Journey mapping is not a marketing strategy

I’ve spent the past half decade working with marketing organisations trying to do the same two things: deliver omnichannel and work according to agile practices.

In almost all cases, the desire to do these things has been brought about by changes in consumer behaviour, fragmentation of media channels and a scattering of consumer attention. Omnichannel is needed because there are no longer a handful of straightforward channel combinations that deliver the desired results; but also because decision-making is now influenced by what happens in channels that had, in the past, not even made it to the initial short list. And while quite often agile becomes important because it’s a great sounding buzzword, it’s also frequently invoked because the older waterfall approaches are causing delays and bottlenecks. I often think we sometimes use agile as a placeholder for “being able to work faster without wasting resources”. But that’s another story for another day.

The way people have solved for omnichannel and agile has been to introduce some design practices into the planning and delivery processes of the marketing department. Where in the past, marketing departments were populated with consumer researchers, marketing managers, brand managers and project managers, we started seeing more and more experience architects, designers and scrum masters show up, in a bid to simultaneously create flexibility and accountability.

The introduction of design practices in marketing departments brought with it some of the better aspects of design thinking: a return to empathy with consumer behaviours as opposed to exclusive reliance on market segmentation, an understanding of the need to quickly ideate and test, the ability to visualise dependencies with parallel workstreams and build solutions that scale easily. Complicated campaigns delivered across numerous screens could be talked about in “human” terms and also planned out in a way that made sense. Campaign planning considered not just what the brand wanted to say to people but what people might also be expected to do in response to that. As expected, design thinking brought some good things to the table.

The trouble, for me, began when I started seeing people using design practices as strategic marketing tools, more specifically when all marketing problems started being resolved through designing thinking and journey mapping applied to campaigns.

How does this work, you ask?

Well, a team supporting a specific brand needs to deliver a campaign → so they build a journey of that campaign looking at multiple personas and visualising how the campaign needs to “push” each persona into purchase (or whatever the ultimate conversion stage is). They use the standard AIDA as a funnel guiding the journey.

But before I go into the shortfalls of this approach, it’s worth looking back to a bit of history of how journey mapping has come to be used as a tool to visualise marketing campaigns.

If you think about consumer journeys or journey maps, you normally start with the user journeys that were developed for things like software or digital products. The clue is in the name, “user” is not a stand-in for consumer, it literally meant someone who used your product, and the journey was meant to describe the types of steps they took in using that product. Journey mapping was fundamental to experience design which is a process that supports user behaviour inside a given digital artefact. Again, the clues are in the terminology, journey and experience design were meant more to enable a desirable behaviour than to drive or even incite a specific behaviour. Of course, once you get into persuasive design (the bread and butter of BJ Fogg) the focus changes from enablement to stimulation and direction but that’s another story for yet another day.

In sum, the early iterations of journey mapping were contained within given ecosystems, even specific digital products, and aimed at diagnosing and enabling behaviour rather than directing it.

Enter customer experience. Unlike user experience, customer experience is not contained inside a digital product but inside a service’s ecosystem. A bank defines any interaction inside its branches and apps as part of its customer experience. When people complain on the phone or to the person behind the glass window, they get passed over to the customer support team aka customer experience. The more customer experience teams began to interface with customers via technologies, the more a longer chain of interactions needed to be mapped to be diagnosed and fixed, and we started to have customer journey mapping as part of customer experience. There’s an interesting discussion here about how much journey mapping was happening before chats, apps and additional support channels were introduced and I could say that’s the third “other conversation” for yet another day. However, I don’t have enough experience to say for sure so I will ask someone else to maybe pick up that end of the story. My only point here is journey mapping expanded as a practice from contained, primarily digital ecosystems, to wide omnichannel ones. Still as enablement, but starting to touch more and more on the intersection between sales and marketing.

Fast forward to about 4–5 years ago, when I first heard about it, the question being asked was: why are we not considering brand as part of the customer experience and why aren’t we mapping brand comms into the overall journeys? Surely, if ads are annoying customers then that’s part of the experience they have with brand and we need to include those ads as part of the overall experience. People discussed this as “brand experience” and started to visualise wide, expansive journeys which included everything from ads to customer support in one view.

This was the top down view. From bottom up however, something even simpler was happening: having to deal with websites and chatbots and many other digital artefacts which had appeared within their mandate, marketing managers and brand managers had started to interact with digital makers: UX designers, web designers and product owners. All of them spoke the language of design and worked with journey mapping as a regular tool. Soon enough, marketing teams were visualising advertising campaigns in journey format, incorporating “support” interactions that happened in the website or in app. And the circle was closed. What had begun as a not necessarily directional methodology was now being used to direct decision making in consumers.

So, now that we have the history (as perceived by me, I do need to caveat that) of how we’ve come to marketing using journey mapping to show campaign progression, let’s go back to the single downside I can see to this so far: the fact that the journey mapping process and design thinking is sometimes replacing marketing strategic decisioning.

What do I mean by that?

Well, consider this: you are working with three personas for a boat selling business and wanting to map their journey from lack of awareness till first contact. The way you’d go about it, in true design thinking fashion, is interview some people to find out how do they go about deciding, where they look for information, what they rely on, what type of information they need, etc. You might build some personas. Using these, you create a journey map of the stages you’ve identified, the key motivators for people, the barriers and what the brand needs to do to overcome those, the channels they’ve pointed out, the key interactions and it seems like your job is done. Except, and I promise you this is what you’ll find, your map will only show you what to do for people who actively want to buy a boat and have shown intent. It will not tell you what to do for the people who’ve never considered a boat, nor what to say to stand out from the crowd, nor how aggressive you should be in what channel or how many people you need to reach to got to critical mass. Quite often, even if you have mapped some stages people go through, the journey will stumble when you will need to do more than “enable” behaviour, for instance with “stubborn personas” which don’t advance to the next stage through the process of “campaign wishful thinking” (which is what I call when campaign journeys show people interacting with every asset).

While design thinking and journey mapping does replicate some of the behaviours of strategic marketing decisions (you work with groups of “target audiences”, you understand the types of behaviours they have and how to influence them, you make decisions as to what will influence those behaviours), there are places in which design thinking falls short. Here’s some:

  • having a marketing strategy means you’re being directional, it pushes to an outcome, as opposed to journeys which visualise a way to enable behaviour
  • strategies combine quantitative perspectives with qualitative ones, considering not only what you are trying to change in consumers but also how many consumers need to change and how fast
  • strategies are comparative, pitting your messages against those of the competition, whereas in journeys it’s often quite difficult to make decisions on how a specific interaction is differentiating; you need to have decided on the difference BEFORE you even started mapping
  • strategies are usually longer term and can be measured in business impact, whereas journeys should primarily be used for specific campaigns and gauged through campaign performance alone

If you think about how marketing can best incorporate design thinking, you quickly come to realise that it’s an interesting balance of circumscribing and merging. You need to have a marketing strategy, and an advertising strategy for that matter, before you start introducing design practice into the conversation. You’re better off having segmentations, promotional strategy and even a marketing funnel established before you start mapping a persona journey. In this, having a marketing strategy is what circumscribes multiple acts of design thinking applied to individual campaigns.

That said, I always come back to the fundamental benefit of design practice when I think about where design thinking and marketing merge in my head. For me, design thinking starts with incredible empathy, with an unwavering desire to genuinely understand what your consumers do and want. It derives this from the fact that inside a software if you understand why people don’t click you can fix that. In the real world, we often say we don’t know why people make a brand decision over another (that 50% of marketing we don’t know works, from the famous saying) which is why additional understanding of their motivations is essential. In that, more journeys and more personas might help.

But trying to do one thing over another, to use design thinking as the only way to build your marketing strategy might not be the best idea.

As always, as with the fake dichotomy of online vs traditional media, as with any system that makes complicated things into black and white, the solution is more complex and probably somewhere in between.



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Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.