report across the customer journey and could be suffering from the limitations of cookie/pixel type measurement
  • Ask hard questions of your AdTech data reporting – what is it really showing you, can you trust what you are seeing and how does it compare to data from other sources?
  • Future-proof your approach against the looming death of third-party cookies and the continuing impact of iOS 14
  • Find an approach that enables you to target conversion earlier in the customer journey where there is less competition for ad space and much lower levels of CPA