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Friday, May. 28, 2010 at 11:54 am

The 3 Stages of the Buying Process: Expanded Definitions

By Brendan Regan
May 28th, 2010

We often reference the 3 stages of the buying process on this blog.  As FutureNow’s founders defined them over 5 years ago in Call to Action, they are:

Early Stage Buyer: In Early Stage, people have made the decision that they are interested in buying something, but don’t know exactly what they want/need to buy. They’ll want to see all the different types of products available, and what the pros/cons are for each type. They need as much information with regards to choices, options, and information as possible to feel comfortable when making a decision.

Middle Stage Buyer: Middle Stage visitors are prepared to buy a certain type of product, but aren’t certain exactly which.  They need options and information as well, but will search with a progressively narrowing view.

Late Stage Buyer: Late Stage buyers know exactly what will satisfy their needs.  They’re searching for specifics, and want to compare between brands and manufacturers.  They’re extremely narrow-minded and very sure of their choice; they just want to be sure that who they’re buying from is worthy of their money.

These solid definitions serve us well in our analysis, and our clients benefit greatly from learning to view their online target audience by these three simple segments.  It’s the best way we’ve found to quickly identify “low hanging fruit” and get significant optimization of conversion rate via continuous improvement.

However, the buying stage definitions were originally published in very eTailer-friendly language.  In other words, if you’re selling product via an online catalog and shopping cart, these definitions fit very well into the view of how your audience interacts with your site.  But, what if you are an online marketer responsible for a lead generation or subscription site? Are you “up a creek without a paddle,” as we sometimes say in rural areas of the US?

Of course not.  We wouldn’t let you down like that!  Besides, we work with plenty of lead generation and subscription/membership marketing teams.  Instead, we’re proud to share these shiny, new buying stage definitions for marketers in the lead generation and subscription/membership marketing worlds!

For Lead Generation Marketers

LEAD GEN Early Stage Prospect: The prospect has identified that a problem exists, and is committed to solving it via some sort of investment.  They are in self-education mode, researching various means of solving their problem and the various solution providers (vendors) that occupy the space.  They want to make sure they understand any jargon or vocabulary that is unique to the space, and want to understand the pros and cons of any different approaches.  This stage potentially ends when a prospect has come up with their “short list” of solution providers that warrant further investigation.

LEAD GEN Middle Stage Prospect: The prospect moves forward by gathering information on the vendors of interest, with increasing focus on specifics like the vendor’s credibility and reputation.  They are comparing one website’s content against competitors, looking for what’s unique about any solution provider.  They want to know what other clients you serve, what awards you’ve won, and are starting to think in terms of testimonials, case studies, white papers, and ROI calculators.

LEAD GEN Late Stage Prospect: The prospect has narrowed the field of competitors, and probably wants to use your solution, but needs to justify their “want” with references, sample contracts, and information about how long you’ve been around, who your Leadership is, and how stable your company is.  They’re also starting to imagine what it’s going to be like working with you, and want to know what types of commitments they’ll have to make to be successful.  Oftentimes, they’re in a “vetting process” regarding your solution to verify things they assume to be true.  For example, that you’re insured, or your Service Level Agreement.

For Subscription/Membership Marketers

SUBSCRIPTION/MEMBERSHIP Early Stage Prospect: The prospect has some sort of problem to solve or goal to achieve, and is out looking for some sort of solution.  They may be thinking in relatively broad terms like “help losing weight.”  They arrive at your site to gauge your credibility and whether subscribing will help them achieve their goal.  If the goal is to join a community, then the prospect will gauge the size and quality of the community, and whether the other members are “people like me.”

SUBSCRIPTION/MEMBERSHIP Middle Stage Prospect: The prospect is ready to compare various sites/solutions against each other, so they focus more narrowly on features, benefits, cost, guarantees, and 3rd party validations like testimonials or media mentions.  This is where a good Unique Value Proposition that sets you apart from competitors can be extremely effective.  The prospect is perhaps prepared to subscribe to emails or a blog (micro-conversions) even if they’re not ready to spend money on a membership yet.

SUBSCRIPTION/MEMBERSHIP Late Stage Prospect: The prospect has chosen you as the preferred solution to their problem, and should convert provided that you provide answers to last-minute questions and a trustworthy conversion funnel.  This is where terms & conditions, cancellation policies, payment methods, and security are most relevant to conversion.  Also, the prospect may not be comfortable signing up online, so alternate communication channels like email, phone, and live chat can be crucial to conversion in this stage.

Conclusions

As you can see, the 3 sets of definitions are the same, but different.  They’re essentially the same psychological motivations, but the lenses can be adjusted to different types of sites and conversions.  These newer sets of definitions are “drafts” at best, so I’d welcome feedback on them.

I hope these help a broader range of marketers think about their marketing, their funnels, and their content in more specific and useful ways.  The key, high-priority things to do TODAY with your own, unique buying stage definitions are:

  • Use them to create more meaningful marketing and analytics segments
  • Use the Late Stage definition to make sure your site’s conversion funnel doesn’t impede these prospects from achieving their (and your) goal
  • Audit your site’s content, AND your marketing efforts to make sure you have messaging, assurances, and calls to action to satisfy the needs of all 3 stages, not just the Late Stage.
Add Your Comments

Comments (46)

  1. [...] View full post on Conversion Rate Optimization & Marketing Blog | FutureNow, Inc [...]

  2. Thanks for this draft definition, you never let me down Brenda. I’m thinking of whether we can integrate these different goals in the same stage together, since they are almost in the same psychological motivations. We may need both of subscription and sales.

  3. I believe this is where I am really in need of help! Call to action is hard enough without having to have a call to action for 3 different levels of thought!

    I am so much more technical than philisophical, psychological and mind reading!

  4. [...] The 3 Stages of the Buying Process: Expanded Definitions Published: May 31, 2010 Source: Conversion Rate Optimization & Marketing Blog | FutureNow, Inc We often reference the 3 stages of the buying process on this blog. As FutureNow’s founders defined them over 5 years ago in Call to Action, they are: [...]

  5. The three stages you defined in your post are right on. But I sometimes feel that even though they are in the third stage, and might have even made a purchase, there is always the potential for more questions. One must be prepared to answer questions, even after the sale.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  6. an interesting approach and fairly comprehensive from a lead gen and conversion perspective. However in my opinion fairly short termist, do you see any value in addind a fourth option of need awareness ie the prospect doesn’t yet know the need exists because he does not know the solution exists. And so you create content to create the need in the first place?

  7. @ Online Mktg Blog: Interesting question. I would argue that focusing on our three stages of the buying process isn’t so much “short term thinking” as it a conscious decision to let the website focus on things it can do well. Websites are great for educating, overcoming objections, and interactive task completion (e.g. buy a product or submit an RFP). Websites are NOT good at ‘creating need.’ That is the job of other marketing activities like traditional advertising, press, product placement, offline marketing, etc. You wouldn’t send a salesperson out into the market to ‘create the market,’ would you? Neither should that responsibility rest on your website. Marketing creates prospective customers, and websites service/enable the conversion. IMHO ;)

  8. I feel that this is an area where many individuals begin to fall short. Call to action is something that many people find difficult to succeed in without sounding too pushy or too relaxed. The different stages of Buyers really help to show how to get to your target audience. Thank you very much for this article!

  9. Most definitely these definitions helped me try to think about my marketing and calls to actions to buyers. You do really have to target your audience appropriately. I find that when I get leads from longtails from my blog, they are definitely very sure of what they want.

    Lori Cofer REALTOR
    Pullman, Washington

  10. Late stage buyers are the one you should be ready for a close. Make sure you have all the elements in place to go for a closure and a flawless closure process such as a convenient checkout pay procedure.

  11. These definitions are great, I only wish consumers tagged themselves into one of these definitions! It would be great to see the analytics and check if we are failing to convert Late Stage Buyers or attracting too many Early Stage Buyers perhaps?

  12. [...] Grok Dot Com: The buying cycle is a very important concept for PPC advertisers to understand. Everything from keyword selection, bidding strategies and conversion optimization is affected by the buying cycle. This article from Grok Dot Com explains and expands on the buying cycle’s three stages. [...]

  13. I thought that the buying process is only one stage, you come, see, like, buy, it’s too complex.

  14. @Philip: You’re absolutely right. I’m trying to figure out how to do that using Google Analytics, and will post about it if/when I figure something out.

  15. Thanks for this wonderful insight! I read about this kind of customers definiton one in a paper on how does a brand effect buyers on the internet. But i liked your explanation more!
    I also found very interesting a reasearch I read some time ago, that segments customers into two major groups. One are the so called impulsives and the others are explorers. The impulsives are those, who don’t care about the price – if they like the product on the first glimpse, they will buy it. While on the other hand, the explorers notice the product, but are prepared to browse for similar, cheaper or even more quality products for a long time, before they buy it.
    And Philip, great idea! The only problem I see here, is that many wouldn’t even know i which category to put themselves. Thus it is our job to get to know them better as they do themselves.

  16. @Yuri: Yes, the 2 segments you mention are essentially based on the speed of decision making–quick (impulsive) vs. deliberate (explorer). The trick is that each of your 2 segments could be in any of the 3 buying stages, so you essentially have 6 segments to plan for: quick/early, quick/middle, quick/late and deliberate/early, deliberate/middle, deliberate/late. Fun!

  17. You can take this theory into the real estate industry also. Thanks for the insight I’d never actually looked at it like that before.

  18. Thanks for this article I found it very insightful and enlightening. Especially about the late stage buyer, I usually find myself in that category.

  19. Unfortunately my poor english didn’t let me managed to understand everything in this article. However it seems to be really interesting and I need to study these notions to find what I have to change on few websites I’m working for. Thanks.

  20. Of all the three stages, I think people focus the least on the early stage buyer. They assume everybody is ready to buy their product and just needs the checkout, but the bottom line is most people need more than that.

  21. Excellent article!
    You might be interested to know this – I wrote about the three stages of buying a few years ago, but broke it down completely differently into “I see, I like, I buy”. The first stage is market visibility and exposure, the second is where the “selling” takes place, and the third is the smooth transaction. I was taught the concept in 2002 by a very successful marketer I met, he said that the goal of sales was to lead the prospect through the three stages as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

  22. I agree with the idea that the purchase of the same product does not always elicit the same Buying Behavior. Product can shift from one category to the next as young people purchase things for different reasons than older people.

  23. If you are targeting a close sell, then you should prepare for the late stage buyers. Since you know what they always look for (links to reviews, links to price comparison, convenient checkout pay process, etc), then a closure should be within reach. Put all these elements and these late stage buyers will influx you.

  24. I sometimes think that even if they are in the third stage, and it might even have made a purchase, there’s always the potential for more questions. One must be prepared to answer questions after the sale.

  25. After the salesman gain my trust there are rely no more stages in the buying proces. Great post thou;)

  26. I agree with the idea that the purchase of the same product does not always elicit the same Buying Behavior. Product can shift from one category to the next as young people purchase things for different reasons than older people.

  27. Really nice presentation. I feel that there will be greatest induction of already existing buyers on would be buyers. The degree of induction certainly influence the transition of early and middle stage buyers to late stage buyers. This rapid transition process completely depends upon the physical testimonials of the existing buyer.

  28. I enjoyed reading this article.

    I think underlying question to ask is also how the website and the internet fits in with the business strategy.

    What is the end conversion? For a B2C e-commerce site, maybe that’s visitor buying from the site ultimately. And for a B2B site, maybe it’s customer signing up for the newsletter, submitting a question, or downloading a whitepaper.

    The mini conversions from 1st and 2nd visits, and how we get them vary a lot too from my experience.

    Thanks for writing this post.

  29. This is a really interesting article! Thanks for the insights. We’ve just begun a blog series on the buying cycle and broke it into 5 common phases. Love for you to check it out at http://bit.ly/aAZnan and let us know your thoughts on how social media can play a role in problem identification.

    Thanks again. Good stuff.

  30. I sometimes think that even if they are in the third stage, and it might even have made a purchase, there’s always the potential for more questions. One must be prepared to answer questions after the sale.

  31. Segments customers into two major groups. One are the so called impulsives and the others are explorers. The impulsives are those, who don’t care about the price – if they like the product on the first glimpse, they will buy it.

  32. sometimes think that even if they are in the third stage, and it might even have made a purchase, there’s always the potential for more questions. One must be prepared to answer questions after the sale.

  33. this process is surely gonna help business in B2B and B2C….

    Helpful for me too….

  34. Its very important as othershave pointed out to be prepared to answer questions even after a sale. I have mnay returning customers and their friends and family through giving them the information they need and advice. Its never failed yet.

  35. It’s really interesting to know about the stages of buying process. As a consumer, I would classify myself in the category of Middle Stage Buyer. I am not that easy-to-get-satisfied with the products I see in mall or when I do online shopping. I would always ask or research for more detailed information about a certain product before deciding whether to buy it or not.

    By the way, thank you for this article. Very nice!

  36. Thats right! Most people don’y understand the “buying” cycle when it comes to marketing of any sort. If you don’t catch the potential buyer at the right time, your wasting YOUR time. And if your using adwords for online marketing your wasting TONS of your own money on people who are just browsing for what you have!

  37. i think in middle stage buyer takes the decision that what is the thing he want just comparison is left

  38. As a real estate agent, I see these stages in potential and current clients. Working with buyers who aren’t ready doesn’t always work out. It’s the people who have been thinking about it for a while and refining what they want who are most likely to purchase. As you said, “The low hanging fruit.”

  39. I agree, Palmdale. I am in Real Estate and Construction and it takes a few visits, to start from a lead or “early stage buyer,” then refine their interests and turn them in to a Late stage buyer who wants your product and trusts you to guide them through the buying process. Thank a bunch for these tools, as I am already starting to implement them in my sales approach.

  40. I feel that this is an area where many individuals begin to fall short and I thought that the buying process is only one stage; you come, and see, then like, and then buy.

  41. The three stages you outlined within your publish are correct on. But I at times really feel that despite the fact that they’re within the 3rd stage, and might have even produced a purchase, there’s often the potential for much more concerns. 1 must be ready to solution concerns, even following the sale.

    Many thanks,

  42. Very interesting article this, we run our own e-commerce site and through pain-staking analysis of our own customers needs, we can now create a product description which caters for their needs. This is very useful information which breaks down the 3 buying customer segmentations, reccommended!

  43. Great article, it has always been a challenge to continue to get qualified leads to websites. What you say about about the 3 stages/buyers is spot on. I think at different times we assume all stages of the buying cycle depending on where we are at the moment.
    Thanks for the info.

  44. This was really good to read–thank you, Brendan! I’ve set up my website with a fairly late-stage buyer keyword, but I’m honestly not sure that my website is delivering in terms of what these people are really looking for. I guess in a product site where the keyword is brand-specific but also includes the word ‘review’ people are either looking to buy immediately and just aren’t sure where to go, or have decided on the brand but aren’t sure about make and model. So having read your article, I realize now that I’ll need to have a variety of individual product reviews that give information on product features and etc. Thanks!

  45. These definitions are great, I only wish consumers tagged themselves into one of these definitions. I agree with evething exponed in post.

  46. [...] If you’ve not done buying stage analysis before, a simple way to think about it is that “early” stage buyers are in a self-educating mode, “middle” stage buyers are kicking the tires and comparison shopping, and “late” stage buyers are either ready to convert, or are trying to confirm a few last details before doing so. For a more detailed exploration of this concept, you can read a post I wrote in 2010 here. [...]

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