The Keys to Understanding Customer Intent

+4 ways to apply humanistic touchpoints to your campaigns

Understanding Customer Intent

Everyone talks about the importance of understanding customer intent, but what does it mean? Is it predicting what product or category a customer will want to purchase next? How about identifying ahead of time when a customer is likely to become disengaged, or what their preferred channels of communication are? Is it sending a cart abandon message at the right time, or a reminder email for a commonly repurchased product?

If you happen to work in marketing, you’re probably in agreement that most of the examples above can indicate a customer’s intent to purchase. But do you also think about how understanding intent could include knowing when a customer might need someone from the care team to reach out and help them overcome a hurdle? Or what about reaching out directly to assist a customer in the final ordering steps for a big-ticket item?

As marketers, we can fall into the trap of trying to solve for only our own business objectives when putting together marketing programs. Through that lens, understanding customer intent means something to the effect of “what product should we put in front of a customer right now.” I would argue that a more humanistic approach to truly understanding where a customer is in their journey with your brand, should align with the following statement: truly understanding customer intent means going beyond marketing touchpoints to encompass the full customer experience.

Following the humanistic approach

Smart brands know that when they go beyond a transactional, purchase-driven program, and apply a humanistic approach to better understand customer intent, it leads to significantly higher engagement and repeat business in the form of greater customer loyalty.

For those of us in marketing, of course we still have a job to do, which is primarily to drive sales and conversions. But we don’t have to sacrifice one goal for the other. When it comes to intent driven marketing programs there are wonderfully effective strategies you can weave into your programs to leverage intent signals that will help you achieve your marketing objectives and better serve your customers at the same time.

Here are a few ways you can apply humanistic touchpoints in your marketing programs:

  1. Get your marketing and customer experience teams in sync so that your care team members can support marketing initiatives when speaking with customers, and conversely, marketing teams can include product education and enablement content as part of welcome and ongoing customer communications.
  2. Make sure you include education and brand affinity messaging in your communication strategy. Customers are not always in the buying phase of their lifecycle with your brand. The more value and connection you can create in those off cycle phases, the greater reciprocal reward they’ll return when they’re back in the buying phase.
  3. Understand which forms of messaging work best in a given channel, and message your customers accordingly. Use the following as broad, top-level categories: acquisition, direct sales, customer care, and brand awareness.
    • Email is great for direct sales (promotional messages, behavior-based triggered messages) and customer care (order confirms, back-in-stock).
    • Text and push are both great channels for time-sensitive customer care focused messaging (curbside pickup, reservation confirmation, travel notifications), and depending on a customer’s preference, may also be a secondary channel for promotional messaging such as flash sales. But be careful about overdoing it with promotional offers via mobile channels.
    • Social media is great as a brand awareness channel, it can be used for broadcasting promotional offers, and also serve as a conduit for customer care interactions with customers (most commonly via Twitter and Facebook). It can also work as an acquisition channel.
    • SEO and display are often prime acquisition channels. You shouldn’t be spending too much time targeting existing customers in these channels.
  4. Utilize customer intent to include incidental messaging in your regular promotional campaigns. In addition to any dedicated customer intent messages such as cart abandon, update your regular promotional email campaigns to include dynamic content modules that can be used to remind customers of recent products they’ve viewed and/or price drops. This can be as simple as a text banner above the hero image in a promotional email. You’ll probably still want to send an initial dedicated cart abandon campaign, but this approach is much more friendly than sending 3 separate dedicated cart abandon follow-up messages. And it has the added benefit of no longer needing to suppress subscribers from your regular promotional launches.

Beware of being too transactional

Customers get turned off by marketing efforts that come across as purely transactional. If you’re not offering something of value and it feels like you’re always asking your customers to make another purchase, they are eventually going to tune your messages out.

Here are a few things in particular to beware of:

  1. Using incomplete or poor data. Watch out for thinking you are messaging based on customer intent, when you are really just doing a poor job of segmentation. This can be a common pitfall when building lookalike and product affinity models without conducting thorough testing.
  2. Making bad data-driven assumptions. Be sure to validate and sanity check the results before making any major disruptive changes to your programs, particularly when testing against small sample sizes.
  3. Creating poor user experiences in the purchase funnel. Here’s a good example of what not to do: don’t wait until the 3rd page of your checkout process to tell your customer a product is back-ordered and won’t be available to ship for 4 weeks. While you might notch a sale today due to the customer having already invested their time in the checkout process, they’re going to think twice about shopping with you again in the future.
  4. Hammering people over the head with recurring cart abandon messaging for the same product. Recurring reminders can be exhausting over the long haul and can lead to higher customer churn rates.

Putting it into practice

The industry has evolved remarkably in the past 5 years. While basic retargeting was limited to big budget enterprise players in the past, today, companies of almost any size can put into place the key components of a sophisticated customer-intent driven program. There are two ingredients you’ll need: the right technology and a proper strategy that fits your organization and customers.

For technology, you’ll want a solution that can easily plug into your website to capture behavioral events, and you’ll also need a marketing automation platform to trigger event-driven marketing messages to your customers. Those are frequently separate products, though some solutions allow you to do both in one tool.

As far as strategy, start small and go after the wins that will lead to largest revenue and highest customer satisfaction wins. After establishing your base, you can start to build out your program with more sophisticated triggers that will add incremental lift to customer engagement and the bottom line.

We need to remember that the customer journey doesn’t start and end with a single purchase. Put the time and effort in to build a program that will message your customers appropriately, and with humanity, based on where they’re at in the customer journey, and you will be rewarded with their obsessive loyalty and repeat business.


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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith is an accomplished marketing technology leader with a proven track record implementing innovative client solutions. He has been the co-founder of several successful digital marketing agencies and served as a senior executive in the services division of Oracle Responsys. Aaron has worked directly with marketing teams at some of the world’s largest brands including:, Williams-Sonoma, Orbitz, REI, Verizon, Alaska Airlines, Microsoft, Spirit Airlines, Costco, and Safeway.