ecommerce-product-researchMost people that visit your website aren't ready to buy right now -- and focusing on attracting only the ones that are can be really expensive. Yet most ecommerce marketing campaigns are almost exclusively focused on attracting and converting people who are ready to buy right now.

Maybe I should try that? Hey, you. Yeah, you. Buy HubSpot. Right now. Go do it.

Huh? You're not ready? Why not? Oh, you don't really know what HubSpot actually does -- or how it can help your business? More importantly, you may not even know exactly how you're going to combine marketing methods like blogging AND landing pages AND social media AND email AND dynamic content AND analytics into an actionable plan to grow your ecommerce sales (without which the HubSpot software is of little use). So why do you expect every website visitor to be ready to buy from you right now? 

I get it. I'll also admit HubSpot's an extreme example because we're (metaphorically) selling you exercise equipment for marketing muscles you didn't even know could be worked out. People also use the excuse that people don't invest as much time into buying, say, camping equipment or sporting gear as they do into transforming their entire business into an inbound company. To which I usually respond "have you seen how many different kinds of camping tents there are?!"

A lot of marketers (and business owners in general) don't give themselves enough credit. Whether you're selling golf gear or cigar cutters, you know way more about your products than any customer could ever hope to. You live this stuff every day. While that's awesome, it also stops you from realizing that what's normal knowledge to you might be completely transformative information for a prospective customer. I'm guilty of this too. I take it for granted that everyone knows that blogging has a higher investment ROI than PPC. I hop on the phone with people and tell them about using dynamic content to create a customized experience sometimes without thinking about the fact that they didn't even know how to create buyer personas, much less how to customize they buying experience to them. And it's not their fault that they don't know. A lot of these concepts that I take for granted are ways of looking at things that -- while everyone at HubSpot might be familiar with -- not everyone in the world knows.

The same thing goes for consumer products. Seriously, I went to a sporting goods store over the weekend and had to pause in the entrance due to the sheer enormity of the options. But knowledge that the store employees might take for granted -- like what kind of golf clubs actually deliver on their marketing hype -- is completely news to me. Even when it comes to just deciding what golf balls to buy, whenever there are options (or especially if there are no other options because you're unique) people go through a process before deciding what to buy.

The fact is that - regardless of what you buy - you go through a buying process that starts before you even know you need it. In fact, it starts before you even know you have a pain point or problem for that product. And it's not a simple, linear process with a nice clean end-point -- your customer's aren't that one dimensional. Let's take a look at how the buying cycle actually looks for real people.

The Relevance Phase

Your buying process actually starts when you're part of a broad group of people that comprise the potential market for a product, what we call the "Relevance Phase" of the buying cycle. This is where the majority of content creation (like blogging) and social media takes place. It's where the marketer creates awesome content to attract and build an audience of folks to whom their product is relevant. Wistia wrote a great article (bookmark that for later -- finish my article first!) about building an audience. At the highest phases of inbound marketing, it's important to focus on attracting the types of eyeballs that are going to be valuable for you long term - even if they don't buy right now.


It's also the earliest stage of the buying cycle in which people visit your website and you have an opportunity to qualify them and provide them value (usually in the form of entertaining or informative content).

Most of the people visiting your website are doing it through qualified sources. Unlike the dark, early days of the internet where you never really knew where you'd end up; search engines, social media, and referring links from relevant websites mean that most people hitting your site are doing so for some fairly qualified reason. Yet, at best, around 1% of them actually buy something when they visit. This is because the vast majority of the visitors are shopping for a product that you're not bothering to sell them - the educational content stored inside your head.

This is the first chance you get to convert a pre-transactional contact. If you sell cigars, someone visiting your site might not know exactly what they want to buy or be able to make that decision in a single visit (after all, there are apparently thousands of different kinds - who knew). However, if you offer them - for example - the Clueless Newbie's Guide To Choosing A Great Cigar and ask for some information in return you can "convert" them as a pre-transactional contact and control their buying process from there. Again, the goal is that you control their entire buying cycle -- starting before they even know they want what you're selling -- instead of spending massive amounts of money competing with sites like Amazon that can operate at much lower margins and have massive marketing muscle to compete in search results.

In exchange for that awesome guide, you get to ask them for something in return -- usually information. Here are some pieces of information you may want to ask for:

  1. First name: Makes sense. Most people are cool parting with their first name.
  2. Email address: Most people are fairly willing to part with this if they know why. Explain that you're going to email the guide to them so that they give you a real email address and aren't surprised when you actually send them an email. At a minimum, you usually need a person's first name and email address to start a relationship with them.
  3. Product use cases: Here's where it gets really neat. You want to separate your pre-transactional contacts into buyer personas so that you know what messaging and products will be the most influential for them. For the cigar newbie, asking if this is him starting a new hobby or him trying to impress his father-in-law or boss (who is hopefully not the same person) can help you custom-tailor what kind of educational and persuasive messages you send him down the line.
  4. Purchasing time-frame: When are they looking to buy? Should you be harassing them with fifty emails this month, or should you wait three months and follow up?
  5. Qualitative data: Since the next phases are all about helping people make a purchasing decision, asking them things that you might ask a customer in your store might help you help them. And if you make it clear that that's why you're asking - to help them - people who are going to be good customers are usually willing to answer.

Congratulations! You've just attracted someone to your site and converted them as a pre-transactional contact. You're way ahead of the game. You've now built trust and value in the mind of your future customer, captured valuable information, AND established a plausible pretense for continuing to send them marketing messages that they actually want to read. You could honestly stop reading here and be in the top echelons of expert marketers.

The Awareness Phases

You kept reading! You over-achiever you. I like you.

So, of course, not everyone visiting your website is in the relevance phase any more than everyone visiting your site is ready to buy. If you're still reading, you've acknowledged that the world is filled with people who might be great customers if we help them. If we treat all potential customers the same, they'll treat all potential sellers the same.

The rest of the buying cycle for customers is about gathering and processing information to make a decision about purchasing. One of my favorite quotes by Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, is that he doesn't make money when someone buys something, he makes money when he helps someone make a purchasing decision. And Amazon makes $97k+/minute so let's assume he knows what he's talking about.


Eventually, thanks to the awesome aspirational content you've been blogging about and nurturing contacts in the relevance phase with, the customer becomes "aware" that they have a problem or pain point and starts researching possible solutions. Here's where that long-tail of content really comes in handy. One of my colleagues, for example, is considering spending some time "car camping" or traveling and living out of his car (weird - I know). So he Googled, for whatever reason, "What size mattress could fit in a Toyota Prius?"

Lo, and behold! There's a mattress company that had actually written a blog article about that. About a mattress in a Prius. Seriously. My colleague (we'll just call him Sam Mallikarjunan to preserve his anonymity) saw the article and contacted them. It doesn't get much more highly-targeted and value-added than that! Figure that article took them maybe an hour to write, and a year later they get at least one big sale off of it (Sam didn't tell me how much that mattress cost but it's gotta be worth an hour's time - and who knows who else may have that crazy idea).

Sam also skipped really quickly through the other awareness phases, comparison and intent, which is ok. He went through them, just really fast. His research convinced him car camping was a thing (seriously, apparently lots of people do this). He found their article, compared them to other options (like air mattresses or other mattresses that aren't custom etc.), made the decision to buy (intent), and bought.

However, let's assume Sam had actually put some thought into that process and that he wasn't determined enough to reach out to them via email himself and learn more. They could have had a guide to car camping at the bottom of the blog article, asked him how long he was planning to be in the car, and sent him a bunch of other information to help him make his decision. That's the key. For example, Sam has back problems but was considering an air mattress instead of memory foam. That's all the comparison phase - they could ask him things like "Do you have back trouble?" or "How long are you planning to car camp?" and based on that sent very persuasive emails targeted at his actual pain points (pun intended).

Notice that absolutely none of this process has involved a coupon or discount. Marketers who use coupons to fill the top of their funnel are doing themselves and their customers a great disservice. Coupons could be used to accelerate the intent phase of the buying cycle - say if Sam had added the mattress to his cart and abandoned it, or if they had asked him when he was going camping and the date was approaching without him having made a purchase. But they're not a substitute for helping someone make an informed decision.

It's also key to note here that this isn't a static, linear process. In fact, when Sam found this article he was already in the "comparison phase" for air mattresses that could fit in the back. As people learn more information, they can move back and forth through these phases - and it's the marketer's job to figure out what phase they're in and send them the relevant content.

So, What Is a Pre-Transactional Contact?

Let's recap some basics here: A pre-transactional contact is someone who has converted into your database without actually buying anything. We all know, through exhaustive data proof as well as common sense, that selling to someone who has already bought something from you is much easier. However, the vast majority of the internet is not ready to buy the first time they hit your website, and yet most of our marketing completely ignores them. Pre-transactional contact conversions offer a chance to begin and control a relationship with the customer throughout their buying cycle so that you don't have to fight for their attention when they already think they know exactly what they want and the only real argument left is price.


Where Does the Sales Cycle Begin?

Your buyers’ sales cycles begin with their research. According to this study, 15% of online shoppers spend 90% of their shopping time researching products. Thirty-five percent of those shoppers spend 75-89% of their online time conducting research. That's a lot of time to leave your customer unattended and unloved, fending for themselves.

This same research also shows a correlation between the price of an item and how long the buyer will research. Large-ticket items, such as televisions or home appliances, require a few days of research, say 34% of those surveyed. Another 22% say a few hours is all they need. However short the process, everyone goes through it for everything they buy. No matter the time spent looking, the moment they start, that’s when the buying cycle starts. If you can be the content that starts them on their research journey, you have a huge competitive advantage.

The Big Picture

Acquiring a customer is just half of the goal. You need to nurture them to be a loyal, repeating customer to get real life time value from them. In the end, the relationship between an ecommerce store is not a funnel with a linear end-point -- it's an infinite loop where the relationship grows over time as you continue to sell them education that turns into sales.


Ecommerce marketers are, to a great extent, stuck in an archaic mindset of only competing for customers who are ready to buy. However, as we like to say, there's always someone willing to make less money than you. If your only plan is lowering prices, increasing PPC spend for purchase-phase keywords, and SEO'ing product detail pages (which are hugely important - but in later phases), you're going to eventually hit a wall of economic inevitability where you just won't be able to compete with massive sites like Amazon or overseas competitors.

We did a whole webinar on this - check it out below:

Ecommerce Lifecycle Marketing And Buying Cycles

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What about you? Are you converting and marketing to pre-transactional contacts? How are you capturing them? Tell us below in the comments.

Image credit: TheBostonChow

Originally published Oct 8, 2013 1:00:00 PM, updated January 18 2023


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