Today’s online marketplace is more competitive than ever, particularly for tech, online businesses and brands. It is so easy to start a new business, write a new app, and otherwise jump into the market that you need every edge you can get just to keep up with the flood of new competition. In this post, we’ll be discussing a critical topic that can help you get just that edge. We will examine how to see what customers want to do online and how to translate those desires into sales. You need to be ready to capitalize on the way consumers collect information and make purchasing decisions. That will let you convert a larger percentage of your potential audience. This ability to make your marketing investment go further and get more for your pound, will become the key to sustained growth in the face of both established rivals and new entrants.
The online marketplace is more than ever a result of snap decisions and impulse buys. The presence of vast amounts of information, a huge diversity of products and services, and competition that pushes down prices means that it is easy for anyone to search, learn, and buy in minutes. Online users have had the experience of looking up a restaurant on a listings site like Yelp, making a decision based on some reviews, and then getting directions in less than ten minutes. Amazon works the same way. All you need to do is punch in the name of a product category and you’ll get thousands of options, which you can sort by price, ratings, and so on. It used to take much longer to decide what to buy, but now a customer only spends a few minutes making decisions, and much of that time is spent reading. There are really only a few seconds that are critical in changing the consumer’s mind.
As a brand, you need to take control of those moments. They are the times when the customer wants to do or buy something, but isn’t sure exactly what yet. This is your most important group because you can influence them to choose your brand. Once they’ve had a good experience with you once, they are more likely to choose you again in the future. That applies to all kinds of products and services. Once you convince someone to choose you, then you have created the potential for repeat business. Loyal customers are any business’s best asset. That’s why customer acquisition is so important and why understanding how consumers choose what to do is among the most important pieces of information you can have.
Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to make general statements about consumer behavior. When you have many different fields and areas, it would be more surprising if people always acted the same way than if they did not. That is why there are some industries where the best marketing efforts are TV ads and others where the leading brands rely on word of mouth instead. There are many ways to attempt to influence consumers, and they all have the goal of trying to take control of those moments of decision. In other words, when a customer is browsing through their shortlist of three or four brands, are you one of them? If not, what can you do to be one of them? What steps can you take to ensure that they choose your business or brand?
A major part of this dynamic, especially recently, is mobile platforms. Gone are the days when only app developers and the biggest companies cared about their presence for mobile customers. With smartphone penetration high and rising not just in the US, but globally, “mobile customers” are just customers. A huge proportion of your potential audience uses their smartphone or a tablet at least in part, even if it is not their primary way to access the Web. Right now, more than half of all Internet traffic comes from mobile devices. This idea of impulse decisions is most apparent on mobile platforms, and that’s where you have the most leverage to push your brand to the forefront of the consumer’s mind.
There are several different reasons that a consumer might go online to learn about a purchase before coming to a final decision. Depending on your business, one or more of them might lead them to your brand. It’s critical that you understand all of these motivations, because they will determine what your audience is receptive to and how you can best influence them.
You can categorize these motivations into four groups based on what the consumer wants to do in the moment. First of all, the consumer might want to do research. They have an idea of what they might want, but they need to learn more about the available products and pricing before they settle on a final decision. They are not necessarily looking to buy something in that moment: they just want some information so that they can think over what they have learned and file it away to settle later. A consumer might go through several rounds of this research as they learn more and more about their product category, and this phenomenon is more common for more expensive products. Most people make decisions by first cutting the range of options down to a short list of five or less items. You need to ensure that you are making it into that list as often as possible. Often, a consumer will have little or no information about your brand before they start their search. This is where your search ads, SEO, and other search marketing efforts matter most. You need to get your product pages in front of consumers’ eyes as early and often as possible. The earlier they hear of you, the more you will stick in their minds and the better chance you have at becoming a contender.
The next important moment is when the consumer wants to find a location. This is a very mobile-heavy kind of moment, because consumers are often looking for directions, a phone number, opening hours, and similar information. They have a pretty good idea of what they want, and that is tied to a physical location. In some cases, you can influence the customer in these moments as well. For example, you can work to ensure that if they search for “best Italian restaurant near me” your place will be one of the top three results. If you sell your product at physical stores, then the actual store does not matter as much to you. What matters is that consumers know they can buy your product at that store. Generally, this is a matter of advertising, but by that point they have already decided what they want to buy. Do your best to make it as easy as possible to find your product. If you only sell online, then this is not particularly relevant for you.
Next, consider moments of action. Here, the customer isn’t trying to go somewhere, but get something done or learn how to do something. For example, they might want instructions on car care or they want to learn the best way to paint their house. You might be surprised by how often your customers are turning to the Internet for help on a task or project. Of course, not every business will be relevant in these contexts, but for those that are, this is where content marketing shines. Make your website a repository of knowledge for these kinds of tasks and projects is a great way to draw additional traffic and increase your brand awareness. Even if you are not in a field that involves tasks and projects, you can still take advantage of consumers’ need for knowledge. Your content does not need to be about your products. If you sell a budgeting app, you can have blog posts about how to save for retirement and how different kinds of insurance work. A knowledge repository sets you apart as a potential thought leader.
The fourth kind of moment is a critical one: it’s the moment when customers want to buy something. They have set a budget, they have a good idea of what they want, and they are ready to buy. This is when you want your brand to stand out. You need to be at the forefront of their minds so that you can make conversions. The key is access to information. It needs to be fast and easy for anyone to learn about your product. The most attractive and salient characteristics have to be on full display. Consider things like how much scrolling the customer needs to do and how many keystrokes or clicks it takes to find information. If visitors need to click through multiple layers of menus just to get basic information, they will leave your site. It might be as simple as two clicks vs three clicks that brings in a higher proportion of visitors who stay to read your product description. Because this stage is so important, it’s a good idea to A/B test your site design inside and out to optimize its performance. There are many cases where a small change here can have big results, so don’t leave any stone un-turned.
Note that these four types of moments are not a progression. Any given consumer might go through one of them, more than one, or all of them in any order and at any time. Think of them not as steps in a buying process but as four types of opportunities for you to make an impact. As you can see and imagine, each moment has different implications for what the consumer wants to do and how you can influence them. Because these can happen at any time, you need a comprehensive marketing strategy that can capitalize on all of these opportunities. That means a robust website, a good social media presence, content marketing and SEO, a fast and easy checkout system- the works. An important underlying theme is that you need to make it easy for consumers to do what they want and they have to be able to do it quickly. Does your checkout system take too long and have too many forms to fill out? People will leave. Your return policy is hard to find? You’re losing people. Someone wants to know when you close on Saturdays and can’t find the information? They could have been a good customer and now they’re gone.
There are two main ways to try to influence customers in the moment. The first is actually in the moment: you put firepower behind your efforts to appear on top of search pages and so on so that you are the brand people see when they search. Behind that, however, is the setup. Your marketing strategy should ideally make it so that your target audience already knows about your brand and what you do before they reach a decision moment. The more they know about you, the less they have to look up, making you a relatively easy choice. They’re also more likely to select you for further study just based on familiarity. This setup step is critical because it lays the groundwork for all the in-moment decision-making that consumers carry out. If you aren’t a big company investing huge amounts of resources in marketing, you simply cannot guarantee that your ads will appear at just the right time or that your SEO will always pay off in top-ranked searches. If you can sow the seeds of your brand in advance, though, then you are in good shape because you do not need to depend on the consumer encountering your marketing at critical moments. If they do, then it will be that much more effective.
When it comes to how to make the best use of your limited resources, do your best to tap into your customer data. The best insight you can gain is from the behavior of your actual customers and site visitors. That will inform you better than anything else about what works best for making conversions and what changes you can make to increase your success rate. If you have a strong web presence, then you should already be able to tap into tools like Google Analytics and its social media equivalents to learn about how people interact with your site. If you are one step beyond that and have a sophisticated consumer relationship management solution in place, then you are even better off. You can track the whole consumer experience from their first encounter with the brand through purchasing and on to support. This is a great resource that many companies ignore because they don’t know how to use it. The task will be easier to do internally if you have a data dashboard or data visualizer that can tap into your collection system.
If it wasn’t clear already, it is now impossible to get away with not optimizing everything you do for mobile platforms. It’s not that hard to tell if your site won’t look good on mobile- just try it. You can also use Google’s tool to check if the site is mobile-responsive. These are starting points, but they will get you on the right track. You need to think about things like how the images and fonts appear on small screens and how easy it is to navigate the menus on a touchscreen. Any small problem could turn off most or all of your potential mobile audience. That’s a big problem in today’s marketplace. If you want to target these critical moments then you have to be prepared to work well on mobile devices, because that is where a lot of this kind of search occurs. Mobile optimization is a big part of reaching your audience, because it fits in with the theme of making information easy to access. Try accessing your site from time to time just to get the experience of using a mobile platform. See if any menus feel annoying or if it is hard to get anything in particular done. Mobility is not going away. In fact, it is only becoming more important.
This post is meant to be a handy reference guide for whenever you need inspiration for influencing customers or learning about how they make decisions and consumer intent. This is not to say that this is a comprehensive reference for either of those things. The psychology of consumer behavior is a deep and complex field that keeps academic researchers busy. You can imagine that the rewards to getting a good understanding of consumer thinking and preferences would be great. Instead, use this post to guide where you should move next in terms of your marketing. As you grow, it is a good idea to steadily expand your marketing efforts to get better coverage of your weaknesses so that fewer and fewer potential customers fall through the cracks.
Keep in mind the importance of loyal customers. Everything you do should be aimed at not just getting one purchase at a time, but building a loyal customer base who will be your advocates and return to make repeated purchases. This gives you a solid and dependable core. The steady income from your dependable customers gives you the power to take some risks and expand. It is a virtuous circle that you should employ to your benefit. The earlier you can get customers to buy into your brand, the more they will pay dividends to you. For more on this, look up the concept of lifetime value.
To return to consumer intent, you can see here that these four motivations or moments are all short-term instances of consumers using their Internet access to instantly satisfy their need for information. If you can be the source of that information, then you’ll see mounting success no matter what you sell. Keep in mind that you’ll need to adapt these principles to your own business. Some of them might not apply to you or you might need to alter them to be meaningful for the kinds of marketing decisions you make.
Treat this as a guiding framework for what to do and how to approach your marketing, because it will give you focus and a set of objectives. Do your best to round out your marketing strategy to cover a wide diversity of segments of the consumer decision-making process. That is a recipe for success.