Oh, the places your audience will go. When it comes to making a purchase decision, it often seems like customers take the long and winding road to your product. Some brands make the mistake of littering the customer journey with a series of road signs intended to lead potential customers down a one-size-fits-all path, ultimately resulting in a quick U-turn onto your competitor's expressway.

Smart businesses know that what customers really want is a trusted passenger, someone who knows the road well but always keeps the driver comfortably in command. The only way to have your audience's best interests in mind as they navigate their personal journeys is to understand why they're on this particular road, what led them there, where they're trying to go, and what they need to make the journey a little easier. To be a good passenger, you have to know the elements of your buyer's journey: personas, timeline, emotions, touch points, and channels.

Fact: Your buyers already know a lot about you

Never assume your audience is approaching you blind to what you're all about. Today's consumer is savvier than ever, and if they're not coming to you via the internet, they've seen or heard about you from the rants and raves (or "buyer bewares") of their peers or family members.

The typical buyer journey has already started before they're even on your radar, so assume that individuals in your target audience are already experts on you until they prove otherwise. All of your communications should be centered around them -- their biggest challenges, questions and concerns, points of interest, and goals. This level of understanding will foster a deeper relationship right off the bat.

And if you operate in reseller markets or other business-to-business areas, consider you may have multiple audiences with very different pain points and end goals. Your buyers will have a different set of qualifiers than your end users. Learn what these are on both sides of the equation then empower your resellers with the information, it will help them communicate and build relationships with end users.

Face time with your customers

Whether you're in the product development stage or brainstorming marketing strategies, you won't get the full picture of the people you're trying to reach unless you sit down with them. Yes, online surveys can be used to understand the preferences of a large group, but they do not give you the ability to ask specifics about their responses and rationale.

Face-to-face interactions help you validate whether or not you've selected the right audience, and may further reveal different niche groups within that audience that will require more nuanced messaging strategies. Best of all, in-person interactions can be used at all stages of the journey, whether part of the proof of concept review if you're still developing your product, or to confirm the characteristics of your customers and their behaviors.

It helps ensure you don't waste time, energy and money on things your audience doesn't care about. This process will help you develop ideal buyer personas, from which you can create a process map that outlines a typical journey for each segment.

Be one with your audience

When you get to truly know your buyer persona, you'll better be able to understand their thought processes during each phase of the decision-making process. Buyers typically go through multiple stages between initial interest and signing on the dotted line, and when you step into their shoes you're able to pinpoint the triggers that evoke action at each stage on the map.

What do buyer actions look like during each phase? How do you know they've moved on from one phase to the next? What questions and concerns do your buyers need satisfied before they're comfortable deepening their relationship with you?

If you're already in the mind of your audience, you'll have the proper context to identify the answers. Once you've reached conclusions about your audience and appropriately mapped the different parts of their journeys, it's imperative to share your findings with your entire company. Marketing, sales and executive teams need to be aligned like never before to properly serve the needs of customers, and your map should be accessible to all so that tweaks can be implemented and understood on the fly.

For content, consistency and quality is king

As your potential buyers work their way through their journeys, the ways you engage with them should adapt with each graduation into the next step. Rather than overloading your customers with one-sided communication that focuses on your products and features, develop a tailored messaging strategy that delivers relevant content at the exact right moments.

Buyers need to hear different messages during the evaluation stage than they do when they're seeking advice from peers and doing independent research online. If you've mapped that your buyers are more likely to consult social media during one phase of the journey, meet them there. Find the right delicate balance between communicating using your audience's preferred methods and controlling the narrative so they're emboldened to take the next step with you.