What is customer intent?

Customer intent is defined as the thoughts directing a customer’s decisions or actions toward a particular purchasing event. It is their in-the-moment purpose: “I’m going to buy a jacket,” for example. In the e-commerce space, customer intent is considered the holy grail of what digital merchandisers want to understand and influence.

Wait, so it’s about understanding the customer’s thoughts? Well, yes. In a brick-and-mortar store, a customer entering the aisle for men’s jeans has expressed their intent. Merchandisers can literally see this happen.

Digitally it can be quite similar — an immediate move from the homepage to the category page for men’s jeans. Data points shared by a digital customer during a particular session, such as size and color, are their expression of preferences. And other data, such as demographic and geographic information, while incredibly helpful in piecing together an individual customer profile, are not true expressions of intent.

Lisa Gevelber, Google’s VP of Global Marketing, explains it like this: "Marketers who rely only on demographics to reach consumers risk missing more than 70% of potential mobile shoppers. Why? Because demographics rarely tell the whole story. Understanding consumer intent is much more powerful."


What’s the difference between customer preferences and customer intent?

Customer preferences are the preferred variables of a particular shopper. Variables such as colors, sizes, brands, and materials can become preferences as correlations are seen. These preferences expressed over time can grow to be reliable predictors of customer intent—what the customer is actually trying to purchase.

Preferences, of course, can vary by category. For example, a digital shopper may prefer one brand of shoes but might not respond to any other apparel from that brand. The overall intent of a customer can, therefore, be fed by preferences.

But when push comes to shove, intent always wins. For example, a digital shopper who has expressed preferences only for white shoes may, at some point and in an unpredictable moment, have the intent of purchasing a red jacket.


Customer intent in e-commerce

Customer intent can span sessions as a potential digital customer carves through their path to purchase, and therefore it’s something each session needs to immediately respond to. This is why category pages are such a high frequency page on e-commerce sites.

A customer intending to buy a jacket isn’t going to bother scrolling down the homepage in the hopes that they stumble on a jacket—they’ll immediately head to the jacket category page. That move to the category page is often the first expression of their intent as a shopper, and it’s the first signal digital merchandisers pick up on (typically in Google Analytics and through various clickstream analysis and heat map tools). This digital move is similar to a customer walking into a department store and making a beeline for the jackets.


Why is understanding customer intent so important?

Because today’s empowered customers are demanding fast, friction-free experiences, and the best way to respond to their real-time needs is to understand what they are looking for. This is, of course, a no-brainer for in-store merchandisers. But in the digital realm, “intent” has long been thought of as something to be predicted long after the fact, based on the past expression of key preferences.

Today, AI-powered e-commerce tools such as ours allow digital merchandisers to not only understand customer intent in-the-moment, but actually influence it—no, not by somehow inhabiting the customer's mind, but by continuously displaying the most relevant content to them in real-time and across the digital touchpoints that matter most. If a customer who in the past has expressed preferences for light blue men’s skinny jeans with a 32-inch waist lands on the homepage and then makes that beeline to the jeans category page, they shouldn’t just see generic jeans of various sizes and blues.

Elite retailers that show customers what’s relevant are giving customers what they deserve, and typically seeing double-digit increases in conversion rates as a result. Intent is in the mind, and it moves fast. An online experience that can move along with it, therefore, is a win for both customer and retailer.

Arrange a demo with one of our experts and find out more about customer intent and how Sitecore Discover can make a real difference to your organization.