Strategy & Lead Gen

Buyer's Journey vs. Customer Lifecycle: What's the Difference?

Marketers love jargon. We're capable of having high-speed conversations with buzzwords flying so fast, it would make a layperson's head spin.

Sometimes, though, we can get tripped up on the very lingo we love so dearly.

One trip-up we've noticed is the difference between two separate marketing and sales concepts: the buyer's journey and the customer lifecycle. 

The sheer variation on these terms can get confusing fast: "buyer's lifecycle," "customer journey," "buyer lifecycle journey," "customer sales funnel," and the list goes on. Wait, what?

It's a mess out there, folks.

I found lots of articles hoping to clear this up, and while they're insightful, the consensus is... still out.

So, here's our go. We'll take a look at each term, compare and contrast, and then put these terms back together — which is right where they belong.

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What is the buyer's journey?

HubSpot's definition is the one we use regularly at SparkReaction. It divides up the buyer's experience into three chunks: the awareness, consideration, and decision stages.

  • In the awareness stage, buyers have realized a potential problem or opportunity. They're taking to different channels — like Google search, social media, and online forums — to research neutral third-party information that helps them identify problems or symptoms.

    • For example: "My office is growing, and I'm having difficulty organizing tasks for my team. Is this due to my management style? Or do I just need some help?"

  • In the consideration stage, buyers have given a name to their problem or opportunity. They begin researching available approaches or methods to solving their problem.

    • For example: "Now I know that most businesses of my size are using task management software. I think software will solve my team's organization problem. But how can I implement it, and what are some considerations I should look out for?"

  • In the decision stage, buyers are actively trying to resolve their problem or opportunity, and they are researching possible solutions. They peruse all kinds of documents, data, and endorsements to make an informed final decision.

    • For example: "What are my options for purchasing task management software, and which program is the most comprehensive and affordable for my company?"

Unlike the lifecycle — in which marketers are closely identifying and targeting prospects at each stage — a customer's place in the journey is trickier to grasp.

The time between awareness and decision could be months or minutes. Therefore, a marketer's role is to ensure a quality experience (via content, support, and other tools) to cover each stage of the journey, should the buyer stumble upon it. Businesses that provide the best education during the journey will be the most successful.

A marketer's role is to ensure a quality experience via content, support, and other tools to cover each stage: awareness, consideration, and decision.

Other sources define it as as the buyer's entire interaction with a brand. This can include a number of things, like:

  • Word-of-mouth reviews from friends and family
  • Positive or negative experiences with a company's website (like an online shopping cart's usability)
  • Customer service interactions during and after a purchase is made

We don't think this definition is at odds with HubSpot's. At the heart of both definitions is this: The journey includes all of the touch points that a buyer experiences with a brand, from beginning to end.

buyers journey, customer lifecycle

Crafting content for the three journey stages is a bit like writing a travel plan — ensuring useful information for every step of the way.

Throughout the journey, buyers are identifying and eventually solving a problem or fulfilling an opportunity. Every touch point contributes to a buyer's perception of the brand.

At any stage, a company can create (or break) an emotional attachment, and potentially turn a buyer into a brand advocate. 

What is the customer lifecycle? 

Unlike the buyer's journey, the customer lifecycle is an active process driven by a company's marketing and sales team.

(You might also heard it called "buyer lifecycle" — the key is lifecycle!) It involves segmenting potential customers into a variety of stages. These stages are used to adjust marketing and sales techniques to maximize conversion.

All together, these lifecycle stages create the marketing and sales funnel. As customers move through the stages, fewer and fewer people complete each subsequent stage. This creates a "funnel" effect: Many subscribers result in a few quality customers.

All together, the lifecycle stages create the marketing and sales funnel.

You may have heard different iterations of the stages. The stages we use at SparkReaction also come from HubSpot, and they include:

  • Subscriber — a casual subscriber to your periodic content.
  • Lead — someone who has provided you information about themselves.
  • Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) — a lead that is deemed ready for marketing messages.
  • Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) — a lead that is deemed ready for sales messages.
  • Opportunity — someone who is ready to buy, and is receiving sales correspondence.
  • Customer — someone who has purchased your product or service.
  • Evangelist — a customer who is actively advocating for your brand.

It's important for each marketing and sales team to set a clear definition for each stage.This is really unique to each company, although there are some best practices for defining a marketing qualified lead, moving an MQL into SQL territory, and scoring leads throughout your funnel.

buyers journey, customer lifecycle

Like writing a novel, building Rome, or climbing a mountain — all good things take time. A sales message is the same way, and should happen patiently and incrementally.

Each lifecycle stage should evoke particular responses from you as a marketer. These might include email nurturing, premium content, special offers, and even sales follow-ups.

Marketing and sales messages are presented incrementally as a customer moves through the funnel. This way, the customer doesn't get turned off by a sales message that comes too soon or too late. "Buy now!" would scare off somebody just perusing your blog, right? Think of Goldilocks: Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

Finally: How do they work together?

Get ready — rapid fire terms comin' atcha!

We've shown you that these two concepts have distinct differences. Even so, there is an important overlap. You'll find the most success when you invest in both together, and here's how.

When a buyer first encounters your brand — maybe through a paid advertisement, word-of-mouth, or a Google search result — he or she has started in to the buyer's journey with your company. The buyer has an awareness of your company, and begins a casual relationship with you.

You'll want to ensure you have a range of educational information available with your web presence to provide for any buyer's needs: awareness, consideration, or decision stage questions. You'll also need to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience for all buyer touch points, including your social media, website design, and (if relevant) customer service.

If a buyer decides you are a credible source, he may enter your marketing and sales funnel. He's on your radar because he submitted an email address to subscribe to your content, submitted a form with his information, or reached out directly to contact you. And once you have this information, you can place the buyer in your customer life cycle.

buyers journey, customer ifecycle

Make sure each step of the way is a solid experience for buyers — it may earn you a new lead in your marketing funnel.

As the buyer completes different actions — like downloading an e-book, opening an email, or submitting a landing page form — you'll gradually qualify him as a lead, a marketing qualified lead, etc. This classification will determine future marketing actions that you take, and your messaging will become incrementally more sales-y.

The main difference is this: The journey involves actions that the buyer takes, while the lifecycle involves actions that the marketer takes. The lifecycle is a segment of the journey in which you, as a marketer, actively appeal to the buyer's needs.

Takeaway

By now, you've gotten the gist: These two separate concepts work together to make your marketing rock.

The "journey" refers to a buyer's complete experience with your brand, particularly as the buyer moves to identify, understand, and then solve some kind of problem (or fulfill some opportunity). You should host a nice mix of informative content that fulfills the buyer at any stage: awareness, consideration, or decision. At all touch points, show your best face to gain that trust.

If you play your cards right, the buyer will enter your funnel. Now you can use targeted, incremental messaging to guide the buyer down the lifecycle stages. As you get more information on your buyer, you'll target further. Not too hot, not too cold.

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Josh Ames

Josh Ames

Josh graduated from Northwest Missouri State University with a BA in Marketing and Business Management. In addition to running his own consulting firm and other various start-ups, he has experience in web design, business development, strategy and marketing for small to mid-sized businesses. Josh is a Certified ScrumMaster and a Certified Inbound Professional.