Customer Intent: Elusive, but Not Impossible to Obtain

Customer reviews, client reviews, best PR firm, public relations, content marketingCustomer or buyer intent refers to the motivations that drive consumer behaviors—not simply what they want, but why they want it. The ability to discern the whys behind the whats is obviously important to marketers. The more they can understand the motivations of their customers, the better they will be able to produce the goods and services that best meet their needs and effectively communicate the right points to compel the desired action—a sale.

Margaret King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis and a cultural analyst who studies the ways that culture shapes and drives customer motivation, likens customer intent to “the black box” of marketing. She says it has always been like that and will likely remain so. “That’s why there are so many people in this field trying to figure out how to get to this idea of understanding the mind.”

This is true, she adds, for both business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) companies. People are people, after all, and it’s people who make buying decisions in both the B2C and B2B markets.

But intent data is just as elusive today as it has been all along. Marketers have been attempting for decades to understand buyer motivations.


There have been a number of methodologies advanced in the marketing world to get a handle on customer intent. First came the concept of AIDA—Attention, Interest, Desire, Action—put forth by an ad agency executive named Elias St. Elmo Lewis way back in 1898.

Then in 1924, William Townsend depicted the acronym visually as a funnel, wider at the top (awareness) and narrower at the bottom (sales) as consumers go through the various stages—more people enter the funnel at the top than emerge at the bottom.

Using a funnel visualization has become quite common in marketing circles to depict the buyer journey. The language used has changed, though. Today’s marketers often refer to ToFu (top of funnel, or the awareness stage), MoFu (middle of funnel, or the consideration stage) and BoFu (bottom of funnel, or the decision stage).

The traditional funnel depiction of the buyer journey is still widely used today, yet some point out that this model is overly simplistic. Allan Thygesen, Google’s president of the Americas, for instance, says this model no longer applies. He backs up his claim by pointing to Google’s analysis of thousands of users’ clickstream data. “We found that no two journeys are exactly alike, and in fact, most journeys don’t resemble a funnel at all. They look like pyramids, diamonds, hourglasses, and more,” he writes for Google.

Intent, Thygesen says, “is redefining the marketing funnel.” It is no longer, if it ever was, a linear journey. Instead, it proceeds through fits and starts, sometimes in circles and sometimes with wide gaps between initial interest to consideration of various alternatives to a purchase decision.

That can make things very challenging for marketers.


One of the great challenges with customer intent is that it varies widely across industries and types of products or services. It can also vary by customer demographics, timing or time of year, and, of course, environmental factors. The impact of environmental factors on customer intent is something that was driven home to marketers of all stripes, of course, since COVID-19 emerged early last year.

Customer intent is a moving target and one that companies approach in different ways.

“Figuring out customer intent allows us to direct the right audience to our affiliates,” says Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of GetVoIP, a cloud communication firm that generates revenue through affiliate marketing. Doing that, Yonatan says, requires an analysis of both purchasing patterns and the type of content to which customers respond. Data on customers’ purchasing patterns, he adds, can help marketers predict what else they are likely to buy and to refocus marketing messages to target those items. Understanding the type of content to which they respond, he says, can yield insights into the products or services tied to content in which they might be most interested.

Adam Chase, president of Music Minds, a music publication, says that when people come to his site, their intent might be to read about musicians they enjoy. “We serve them the article, but we’re also telling them to subscribe if they want the latest updates on that musician. And we’re linking to a review of the guitar that musician uses, or their latest album, or some of their merchandise.”

These things might not have been part of their original intent, he says, “but through savvy marketing, we can convince them that doing so fulfills their original intent, too.”

Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn, a site that helps visitors find lawn care services, says: “When people visit us, their intent is almost always, ‘I need to find someone to work on my lawn.’ We serve that intent directly by making it easy to find someone local who has great reviews—two things that are implied by that intent.”

Bailey points out that marketers need to both address the primary needs of consumers as well as the secondary aspects of those needs. For example, he says, “if someone is searching for a jacket, secondary needs may be ‘I need it in size 2x’ and ‘I need fast shipping so it gets here in time for winter.’” Psychology, he says, can help marketers understand the intent of their customers and, consequently, help them design better customer experiences.

In addition, it’s important for marketers to monitor customer intent over time and make adjustments to marketing strategies and tactics to best meet customer needs as they guide them from interest to action.

Ethan Taub, CEO of Goalry and Loanry, sites designed to help visitors reach their financial goals and comparison shop for money-related needs, drills deep into his analytics to determine what customers do before they make a purchase. “If they are looking at an item, then moving on, what is putting them off? If they are coming from a particular line of marketing, make sure to keep doing that so that the intent grows for them and you get more successful purchases.”

But understanding what customers do still often fails to yield insights into why they do it, some marketing experts assert.


The goal of intent, says Arielle Hurst, growth manager at Ironpaper, a B2B growth agency, is to look past what customers are specifically asking for and try to get to a deeper level of understanding. Getting to that level is often hampered by marketers’ own biases as well as their intimate knowledge of what they are trying to sell.

Marketers might often be drawn down the wrong pathways when attempting to understand customer intent, King says. Their view is often focused more on what they have to sell than on why people would want to buy what they have to sell. The benefits they choose to use in their communications, consequently, often miss the mark.

For instance, King says, “banking has a way of looking at itself which has very little to do with how customers use banks and what they rely on their banks to do for them.” Consumers, she says, rarely pick a bank based on its rates, policies, or fee schedules; instead, they pick a bank based on its location. “It’s what’s closest to their house. It’s proximity,” she says.

Jewelry is another good example, King says, suggesting that people are far less interested in carat, color, clarity, and cut than the jewelry store operators might think. “People don’t buy jewelry as an investment,” she says. In addition, she says, these purchases are generally rare occurrences. A diamond ring, for instance, is going to be something they likely purchase only once or twice in their lifetimes. The intent behind the purchase is more tied up in relationships—and the intended outcomes of those relationships—than with the types of attributes that jewelers tend to share in their marketing materials.

Too often the questions asked by marketers can skew the conversation and yield misleading results. For instance, if a jewelry marketer asks consumers to rate how important carat, color, clarity, and cut are to them and offer a rating scale, respondents are likely to provide ratings. But what those ratings don’t indicate—and what the question didn’t ask—is why the customer is making the purchase and what is really driving the choice of a particular jeweler.

Asking the right questions is critical, Hurst says. Unfortunately, and as if the landscape wasn’t murky enough already, the ability to ask the right questions is not impacted only by inherent biases that those too close to the product, service, and company might have, but also to consumers’ abilities to respond accurately to certain questions.

Hurst points to the now apocryphal story of how the iPod came to be. If Apple had simply gone to customers and asked them what they wanted, she says, “it would have been a bigger CD case.” The same was true of the development of the personal computer, also an Apple innovation. Customers can’t express a need for something they haven’t even conceptualized or before it even exists.

Marketers might also fail to ask the right questions because they’re typically not coming at issues from a beginner’s standpoint, Hurst says. They simply know or think they know too much. And because they do, they might overlook critical questions that could get at buyer intent and motivation.

“It’s so hard for us to get back into a beginner’s mind-set,” Hurst says. Consumers might not understand some core tenets of a marketer’s product, but they are often searching for the answer to some underlying function. “If we can explicitly ask them what that is, we’re a lot closer to figuring out how we can position our products and services to meet their needs,” she says.

King prefers not to ask questions at all.

“Our job as cultural analysts is to conduct a reality check on what companies think they know in order to target our laser vision on exactly what’s behind customer buying,” she says.

There is no more important research question than the one they ask in all of their engagements, she says: “Why do people buy, and what are the deep cultural needs driving these sales?”

In her work, King says, “we don’t interview very many people; what we do is look at how people behave.”

That can be challenging to do, especially in a traditional retail environment. In this increasingly digital environment, though, marketers have an aid to assist them in understanding and acting upon buyer intent: technology.


“Short of using telepathy, it can be difficult to understand customer intent,” says Ravi Parikh, CEO of RoverPass, a web service for helping consumers find and make reservations at campgrounds, trailer parks, and similar facilities. “We are getting better at it, though. Or shall I say technology is.”

Artificial intelligence, Parikh says, is the newest method that is proving to be useful when it comes to delving into customer intent. “When AI is given the ability to interact and compile data from the customer’s behavior, then realizing customer intent gets a lot easier,” he says.

Writing for Forbes, contributor Brian Solis, an expert on technology and its impact on society, argues: “No matter how nonlinear, complex, and unique, today’s customer journeys are defined by customer signals, activity, and are rich with intent. To modern marketers, these signals represent opportunities to deliver relevant, useful, and real-time experiences that help customers take their next step.”

Avinash Chandra, founder and CEO of BrandLoom Consulting, explains how this might work in practice. “If a customer pings your site and moves to the handbag section, and filters a few brands, you can gather the data point of the price range they are willing to dive into,” he says. You would also be able to see the bags they opened to look at in detail, which provides a data point for size and color, he says.

But, Hurst says, marketers need to be careful about how to use data to derive intent. Marketers, she says, “can make the mistake of confusing intent with behavior. We can kind of fixate on the actions of what someone is doing and forget to wonder why it is that they took that action.”

King agrees. Her work is grounded not in asking people what they think, she says, but in observing and analyzing what they do. “Evidence speaks louder than testimony,” King says.

She doesn’t believe traditional tools, like focus groups or interviews, provide value for marketers and believes further that marketers often invest unnecessarily in these tools.

“We don’t ask people why they buy, because they don’t know,” King says. She encourages marketers not to look just at sales data but at any information they can obtain that lets them track back in time. Her firm looks at how people have used products over time—whether jewelry, or milk, or swimming pools, or anything. “We go way back sometimes,” she says. “We look at the continuity of use and we see how people used medicine, for example—how it’s administered, who received it, and how that whole nexus of activity works across decades, or across centuries.” Culture is very stable, King says. “The bedrock values of culture don’t change very much.”

Neither do the tenets of good marketing. Google Analytics didn’t even exist when Victor Kiam bought Remington in 1979, but he was still able to discern and leverage consumer intent when selling razors, recognizing that it wasn’t actually the razor they were buying but a smooth shave.

That was the intent.

What is the intent behind your customers’ purchase decisions? Figure that out and your business will thrive. 

(NOTE: This piece initially appeared in destination CRM.)


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