Imagine if every one of your buyers or clients took a clear, linear path to making a purchase. Marketing and sales would be a breeze. You’d know when to send an email, serve an ad, or recommend a piece of content.

Instead, the buyer’s journey looks more like a maze. Buyers twist, turn, backtrack, and conduct research in their own way and at their own pace. To help buyers navigate this maze, marketers must first study it themselves.

To solve the puzzle, and understand how to engage your customers appropriately in 2022, consider mapping out your buyer’s journey according to these five stages. The better you understand this journey, the more focused your efforts will be.

1. Awareness

For any organization, whether B-to-B or B-to-C, the goal of the awareness stage is simply to find customers. They’re not on your sales floor. They haven’t visited your website. They haven’t picked up your brochure. They might not be able to articulate their own needs yet. They just need to know you exist.

Think critically about the marketing strategy you use to attract these potential customers. Some channels will be more effective than others. However you plan to market your product or service, the goal should be to highlight your organization’s ability to meet its customers’ needs.

For B-to-B and B-to-C organizations, the methods for finding new customers frequently diverge. The common thread: your customer has a problem and must be made aware that your business has the solution. Marketing matters most during this initial stage. It will determine whether you find the people who have needs — known or unknown — that your business can fulfill.

2. Research

Content is even more critical during the research stage, which will look similar for B-to-B and B-to-C organizations. People are looking for information, recommendations, expert opinions, referrals ― anything that will move them closer to a decision about your product or service.

B-to-C businesses can raise awareness of their brand through a clever advertisement, enough to move onto the next stage quickly. In a B-to-B model, raising awareness often takes the form of relationship building. This is a process that can last days, weeks, even months.

The internet is a powerful tool at this stage of the buyer’s journey. Your search engine optimization tools will do their heaviest lifting as potential customers do their research. A holistic content strategy touching on all aspects of your organization’s digital presence can make one brand stand out from the rest in a crowded market. Competition for customers in this stage is fierce.

Don’t discount the importance of offline social networks — the people we meet at business conferences, trade shows, or anywhere you talk shop with people outside your organization. These connections are important for both B-to-B and B-to-C, though the channels may be different. In the B-to-C world, it may be asking a friend or a social network for recommendations, or reading reviews and testimonials. For B-to-B customers, it’s business conferences, trade shows, networking events, and asking others in similar roles as you. It’s all part of a buyer’s research process.

3. Evaluation

For the buyer, the mantra of this stage is “these are my options and I’m going to choose among them.”

At this stage the buyer understands what they need, has narrowed down who they believe can best fill those needs, and now is going to hold up your solution in comparison to others and weigh it against the need at hand. In B-to-C settings, the individual can weigh the options for themselves. Often in a B-to-B setting, other stakeholders will also need to weigh in on the options before a decision can be made.

When shopping online, either in a B-to-B or B-to-C setting, the evaluation stage might be entirely impersonal. It might look as simple as comparing the details of two different products on a computer screen. By contrast, buyers browsing a showroom or sales floor, or potential clients meeting in your office, might need extensive personal assistance to make an evaluation. Much depends on your business and the buyer.

4. Activation

By now, the buyer has evaluated their choices and is ready to make a purchase.

This stage of the journey is an interaction with your sales team or sales platform. In a B-to-C setting, that might look like a cashier at the checkout register or an online shopping cart experience, and is more likely a fast and easy process.

In the B-to-B world, it’s likely a more complex and lengthy process. It may involve multiple departments, such as merchandise that requires shipping overseen by your organization’s logistics team. It could involve a lengthy contract that needs to be reviewed by legal and signed by leadership. The complexity and length are entirely dependent on your buyer and business.

Activation is often regarded as an endpoint, but the buyer’s journey doesn’t end here.

5. Maintenance

By this point, whether the buyer has engaged with your organization online or offline, they’ve provided plenty of actionable data about their purchasing interests and habits. Your organization can use that data to further a mutually beneficial relationship.

For example, if the buyer purchased a heavy-duty machine that requires continued maintenance, periodic emails can remind the buyer of the maintenance schedule and put your awesome reputation for customer service at the front of their mind. You can also use this stage to solicit testimonials from your buyer outright, or make them aware of additional products or services that align with their needs.

While the mechanics of making a purchase have become more automated, the stages of the buyer’s journey have essentially remained the same. With automation comes a tremendous advantage: the ability to automate the right message to the right person at the right time for their stage of the buyer’s journey. This also leaves your sales team with more time to build stronger relationships. The digital tools available to organizations today are powerful data-gathering instruments. This data can tell you where on this journey a buyer is, which in turn informs your organization’s sales, marketing and customer service strategies.

Knowing your customer or client is only part of the equation. Understanding where they are in their journey when they engage with your organization is essential.