Understanding the Customer Buying Cycle & Triggers

This article looks at why customers expect different interactions with you depending on where they are in the buying cycle. It also examines how specific events trigger them into a buying mode. It then explains how you can use this information to make your marketing more effective.

The Customer Buying Cycle

A simple way to look at the buying cycle is to break into three stages:

  1. Awareness – when a customer first becomes aware of your product. Or could also refer to the point where a customer first becomes aware of a need that they want to fulfill.
  2. Consideration – when a customer starts evaluating solutions to their need
  3. Purchase

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How Buying Cycle impacts the sales approach needed

Imagine that you wandered in to a clothing store while walking around the neighborhood. You didn’t have a particular idea of anything you want to buy. You are approached by a hungry salesperson who is convinced they can get you to buy something. You are are annoyed by too much attention, and feel that they are ruining the peaceful browsing experience that you hoped to have.

Now imagine that you have gone into the same store. However In this situation, you have a urgent need to purchase a black sweater, and don’t have much time to waste. You want a salesperson to help you immediately, so you don’t waste your time looking for the item. However you can’t seem to get the attention of any of the salespeople. You are highly irritated by the lack of attention.

What’s the difference?

The difference between these two examples is where you are in the buying cycle. In the first situation, you are early in the Awareness stage, and in the second example, you are right at the end of the purchase cycle.

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Depending on where you are in your buying cycle, your expectations for how the sales people in the shop should treat you are different. If you are early in the cycle, you want to be largely left alone to browse around and get educated. If you are later in the cycle, you want highly responsive help to complete the purchase. Using the wrong sales approach leads to buyer frustration.

How do you adapt Marketing to a buyer’s stage in the cycle?

In the online world, we need to provide different paths through the website that are appropriate for each stage. It turns out that visitors will self-identify where they are in the buying cycle by the paths they take, provided you give them the option.

 

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What to do with visitors that are not ready to buy? (Lead Nurturing)

Since visitors who are early in their buying cycle are NOT likely to buy on their first visit to your web site, we need to know how to best handle them in case they do turn into buyers later on. This is a path that I am surprised to see is often not given the right level of attention and results in leads leaking from the funnel and lost marketing investment.

The key is to do a great job of staying in touch with them over a period of time, and building a trusted relationship (Lead Nurturing). Then if they do hit an event that triggers a buying cycle, your product is likely to be the top of their shopping list.

To allow us to do this, we need their email address. Since website visitors are initially reluctant to provide that, we need to entice them with something of value to them. How to do this has been covered in other articles in this blog (When selling is the worst way to win customers & Optimizing your customer acquisition funnel).

Once we have their email address, we can nurture them through the buying cycle using a customer success stories, a blog, newsletters, webinars, etc.

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Lead nurturing is best done with marketing automation software like that provided by HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua, etc. Those products allow you to segment your customers to make the messages you send most directly relevant to them, and therefore most likely to be read. They also allow you to track who is advancing in their buying process by observing whether they come back to visit pages, such as the pricing page, that indicate buying intent. You can then apply more expensive sale resources to those leads, knowing that they are qualified enough to warrant the additional cost.

Effective lead nurturing is all about accelerating leads through the consideration process. Customer success stories, product comparisons, etc. all help to provide the data and info that a prospect looks for in their own research. If you provide it for them you make it easy for them to consume that info and move to the step in the process.

How on-line lead sources relate to the Customer Buying Cycle

Different lead sources produce buyers at different stages of the customer buying cycle:

  • People that are later in the buying cycle are most likely to be using tools like Google, and review sites to search for vendors and products to solve a problem. Those leads are highly valued because there is a high level of buyer intent. They are usually in the Consideration or Purchase stages of the buying cycle.
  • Many other lead sources (e.g. social referrals, Twitter, Facebook ads, banner ads, pr stories, educational presentations at conferences, etc.) produce buyers that are earlier in their cycle, and frequently just becoming aware that there is a potentially interesting product now available.

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Market maturity also plays an important role in the stage that your leads. For early stage markets where there is still a lot of education required, most leads will be very early in their buying cycles.

Understanding Buying Triggers

A Trigger is an event that causes a buyer to have a clear need, which usually converts into a sense of purpose and urgency in their buying process. As an example in your own personal life, you might have had a vague interest in getting a new camera. This might have caused you to browse the web, reading various reviews. But an upcoming safari trip could act as the trigger that gets you shopping with clear intent to purchase.

Other examples of triggers:

  • You hard disk fails, and you realize you need a better backup system
  • You have a burglary, and realize you want a far better video security system
  • Your company grows beyond a certain size, and your old manual HR systems can no longer cope
  • etc.

The specific trigger that gets their buyers going is not only different from startup to startup, but also different depending on their role in the organization. Having a very clear understanding of these triggers helps you:

  • Recognize who to target
  • Improve your messaging to those target prospects
  • Do a better job of qualifying who is really ready to buy
  • Gives you the ability to help a customer recognize when a trigger has happened.

Working with Triggers to improve marketing

Let’s look at this in four steps:

  1. Identify the different buyer persona that buy your product
  2. Identify the trigger or triggers that typically get them into a serious buying mode
  3. Create messaging and content for each persona & trigger combination
  4. Look to see if you can create the trigger event, or help them recognize that one has occurred

I will use one of my portfolio companies, CloudBees, as an example of how this might work. CloudBees provides a PaaS (Platform-as a-Service) that can be used by application developers to drastically cut time-to-market for development of new applications.

Identify the Persona that buy, and their specific triggers

In CloudBees case, there are four buyers:

  • The business unit owner who wants to solve a problem by developing a new application
  • The developers
  • The IT organization who are responsible for providing the development infrastructure
  • Systems integrators who are used to outsource projects for development

Taking just the business unit owner as our example, what might get them interested in CloudBees is the general notion that they can get applications built far faster than using the old internal IT processes. However they are unlikely to try to transition an existing development project onto a PaaS as they have already built the IT infrastructure required for it. That means that the trigger needed to actively start looking to purchase is a new project.

To better understand what are the most common types of new projects, CloudBees talked to their customers. They found out that the top new application type that business owners want are mobile applications for smartphones and tablets. That made it even clearer how to build their messaging.

Build trigger-specific messaging and content

Understanding this trigger helps us to create messaging for this persona on the front page of the web site. i.e. below your standard intro video etc., you could place messaging for each persona. In this case, that might read: “Business owner looking to get a mobile application built in a fraction of the usual time?”. This would lead to a landing page that contains content specially tailored for that use case. The  content should be designed to help move that persona through the buying cycle.

Look to see if you can create the trigger, or help a customer realize a trigger has happened

If you are nurturing a bunch of leads that came to your website early in their buying cycle, your goal with lead nurturing is usually to wait until some external event occurs that triggers them into active buying mode. However the more you understand about these triggers, the higher the chance that you can actually help create the trigger.

One example of this is HubSpot’s Marketing Grader tool. This free tool provide a customer with a clear indication of where they have gaps in  their marketing versus best practices. They also use a score, which is a powerful trigger to get a customer to act to try to improve their score.

If we look at the CloudBees case above, we might help create the trigger by using our blog and newsletter to talk about how Mobile applications for customers have helped boost sales for other companies. Then discuss how quickly and cheaply they can be built. With some luck, this could plant the idea in the customer’s mind that they need to build a new mobile application. That is the trigger needed to have them seriously engage with CloudBees. The power of this message could be increased by leveraging highly respected analyst groups such as Gartner, Forrester, etc. quoting them on the need to interact with customers via mobile apps.

Encountering a customer too late in the buying cycle

Many of you have seen the situation where you encounter a buyer late in their buying cycle. They have already shaped their feature list around some other vendor’s product, and you are now forced to react.

  • If you’re selling a simple product, where the features and price can be easily assessed to be superior, this isn’t too much of a problem.
  • But if you’re selling a more sophisticated product where the customer needs to understand how your unique features can uniquely change their business and give them greater ROI, you’re likely to be at a disadvantage to the company that helped shape the buyers picture of what they need.

So in more complex sales cycles, the ideal situation is to make sure you get to know customers earlier in the process and become the player that helps shape and define their shopping list (RFP). That means finding customers earlier in their buying cycle, and building a relationship with them over time.

Conclusions

This article discusses two concepts that are important to on-line marketers: the customer buying cycle, and triggers. Your own customer buying cycle may be more sophisticated than just the simple three steps that I have outlined here. To take full advantage of this information you might want to:

  • Figure out where most your top-of-funnel website visitors and leads are in their buying cycle
  • Make sure you have appropriate paths for them to follow to answer their questions, and move them forward in the cycle
  • Recognize that a large portion of them won’t be ready to buy when they first encounter you. Instead, capture their email addresses, and develop a rich lead nurturing system to help move them through their buying cycle
  • Develop rich content to support their persona and stage in the buying cycle
  • Understand the different buying persona and what triggers them to make a purchase
  • Look to see if you can’t help create the trigger event that moves them into the buying phase. Alternatively create messaging that helps them recognize when a trigger event has occurred.

(In the follow up post to this that will be published shortly, Eric Groves, who was a senior exec on the go-to-market side at Constant Contact will outline their four step buying cycle, AIDA, and how they used an understanding of that to create highly effective marketing programs.

Additional Resources

After this post had been up for a while, a reader kindly pointed out another valuable blog on the topic of triggers by Stanford professor, BJ Fogg. Fogg’s behavioral model is a great framework for analyzing what it takes to get users to take action. Click here to read more.

Thanks

Thanks to Andre Pino, VP of Marketing at CloudBees, and previously an analyst on Marketing Automation software at Forrester for his help reviewing this document.

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  • http://twitter.com/markorgan markorgan

    David, a very important post here.  I think that one of the most important things that startup CEOs can do is to map out in detail the mechanics of how their customers buy.  What and who influenced them – what were the key accelerators? It’s helpful to do this quantitatively and attribute weights to different factors but even a quick qualitative survey of a few customers can yield very important insights.  When we did this at Eloqua, in part driven by your prodding, the insights were very important, particularly for how we allocated promotion investments. 

    One factor that came up over and over again was the key people, not the marketing assets sent through email nurturing campaigns, that were super influential and accelerating for the buying process.  This is why I founded Influitive, to get more customer advocates, and more relevant advocates, involved in the buying process.  I think that “social lead nurturing” through advocate mobilization will be an important idea, particularly now that the buying process itself has become very social, with more than 70% of the buying process being complete before prospects interact with companies’ centrally-driven lead nurturing process (according to Sirius Decisions data).

    Another insight that comes out of the social buying process is that having powerful advocates, and no detractors, is a lot more important than ever before.  Both promoters and detractors’ voices are now amplified greatly versus even a decade ago.  So startups should carefully consider their target markets and do a lot of voice-of-the-market research so that their initial guess as to the right product is more accurate. 

  • http://kwiqly.blogspot.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

    David – Another great article – I particularly found the lead source to positioning in process discussion helpful.  As B2B we find many of our strongest enquiries come via linkedIn or our blog http://kWIQly.com, but it never occurred to me that Google where closer to buying than Facebook – on reflection it is obvious – as many lessons are !

    Since we last exchanged notes we have landed two global name enterprise companies in Switzerland, but with SaaS its all about scalability – and that’s where your design theses are so helpful.   

    PS I put this page on Reddit too – hope it pulls some traffic

  • http://twitter.com/brugueras Jaime Brugueras

    David, this is my first time on the site and what a great first article to read. You nailed it, every startup should read this. What I liked is that you used words everyone understands, not just marketing people. When people talk about this they say lifecycle marketing, segmentation analysis, and other keywords that don’t mean anything. I was just browsing this site, now you triggered me to subscribe. Thanks.

  • http://www.salesprocessengineering.net Justin Roff-Marsh

    Great article (again) David

    In complex-sale (particularly engineer-to-order) environments, the messaging attached to early-stage triggers may make no mention of the product offering at all.

    For example, if you are attempting to switch an organization to a new ERP, you might engage C-level executives in a dialogue about business intelligence and strenuously avoid any mention of technology whatsoever.

    This creates a challenge for organizations when all of their standard corporate materials are festooned with screenshots and information more relevant to the “purchase” phase.

    This is, perhaps, an argument to completely separate the blog and the corporate website — thereby allowing the two conversations to exist in parallel (without the latter polluting the former).  Of course, this idea is an anathema to the SEO crowd, who want all web properties sitting on the same domain.

    Justin

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Jaime, thanks for your kind words! Always really valuable to hear how people are reacting to what I write. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  • Nigel

    Hi, thought you might enjoy the following post which looks at a similar concept but from a UX point of view

     http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2011/09/the-value-of-customer-journey-maps-a-ux-designers-personal-journey.php

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Nigel, that is a really great article. It very closely mirrors the way in which I have recommended that people design their Sales and Marketing Machine which you can see elsewhere on this blog (http://www.forentrepreneurs.com/sales-marketing-machine/building-the-machine/). Also look at how I recommend mapping out customer concerns in a later section. It’s really interesting to see how someone else has defined a way to document this customer experience. Thanks for adding this!

  • http://www.revenuearchitects.com/ John Stone III

    Thank you for writing a great article. This is what we preach everyday with clients, but you organized into a very nice package. When I present on the topic, I add a few dimensions to the buy-sell process which have interesting implications digitally – you cover “Awareness” and this is where social-infused digital marketing plays an important role along with outbound sales for the more targeted markets. After the sale, there is a stage we call “Advocacy” which is another chance to foster influence and referrals.   Very nice – no I will tweet it. Thanks.

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Thanks John. I like the notion of the Advocacy stage after purchase. Very key in the social marketing world that we live in today.

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Good point Justin. I agree that it may be more effective to stay away from discussing technology until you have gotten past the point where the customer sees the problem and reaches a trigger point.

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Thanks for the support James!

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Mark, strongly agree that there is enormous power to be gained if you can be successful in mobilizing your customers to act as advocates for you. I’m looking forward to seeing how Influitive helps with this.

  • http://twitter.com/NCPetri Nicholas Petri

    David, great post. In a segmentation project I’m working on with one of our portfolio companies, we’re looking for ways to customize their sales and marketing to the particular characteristics and needs of their prospective buyers. Stage in the buying cycle is yet another dimension for us to segment a prospect and further tailor the message to meet their needs. I will definitely keep this in mind, thanks for the insight

  • http://twitter.com/jwmares Justin Mares

    David, fantastic post. I think you would really enjoy the work of Dr. BJ Fogg, someone I worked with for a bit this past summer. He talks a lot about guiding people through the process of triggering behaviors, and uses Facebook as an example of a company that does a great job with this. 

    His site is here – http://behaviormodel.org/. Should give a solid introduction to his work and how triggers drive behavioral change.

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Justin, excellent suggestion. I really like his way of thinking. Strongly mirrors the whole thought process that I have been using to get customers through the sales and marketing funnel. But his model adds some great additional depth around the topic. I modified the article to include a reference to it at the bottom. Thanks.

  • http://www.sales-training-for-business.comes-negotiation-training.html/ Kathy8185

    Many sales people neglect to truly understand their client’s buying triggers and their internal approval process

  • http://www.yurbo.com/ Gordon

    Thanks for the info. I’ve just used some information from here on my article about the buying cycle. Mine is a 3 step process unlike yours but maybe I’ll follow up with more detail later.

  • http://TriggerEventSelling.com Craig Elias

    David,

    I think you hit the nail on the head and that many organizations lose out on future
    opportunities (when a Trigger Event motivates a decision maker to
    move the next step) because they fail to
    effectively nurture a lead.

    I have found that the consideration phase of your model has two different parts:

    1) A decision maker experiences a Trigger Event and wants to change. Here they are
    thinking of doing something but don’t get around to it because other things are
    more important. I call this a Window of Dissatisfaction: They are unhappy but
    not doing anything about it yet. This is the best time help someone define the
    problem, start designing the solution and for you to start develop
    the relationship. A recent Forrester report showed that if you can do this the
    decision maker does not event talk to your competition 65% of the time.

    2) A decision maker experiences a very specific 2nd Trigger Event that helps them
    afford the time to look at something new and or the money to afford the
    purchase. These people are now actively Searching For Alternatives: They are unhappy
    and doing something about it. A 2009 Aberdeen report showed that the
    average win rate when you reach people now is only 16%.

    So while the 2nd Trigger Event gets someone to buy to maximize your odds of winning the business you need to reach people right after the initial Trigger Event – the one
    that makes them want to change and puts them into the Window of
    Dissatisfaction.

    I suggest those who want to identify the best initial Trigger Events for what they sell
    conduct a won sales analysis so they can look for and identify those who are
    most likely to buy from them.

    Those who are interested a Won Sales Analysis template and a video that explains how to conduct a Won Sales Analysis can access both at http://WonSalesAnalysis.com.

    Craig

    P.S. Thanks for the links to BJ’s stuff. I have a call scheduled with him next week.

    P.P.S. I look forward to Eric Groves interview.

  • Eli Hauser

    I would propose that the customer recipient changes over the cycle – from engineer to project manager to ceo-buyer, for example – so perhaps the messaging and vehicles you are using may need to change as well over the course of the journey.

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  • http://twitter.com/kennymadden1973 kennymadden1973

    superb and some real common sense articles. Unfortunately most startups still play the add sales reps = $$$$$ . ( or as i like to say – Christmas trees cause christmas approach) mentality). superb article and very useful.

  • Sito-wp.it

    Absolutely enlightening !! Thanks

  • rohit kulshrestha

    hi i am Rohit Kulshrestha according to my opinion buying cycle start from 1.Need recognition 2.Evaluation of the product 3.Purchasing of the product 4.Acquiring of the product 5.Uses of the product 6.Disposing of the product .

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Hi Rohit, thanks for your input. I also believe you may see different cycles for different products and markets. For example, your cycle does not include the concept of expansion of usage after the initial deployment has proven to be successful. For many products, that is a key part of the buying cycle. My intention with this post, was simply to get readers thinking around the concept, and then customizing it to their particular product and market. I hope it helped you in that way. Thanks, David

  • Adam Lang

    Great article! I can now easily present a valuable presentation to my team. I have to add something, right? I recently read a booking called “Contagious” by Jonah Berger(MBA professor at Wharton). It does a great job of highlighting common triggers that we don’t know we face everyday! Hope everyone enjoys it.

  • http://www.forentrepreneurs.com David Skok

    Thanks Adam. I will check out the book.