What the hell is “consideration,” and why is it still living in a funnel?

In 1898 a sales manager for National Cash Register in Detroit named Elias St. Elmo Lewis was trying to organize and manage salespeople.  St. Elmo Lewis was a thinker and writer about advertising and sales, and would go on to found the Association of National Advertisers, and as such he thought a lot about brands on a national level–a novel concept for the late 19th century.

The results of St. Elmo Lewis’ labors at NCR became his best known contribution to marketing–the invention of the first recognized model of the “sales funnel,” a model of consumer buying behavior.  He called his sales funnel AIDA, for “awareness, interest, desire and action.”

The AIDA funnel was amended in 1911 by William Stanton, a professor of marketing, to AIDAS, adding “satisfaction” to the funnel, and thus turning it into more of a sales cycle, acknowledging the existence of satisfied customers who would at least return to buy more, and might in fact spread the word about the quality of certain products or services.

In the last ten years the sales funnel if not the sales cycle, has taken a beating among contemporary  marketing thinkers, especially those who work online.

I recall a 2007 conference presentation by an auto industry consultant and his research showing that while the sales funnel for car buying might exist in a loose and weakened form, it was entirely possible for the right offer or engagement to pull a consumer all the way from awareness to action and sale immediately.  Bang! We might not be in the market for a new car today, but tomorrow, with the right set of triggers–especially online–we might be driving off the lot with a new Toyota tomorrow. The sales funnel exploded.

Talking about the sales funnel at all is risky business.  “Sales,” of course, covers everything from buying a Coke to buying Coke-bottling machinery.  B2C, B2B, discretionary, long-sales cycle, considered purchases, and on and on.

The same issue of purpose or scale applies to “marketing.”  I spoke once with the division president of a large chemical company who said to me, “I don’t need a lot of marketing, you know?  I’ve got six customers and each one does $100 million a year in business with me.  Our whole market has maybe 10 possible clients.”

Besides, it might be more important to understand that there are 10 or 20 different, unique ways customers arrive at the buy decision for a product.  That happens a lot, especially in big purchases like cars and houses.

In the spirit of St. Elmo Lewis, let me press on.  Over the years the “I” in AIDA, “interest” has usually been divided into “attraction” and “consideration.”  Consideration is the state of actively shopping for something, however casually.

Online we can consider many products easily.  I think we move in and out of hazy stages of awareness, attraction and consideration easily.  My wife and I just decided that “sometime” soon we’ll need to buy a new car to replace our fading Volvo S60.  Are we in the consideration stage?  Not until we get the holiday bills and our taxes paid off.  Maybe in April when we get the tax refund.

But I still look.   And a car is a big purchase, and there’s a lot to look at.  So how about smaller price point items like grocery food o running shoes?

I need new glasses.  Yesterday I requested five sample frames from an online glasses company which will arrive tomorrow or the next day.  They’ve got me most definitely in the consideration phase, and I’m almost into “desire” for one of the frames.  But if they arrive in the mail, I try them on, and they all look dumb on me, they out.  I’ll toss them into the pre-paid return package and move on, perhaps now just in a faint state of awareness and attraction.

The delicacy, transience and opacity of “consideration” is what’s blowing up the sales funnel.  We now live in a state of mild, comfortable chaos, anchored to ban online river of images, words, videos and half-glimpsed ads and links.  The rest of our media consciousness is shift more and more to paid or at least non-advertiser supported content–Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and more and more social content.  Content, content everywhere and not an ad to interrupt!

I believe that this mild chaos is a transitory phase we’re in as our content habits are in flux.  Old media still kind of works, but less and less.  Old and new media, when it’s connected and somehow coordinated kind of works a little better.  If advertisers or publishers track my behavior, they’ll be able to hit me with ads better, but that will have less than 25% of the influence in my eventual decision about which grocery food, panty hose or car I buy.   (I’m notoriously disloyal in my pantyhose preference)

Much of the driver for consumer behavior these days is rooted in our individual mood swings from fear to tentative confidence about our own economic situation.  The Miller’s aren’t buying a new car any time soon, I can tell you that.  And all the Prius ads shoved down my eyeballs aren’t going to change that.

Media planning these days is done by the “sausage machine” theory–keep shoving ads in, monitor their composition as best you can, and all the counts is how many customers come out the end of the machine.  Media buyers can prove certain media opportunities “work” based on the numbers that come out the back end.

Fair enough.  But the math for that kind of media buying is going to get worse and worse, not better.  The sorry fact is that the state of consideration is in disarray

The good news: the solution for now is also the solution for the long-term.  Companies should try to earn a permanent place of “consideration” in my mind space by genuinely helping me, however they can.  Many brands are rushing to cause marketing as an awkward first step to helping customers.  But this strategy, however nobly executed, suffers from thinking about consumers rather than about me.  It’s mass, broadcast strategy, not trying to help me with my challenges and desires.

“Content strategy” is an organized way of thinking about “conversation strategy.”  It’s not easy to define, and it’s not easy to do.  It’s as much a change in state of mind as it is formal business re-organization, hiring and strategy.

I was at AdTech in New York last month and one panelist who sells online advertising said the biggest problem in that business is what they call “creative exhaustion.” What he meant is that his company can target and re-target a potential customer over and over dozens of times–they have the ability to track and serve me ads across a huge range of Websites and applications.   But after the 30th or 40th time, they’ve run out of ads to run.  It’s the same dumb Chevy Nova ad over and over again.

So developing strategies that are both meaningful and scalable to stay in this new state of consideration is almost impossible.

My suggestions as a strategic planner are to:

  1. Stop focusing on demographics and focus on behaviors.
  2. Write and design content (and okay, ads too) that match the stages of these behaviors
  3. Make friends with a great analytics strategist and get him/her to plumb the hell out of the audience data looking for insights in how different people respond behaviorally
  4. Most important: find your voice as an organization, align the real people in your organization to understand that voice, and then get people talking to people online. 70-80% of the online audience is spectators to dialogues, not authors (or so says Forrester)   So the “overheard conversation” has as much value as 1-to-1 dialogue.
  5. Stop spending so much money on television and radio ads.  At best they’re mildly entertaining the first time I see them, and by the third time I’m past the point of “creative exhaustion.”

What are your thoughts?   I’d like to consider them…..

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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