Impulse buying is a relatively rare aspect of sales. In fact, the act of making a purchase is typically an extended process, the length of which is directly proportional to the cost. The greater the cost, the longer and more involved the path to purchase will be. Knowing what the steps on that path are and how to market to consumers while they navigate them, will help generate a steady stream of leads and increase the overall effectiveness of your marketing budget.
The steps consumers take before a purchase can be examined from many angles, so in an attempt to understand the underlying motivations, I’m going to look at it from the cognitive approach — how they cognitively reach their impending decisions. These actions can spawn other paths that can be examined (such as the devices that constitute their transactional path) but for the broad stroke picture, the cognitive approach allows us to look at motivations. If you can tap into what motivates consumers at each phase you can provide information and incentives that will move them towards your business.
Your future customers (and in the final phase, current and past customers) exist within a decision making spectrum that you can influence at various points. This “cognitive path to purchase’ represents opportunities to reach consumers and provide them with information and motivation to convert them into customers. This involves using the right tool with the right message at the right time. Let’s start by looking at the steps in the path then we can address the tools that work best for each.
There are four major points that make up the cognitive path:
- Equilibrium – (equal balance between influences) Consumers have a large collection of needs and desires that exist in their conscious minds but that have not reached a threshold of importance that precipitates action. Perception of the cost vs. value of acting upon those needs and desires maintains an equilibrium. These wants and wishes accumulate and remain in consumers’ minds but remain in a relatively static state, waiting for a catalyst to advance motivation.
- Problem Solving – This stage represents an active need or desire that is not yet associated with making a purchase. The motivation here is to find information that will help solve a problem. The end result may lead to a purchase.
- Vendor Selection – These are consumers who are ready to make a purchase and must locate and evaluate a vendor.
- Returning Customers – These are consumers that have already purchased goods or services from the business in question.
Methods to Market to Each Step in the Path
This illustration shows the Cognitive Path to Purchase and the marketing approach that must be employed to reach each step (Outbound, Inbound and Rebound). As a business maintaining effective marketing tactics to reach each step will ensure a more predictable and consistent flow for sales. The good news is that there are effective and affordable ways to market to consumers throughout their path.
Equilibrium – This is the largest and least motivated group of consumers you will market to. Consumers at Equilibrium are at a static point in the path to purchase so they need a little motivation. The method to reach them is Outbound Marketing with advertisements. Ads are great way to get these consumers moving. A well crafted message delivered at the right time in the right way can influence them to move a need or desire up their priority list. Native Ads on social media platforms create a tremendous opportunity to advertise precisely and effectively to move consumers from a state of Equilibrium towards your business.
Problem Solving – Consumers that are searching to solve a problem make up the segment that is best reached with Inbound Marketing techniques like Content Marketing. These consumers are not ready to make a purchase or even select a vendor, instead they are actively seeking information that will help them solve a problem. If your business provides that valuable information that solves their problem then you have a potential customer already on the lot.
Vendor Selection – This is the point where consumers are looking for a business to hire. It’s another point at which to leverage Inbound Marketing in the form of Local Search and Paid Search. While this segment represents consumers that are highly motivated it also tends to be a cattle call where it becomes tough to differentiate your business. This “last mile” of the process relies on high placement in search engine as well as positive signals that differentiate your business such as positive reviews in local accounts.
Returning Customers – Often overlooked, returning customers are a valuable group of consumers because you already have earned their trust. They are best reached with what we call Rebound Marketing. Tools like Email Marketing and Social Media Marketing are both great ways to reach these consumers and keep them close to your brand.
Develop a Well Rounded Marketing Plan
It’s important to note that while the steps are illustrated as a linear path, consumers do not necessarily travel through each step. For example, a consumer could move from Equilibrium directly to a purchase if the marketing hits the spot and the cost of the purchase is below a threshold that would require research. Likewise, a consumer that is Problem Solving may decide the company that has provided information to solve their problem may be the perfect vendor and thereby avoid the Vendor Selection process altogether. Treating each step as an individual opportunity will ensure that your marketing plan works across the board, whether they end up traveling across steps or hop from one directly to purchase.