The Stages of Buying


Awareness, Interest, Decision, Action

It would be nice for sellers if customers could decide quickly to buy or not to buy. This article explains why they can’t. Sellers who understand customers’ thought process can better prepare to encourage their prospects to move toward becoming a customer. It is imperative that companies understand the mental journey and develop strategies and messages that help customers along.

Helping customers move toward buying
There are several steps that customers must take on the way to buy.

Step 1: Awareness
You could offer the best product in the world and price it so attractively that everyone would want it, but nobody will buy it if they aren’t aware that it exists. This may seem obvious, but many founders seem unaware of the challenges they face when introducing a new product to the world. In fact, creating awareness may be the most difficult challenge a company faces when introducing a new product. That is one reason why big consumer companies like Procter & Gamble spend millions of dollars researching markets before investing to introduce a new product. They need to mitigate the risk of guessing wrong before they spend millions more generating awareness of (and gearing up production for) a new product offering. They know that generating awareness is very expensive. Worse, they know that generating awareness of a new product that fails harms the brand. (Think New Coke. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.)

Founders may think that all they need to do is get their product in the news. Good PR will catch and spread like wildfire, and they will be off to the races, unable to keep up with demand. Unfortunately, Awareness is a sloth that stubbornly resists being pushed along the path to the second step, discussed next. The press wants new stories. If they wrote about you last week or last month, they won’t want to write about you again unless there is something juicy since the last article. Most of the stuff that excites you, the founder, doesn’t excite the press. (This is another Marketing 101 mistake commonly made by founders. Never assume that the market will feel the same way as you do about your product. The market will NEVER be as excited about it as you are.)

The one-shot nature of press puts a lot of pressure to get the story out as broadly as possible right out of the gate, which means that you have to be ready to field many questions from reporters trying to understand what you are doing. If you handle that well, then you will be in a better position to try to sustain that momentum using other traditional communications tools such as advertising. This doesn’t mean that your advertisements will motivate customers to buy your product, at least, not right away. They may eventually reach that point, but you haven’t yet moved them to Step 2 of their journey.

More disheartening to the uninitiated, most people won’t see the articles when they are first published. Most people won’t see your advertisements that support the PR stories about your product. Even when your prospective customers are exposed to this very exciting information about your new product, it may not register as relevant to them and may be dismissed. It is likely that they will have to see the message several times before they are truly Aware. Think of this example: Anthony Fauci is a common household name in America, and perhaps in the world. We have seen his name many times, and now we can recall his name. Now, think of another epidemiologist that was quoted during the Covid-19 pandemic. I read the news every day, and I can’t think of one. I’m sure that others have been quoted, and their families are likely proud of the exposure, but for the Markets, that isn’t Awareness.

Most businesses don’t need to become household names in order to be successful, but achieving Awareness, even in a niche market, can be an overwhelming challenge. Most founders don’t know how to do it. A few founders may get lucky and their product creates a buzz like that of a video that goes viral, but most toil along in obscurity for decades, learning the hard way how difficult it is to get peoples’ attention.

Piling on top of all of that is the fact that people forget. Awareness isn’t permanent, but must be maintained. Holy _____. (You fill in the blank.) Ready for Step 2?

Step 2: Interest
Congratulations! A potential customer is aware of your existence! Now, get ready to take their order. Oh, wait. The customer hasn’t expressed any interest in your product yet. But, they know about it! It’s only a matter of time, then, right?

Not even close, unfortunately. The customer is aware of your product, but they haven’t even considered buying it. I have been aware of iPhones for years, but I have never bought one. I’m an Android person. At one point, I considered getting an iPhone, so I did some research on them. I had owned iPods and a Mac desktop computer (out of frustration when my Windows 7 upgrade bricked my new laptop.)

Generating Interest can be just as challenging as generating Awareness. Instead of “knocking on the door to announce my presence” I am asking you, my prospective customer, to invest some of your time to consider purchasing what I am offering. This is an exponential step in commitment of time on the part of the prospect. Even though you may have invested a great deal of money and time to get their attention, they have invested next to nothing, having learned about you in passing or maybe even accidentally after reading an article or seeing an advertisement several times. In the best case, a friend of the prospect recommended that they look into your product to help them solve a problem, and they became interested that way.

If not through a referral, it is up to you to move your audience from Aware to Interested. There are many ways to do this. Testimonials can be really valuable, but people usually don’t see your testimonials until they are researching your offering, meaning that they are already interested. No, testimonials are part of the next step. What will motivate someone to look into my offering? What you need are emotional appeals. What do people want? How does your offering help them?

You have probably heard of FUD. Fear, uncertainty and doubt all can be strong motivators. It’s instinctual. These emotions have helped our species survive an often harsh and ruthless environment. Taking advantage of such negative emotions is generally frowned upon, but it can be such an effective strategy that it is very commonly used to sell all sorts of products. It is effective because it isn’t easy to get people interested in something. Not that people aren’t interested in things. They are. People are interested in so many things that it is difficult to cut through the noise. Social media companies learned, likely accidentally, that negative emotions interest people more, as evidenced by the time they spend reading posts or watching videos that make them angry or fearful. Their algorithms figured out that, not only will people pay attention longer, but they are more likely to share such posts.

I don’t suggest that you appeal to humanity’s emotional weaknesses in order to get them interested in your products. I find such approach to be, at best, distasteful and, at worst, unethical. I prefer that people make rational decisions based on the real benefits that they receive and not because of some inflated concern. The point of mentioning FUD is that moving from Aware to Interested is often motivated by an emotional component. Even the most logical argument may be driven by emotion, in part. e.g.: “This will be such a relief because I won’t have to worry about _____ anymore.”

In his book What it Takes, Steve Schwarzman talks about customers having an “Aha moment” when they learn about a new offering. This is one of three criteria he recommends as absolute reqiurements for entrepreneurs who want to offer something new. (The other two are that the entrepreneur must feel like the endeavor is worth dedicating practically their whole life to the effort, and that the offering is in a space or sector that is rising or taking off. I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty close.) When I think of an “Aha moment,” I think of the emotions associated with it: happiness that I found a solution to a problem; relief that I can put a particular challenge to rest; satisfaction that I found a tool that will make my job easier, etc.

This is what you have to present to your prospects. You have identified a problem that you have solved, or that you can help them solve. That’s why you developed it. You have successfully made them Aware of your product, and now you need to get them to look into it. The next step along the journey will be to actually get the customer to Decide to use your solution.

I am going to take a couple of lines here to anticipate your question of: “What the heck? Decision is a separate step from Interest?” I understand your frustration. You are probably thinking, “Once people do some research and see how good my offering is, it is a short path to deciding to use it.” Unfortunately, that’s almost never the case.

There are many reasons that someone will look at your offering and decide not to buy. The most obvious one is that there may be competing products that offer similar benefits. Another is that the customer may have an approval process for new offerings. Early in my career, I worked for a company that had a strict policy of not using Windows operating system on any desktop computers because IBM had developed a competing OS, and my company had an executive from IBM on its board. Beyond political reasons like that, there are often other factors that make a product “sticky” and hard to replace. In Marketing, we talk about the “switching costs.” That could include just the cost of purchase, or it could include re-tooling, retraining the work force, or doing engineering to ensure “backward compatibility.” Still another example is that the company’s budgeting process won’t accommodate your offering because the up-front cost isn’t in this year’s budget and the savings won’t appear until next year.

It is important not to discount personal relationships. Besides the IBM board member, a customer may have a personal relationship with a supplier from your competition – even if it is just an account manager that provided great concert tickets or even better, real friendship.

Once you have motivated the prospect to look into your offering, after they have had a chance to do some research and ask questions, then they may feel ready to make a decision. Your next challenge will be to help them to decide.

Step 3: Decision
By now, you may be frustrated and asking yourself, “Why is this writer making this so hard?” I want to make two things clear: (1) These are the steps that people go through naturally. Journeys with little risk and low costs can be made relatively quickly, like if a friend recommends a new beer for me to try at a bar. I rarely drink beer or go to bars, but you get the point. I’m not risking a lot in trying it out.

Few purchase decisions in life are so simple. As pointed out in the previous section on Interest, there are many reasons why a customer may be content to stick with what they currently have as opposed to trying your offering. One obvious reason for not trying out your product is that they have gotten along just fine without it up to now. Even if I am not currently using a competing product, choosing to use yours requires that I do something. This is not meant to imply that people would rather do nothing. Quite the contrary. People are extraordinarily busy. Especially Americans. (We work long hours, and we don’t get enough sleep. I could provide citations here, but these facts have been widely reported and are simple enough to confirm.)

Getting a prospect to decide to become a customer is challenging because you are asking them to make a commitment. You may feel very confident that the customer will be better off for having made it, but you need to convince them that the commitment is worthwhile. You know that the prospect has some need that your offering could fill, but they may still have doubts about whether this is the right choice. It kind of sounds like a romance, and in many ways, it is. If Step 1 is when two people meet, and Step 2 is when you get to know each other. You have answered each other’s questions and are hopeful, but undecided because you understand that the next step is a commitment that costs money, precludes others and would be messy to undo. Step 3 is the part of the courtship when you as the company are putting your best foot forward and convincing the prospect to enter a relationship.

Your prospect must feel confident that the benefits will outweigh the costs of engaging with you, and that the risks of making a “bad” or “wrong” decision are small. Sounds simple, right? It isn’t. If you sell big-ticket items, then you may have a salesperson who is dedicated to bringing in customers, and dedicated salespeople are expensive. Such “direct sales” efforts can pay off if the profit margin is big enough to cover the costs. As the size of the transaction decreases, the relationship-driven sales approach rapidly becomes unjustifiable. Direct sales may still make sense, but as the profit per sale or per customer decreases, the contact between direct sales professionals and their prospects must also decrease to the point where there is no contact with a salesperson at all.

If you lack access to the services of sales professionals of your own or through channel partners, you will likely have to rely on advertising. This generally means that you are selling something with small margins and, hopefully, large volumes. Now, you have to get someone to make that Step 3 Decision without any direct contact. No flowers. No diamond. They have information about you, and they’ve done some research. They have other choices that include not making a choice at all and continuing along without you.

Still think this is easy? Let’s go to Step 4.

Step 4: Action
“You’ve got to be kidding, right?” I know. This is getting ridiculous. I remind you that I didn’t create journey. This is human nature. Ignore it at your peril. Nor did I create the A.I.D.A. steps. This is well-established marketing fact. Marketers know that it is difficult to move someone from Awareness to Action quickly.

“But they already decided in Step 3!” Yes, the prospect already decided that they want to purchase. All they have to do now is make the call or click the button on your website. And they will — when they get around to it. Meanwhile, they have other responsibilities at work and at home. We already mentioned that Americans work too many hours and don’t get enough sleep. They also have relationships to nurture. Kids and parents and friends that they have to attend to because they aren’t just customers, they’re people. And at work, unless they work in Purchasing, they have many duties that they must perform besides dealing with you.

You’re so close, but you need them to Act! They already know that they want your product. You have to coax them over the finish line. Sometimes, you can do this with a promotion like a limited-time offer. There are many ways to coax your prospect to become a customer, but often, it helps to create a sense of urgency. You have seen these: “While supplies last,” or “This week only.” Sometimes, external forces will create the urgency for you as California drove many companies to choose electricity suppliers in the year 2000 by threatening to close the markets.

Marketing strategies are designed to encourage prospects to Act. One that can be very effective is the “Puppy Dog” offer. The idea is that someone goes into a pet store, and the store lets them take the puppy home for the weekend so they can decide. Of course, many people fall in love with the puppy and return Monday to complete the transaction. This works on several levels. It provides a free trial of the product and reduces the risk of “buyer’s remorse” because the customer “got to know” the product and got comfortable with the decision before having to consummate a deal.

Anything that a company can do to reduce a customer’s risk of engaging, or even the perception of risk, can help convince the prospect to Act. Manufacturer warrantees and “Satisfaction guarantees” are a couple of examples. Your company may be able to identify incentives or persuasive answers to customer concerns that are unique to your situation. If you can get the prospect to provide feedback, they may tell you their concerns (in Sales, we call these “objections) so you can develop tools to relieve (overcome) them.

Conclusion: The A.I.D.A. Journey Is Inevitable
You may not like these steps. They just seem so burdensome because, in most cases, they are. Videos may go viral, but businesses do not, and the A.I.D.A journey is a big reason why. So, when you design your better mousetrap or your disruptive technology, you would do well to remember that it won’t have any impact on the world if nobody knows about it. Generating Awareness is probably the greatest-risk expense that you will incur because you have to do it before you know if people will get interested in it enough to research it and, if they do the research, that they will like it, and if they do like it, that they will decide that they want it, and if they decide they want it, that they will actually buy it. You have to generate some awareness before knowing all of those things.

If at all possible, test the market first. Think of Hollywood. They do hundreds of “pilots” for TV shows that never get picked up. They test these pilots on small audiences to gauge their reception. If the pilot tests well, they may pick up a limited number of episodes to try out on a large audience. If the limited run goes well, then they may pick up more, or even a whole season.

This is a good model for an entrepreneur if they can figure out a way to do it. Create a prototype. Prove that it works, and see how it tests in a small market. If people actually buy it, then develop the product fully and then develop a strategy to create Awareness. Many entrepreneurs spend a lot of money developing a product without even knowing that this is only the first step, and with no clue about the costs they must incur and the challenges they must overcome to enter the market successfully.

This is not intended to discourage the entrepreneur, but to make them aware that the technical challenges of developing a product will probably be the easy part for them. Tech is where they live. Unless the entrepreneur is a “natural marketer” – and by that, I mean someone who does all the right things almost accidentally – they will flounder. I have worked with some gifted natural marketers who didn’t even know that they were engaging in Marketing. Some even harbored a kind of disdain for Marketing because they felt that Marketing was “the practice of trying to get people to buy things that they don’t need.” This distaste for professional Marketing manifested as an unjustified feeling of pious altruism, a kind of feeling of “We won’t stoop to the level of using underhanded Marketing tactics.”

These entrepreneurs succeeded despite their lack of knowledge. If you understand the A.I.D.A. journey, it is clear that it is a psychological one that simple exists, is human nature, and is neither good nor evil. Marketing is a navigator for that journey, whether you hire a guide or try to reach the end on your own. You decide. At least, now you are aware that the journey exists. Congratulations! You have reached Step 1!

I encourage business owners to reflect on AIDA in their own lives to better understand how this process works. I do it all the time. Last year, I bought a new vehicle, and I ended up buying one that I didn’t know existed. A. I was unaware that it was available. By a happy accident, I learned of the vehicle’s existence and I. started to research the vehicle, comparing it with others in its class and a few in another class. I took a test drive, learned more about the price, and returned home to think about it further. I had a vehicle that was working fine, but considered that it might be nice to have something newer. After a while, D. I decided that I wanted to make the purchase, but I was busy with other responsibilities. A. Finally, I decided to take the time to go to the dealership.

Even for companies that have a good understanding of the journey, it can be quite challenging to guide a customer along their personal AIDA path. Furthermore, it is rare that anyone makes the entire journey quickly. This makes getting new customers hard, but it can also engender loyalty because, once you have a customer, they are usually averse to taking the AIDA journey to another product. Of course, keeping customers is an entirely different challenge for another article.

Published by Alex Galatic

Advisor to tech startups trying to commercialize technology as new products, services and companies. Electrical Engineer, MBA and entrepreneur.

One thought on “The Stages of Buying

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: