Prospective customers move along a series of four steps, or stages, before making a purchase. This is true for consumers as well as B2B customers. At each stage, the nature of the information and messages that are relevant to the prospect varies. One key to encouraging prospects to take action is to make the messages appropriate to the phase where that prospect is located. Here are short descriptions of the phases:
Awareness: First, the prospect needs to know that the provider and offering exists. Even for innovative new offerings, it normally takes multiple impressions, or exposures, to the existence of a new provider or offering before prospects recognize the name and purpose. For unaided recall, it might take dozens of impressions, depending on the specific situation. A call to action in this phase might be to provide a path to something useful in exchange for a minimal action – perhaps an email address only. The useful item could be an infographic, or an informative video, for example – items that can be easily viewed or used in a short timeframe.
Acceptance: Next, the prospect has to accept the provider, and the offering, as a legitimate and acceptable choice. That is, that the provider can offer a real product or service, and that the offering has some probability of doing what it is intended to do. Established companies have a big leg up for this phase – for example, if a well-known security camera company announced a new camera product, few prospects in the security industry would question their ability to deliver. For a new company, prospects may have no such expectation. In this stage, the call to action would be aimed to reinforce credibility and acceptance, and could take more of a time investment. White papers, or a registration pass for an upcoming tradeshow are good examples for this phase.
Differentiation: Once a prospect is aware of the provider and offering, and considers the supplier and the offering to be potentially acceptable, the next phase of the purchase process would be to try to understand what is different about this offering versus the alternatives. The differences could be technical, or performance in nature, or could be in price, warranty, or some other part of the offer. The key at this point is to deliver a difference that is meaningful to the prospect – it isn’t enough to just be different, the difference should provide a benefit over the alternative choices. Calls to action need to be more specific at this phase, not only to the benefits but linked to specific applications or types of users to be credible and meaningful. Depending on the situation, market-specific case studies or even an offer to provide a needs assessment might move prospects to action.
Preference: In the final phase of the process, the goal is to convince the prospect that this offering should be the preferred choice. For complex technical products, it is common to consider many factors within each category of difference, and it is also common for some factors to be better, and some worse, than competitive offerings. The performance of the supplier after the purchase, in the form of training, support, or warranty services will also make a big difference to the customer, and if done well, can form the foundation for a lasting business relationship. In this phase, messaging and calls to action can provide both guidance and reassurance, in the form of other customer testimonials, sample product, or even a trial installation to trigger the purchase.
As customers move through these phases, the communication strategy needs to account for the differences in the information needed to support the decisions within each phase.
For example, let’s imagine a new company that has created a surveillance camera with an improved low-light performance. Such a firm might be eager to promote this feature in advertisements and application articles, moving directly to the differentiation phase of communication. But, they are likely to be disappointed with the results. Potential customers may well be attracted to the new feature, and take note of the advertising claim. But because they are not familiar with the new provider, and have no basis for considering them to be an acceptable source, they may reach out instead to their current provider (in this case, one of the established camera providers) and ask them if similar features are available, or even necessary. In this way, the advertising not only may not achieve the desired goal, but may actually help the sales efforts of established competitors!
Here’s how the situation could have been different. When the new feature was in the final stages of development, an integrated marketing plan would provide for pre-launch communications that alerted the market about the new startup provider, and included information that would add to credibility and acceptance. (The previous experience of the executives at other known providers, for example.) Note that these early communications may not reveal the new feature – that is not their purpose. Only later, after the awareness and information needs of the first phases are achieved, is the product differentiation introduced, when it can fall on more fertile ground, and giving competitors less time to adjust their own actions.
At LRG, we work with clients to ensure that communication elements are strategic, and aligned with the sales process. Are your prospects ready to hear the messages you are sending? We can help make sure they are – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.