By Shannon Belew, Joel Elad

The pathway a buyer takes means the typical stages a consumer goes through as part of the decision-making process. In an online business, it’s important to understand this process so that you have a better chance of influencing the buyer at each stage — even if you cannot directly reach or engage the buyer at the earliest of these stages.

You may be wondering how can you influence buyers if you can’t actually communicate directly with them? The answer to that question is based on where buyers consume information, and from whom. Before the proliferation of the Internet, salespeople (whether B2B or B2C) primarily controlled the buying process and could guide a prospective customer through the sales process, telling the buyers what the company wanted to, when they wanted to (through product brochures, demonstrations, and advertising).

Talking to prospective customers was also a one-way communications process via advertising, with brands pushing out information to the consumers through TV commercials and magazine and newspaper ads, for example. There was little opportunity for buyers to control the flow or type of information they received from brands.

Today, the buyer may evaluate a company or brand long before the brand is aware of that buyer. The buyer gets that information from product review websites, social media conversations, online communities, competitors, peers, friends and perfect strangers — and the vast majority of this information-gathering process occurs online. Let’s take a look at each stage of the buying process and see how a consumer’s view of a brand evolves during the online discovery process:

  • Awareness: In this first stage, the consumer doesn’t yet understand that he or she is starting the path to becoming someone’s buyer. The consumer doesn’t even realize he has a problem or a need that your product or service can solve. Take the example of a young male who has been scratching his face more and more after he shaves. He’s mildly aware of it, and maybe irritated by it, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Then, he gets on the social media forum site called Reddit and explores different conversation threads. He comes across a discussion in which others are complaining about their faces being irritated after shaving and asking for opinions about what might be causing it. The responses range from the itchiness being caused by a skin condition that requires medical treatment to reactions to certain skincare products. Several guys on the thread mention using a product called Dr. Carver’s Post Shave Cream that they bought online from DollarShaveClub.com. They rave about how much it helped fight irritation after shaving. The young male buyer considers that this might be part of his problem, but he’s not ready to buy — yet. He’s still discovering that he might have an issue.
  • Consideration: Once a buyer decides he has a problem, he is ready to start actively looking for a solution. Following our male buyer, he decides his shaving process and the lack of quality products is creating a skin condition, but he’s not yet made up his mind as to which solution is best. He’s already been introduced to one product and a site where he can buy it, but being a savvy consumer, he’s not ready to commit. Instead, he begins actively looking for other products that might work. In this stage of the buying process, he’s doing a lot of detailed research about specific products and vendors, reading online reviews, watching product videos, and comparing the different types of shaving and facial care products for men — including pre-shave products like shea butter and oils. He may also come across reviews of your online business that specializes in men’s healthcare products, and he adds that to his list to consider, in addition to Dollar Shave Club.
  • Decision: Once the buyer enters the final stage, his decision is almost made. He’s already narrowed down the type of product he wants and is fairly certain where he will buy it. In our scenario, the young male buyer is leaning toward a bundle package of Dr. Carver’s Shea Butter and Post Shave Cream. He’s now spending a lot of time on the Dollar Shave Club site comparing prices and trying to understand the specifics of the buying process. He likes that this monthly subscription service delivers products to his door every month without hassle. And, he can get his facial care products plus a free first shipment of razors as part of the subscription service. He signs up for the free monthly delivery service trial and adds on the bundled facial care products.

    As part of the decision stage, buyers are actively taking sales-oriented actions. In B2B, this means buyers are requesting sales quotes and demos from sales representatives. In B2C, customers are signing up for free trials and starting to put products into their online shopping carts for consideration, or saving products to a favorites’ list or “save for later” list, which allows customers to designate products of interest within the e-commerce site. This type of feature also gives your online business a view of the specific products buyers are interested in and you can use this information to market to them later, should they abandon their shopping carts or leave the site without buying.

  • Advocacy: Also referred to as the loyalty stage, this stage sometimes gets left off when discussing the buyer’s journey because the “buy” decision has already been made. We’re including it here because it is an important part of the ongoing cycle that not only represents repeat sales from existing customers, but is also an important part of boosting new sales. In this post-buying stage, our young male buyer received his first subscription box from Dollar Shave Club. The Post Shave Cream really helped reduce the irritability he had after shaving, and he was especially impressed with the Dollar Shave Club experience — receiving his subscription box, the way it was packaged, and the fun personality of the brand that seemed to mirror his lifestyle and interests. He’s so excited about his experience that he goes back to the Reddit thread where he first learned about the product and the site, and he shares his own experience. Plus, Dollar Shave Club offers a $5 credit for every referral he gets, so he posts a special code in the thread comments that incentivizes new buyers, while rewarding him. As part of the advocacy stage, your online business needs to continue talking to existing customers, keeping them excited about your brand, and providing incentives and loyalty programs that encourages sharing and recommending your brand.