Does this sound familiar: Trying to tell prospects everything?

Many companies in the life science sector want to communicate everything to their prospects, and to communicate it all at once.

After decades in the business of developing life science marketing solutions, we recognize many patterns in marketing behavior. One is particularly prevalent in the life sciences: the desire to “say it all.” In other words, many companies in the life science sector want to communicate everything to their prospects, and to communicate it all at once. Here are several examples; see if you recognize any of these. We do, and we’ve seen many more just like them from lots of clients:

  • the home page of a life science web site that requires extensive scrolling because there is so much copy,
  • a life science trade show booth that looks like a scientific poster – covered in dozens of images and charts and paragraph after paragraph of small text,
  • an answer to the question, “So, what business is your firm in?” that’s a 15 minute (or even longer!) dissertation, rather than a short, well crafted sentence or two.

These are all examples of “trying to say it all at once.”

Where does this come from?

The tendency to say everything at once hurts our ability to help individuals buy.

Science is a creative endeavor that seeks to “advance the horizons of knowledge” through observation, and creating and testing hypotheses. Fundamental to the scientific worldview is the ability to create models for complex situations and extend those models until they are complete. The tendency for life science companies to try to say everything, and to say everything all at once, could come from this scientific worldview, where completeness is a virtue. Or it could come from the fallacious idea that buyers need more complete information to make their purchase decisions.

But regardless of where it comes from, the tendency to say everything at once hurts our ability to help individuals buy. People who want to “say it all” misunderstand the steps that people go through when they buy.

How people buy

Buying is an experience in which people commit to change (though they may not think of it that way consciously). They commit to pay money for something that will provide the benefits they desire. To understand purchasing behavior, and to understand the best way to educate and influence people who are potential purchasers, we have to understand how people change.

Buying is an experience in which people commit to change.

Change can happen for many reasons – inspiration, deprivation, obligation, education, temptation, just to name a few. Whatever the reason for change, there is one common similarity among people undergoing change: they all progress through distinct stages.

There are many models of behavioral change, and not all of these are relevant to the study of purchasing behavior. However, one that is particularly pertinent is Prochaska’s transtheoretical model of change.[1] While it is not within the scope of this document to explain the current science behind behavioral change models, Prochaska’s model is the most pertinent when it comes to describing purchasing behavior.

There are six stages to permanent change.

The six steps of change

According to Prochaska’s model, there are six stages to permanent change. The level of commitment exhibited by an individual during each stage can describe these stages.

Stage 1: Precontemplation. In Stage 1, the individual typically denies that there is the need for change and therefore has no intention to commit to change in the near (or even distant) future. Individuals in the precontemplation stage resist change. As an example, a sales prospect in this stage might be content with the current situation or might be in denial about the need for change: “We don’t need a new peptide synthesizer (or diagnostic device, or other life science product/service); the solution we have works just fine.”

Stage 2: Contemplation. In Stage 2, individuals acknowledge that there is an issue and begin to contemplate the need for change. Individuals in the contemplation stage begin to wonder about possible solutions, and begin to seek information about these solutions. During this stage, there is still little overt commitment, and individuals can remain in this stage for quite some time. As an example, a sales prospect in this stage will begin to seek information about alternatives: “The increase in demand is starting to overwhelm our equipment. I wonder if there is a faster machine out there, and what a new one would cost?”

The preparation stage can be brief, as momentum builds towards the next stage.

Stage 3: Preparation. In Stage 3, individuals are typically planning to take action in the near future. There are increasing signs of commitment, including a shift from focusing on the past to focusing on the future and a shift from focusing on the problem to focusing on the solution. The preparation stage can be brief, as momentum builds towards the next stage.  As an example, a sales prospect in this stage will start to develop goals and a plan for action: “I’ve allocated time to visit the websites of the top three suppliers, and my goal is to talk to these companies before we have our next budget meeting.”

Stage 4: Action. In Stage 4, individuals exhibit the most overt change in their behaviors. As the action stage is the one in which commitments are made, this is the stage on which most sales efforts (and sales training) are focused. However, individuals at the preceding stages also need support and providing this support can increase the number of individuals who actually end up ready to take action. As an example, a sales prospect in Stage 4 will have resources assigned to the project and will be actively involved in addressing any problems that arise: “We are ready to buy, but we have a concern about the terms of the contract.”

Stage 5: Maintenance. Change does not end with action; otherwise, the first trip to the gym after a commitment made on New Year’s Eve would be sufficient to ensure attendance all year long. The commitment must be maintained, and any lapses must be addressed. The legal system even takes this stage into account when it specifies a time during which “buyer’s remorse” may cause an individual to change their mind without legal penalty. A sales prospect at this stage is signing a contract and is involved in the post-sale details: “Delivery and set up will be on the 14th, and training will start on the 15th.”

Stage 6: Termination. This final stage is the goal for the change process; at this point the change is permanent. A prospect in this stage will be committed to the change: “The purchase addresses my needs so well that I’ll only use this supplier in the future.”

Test the model

To affect people’s purchasing behavior, you have to know what stage they are in.

As you think about this model, ask yourself whether these stages describe the way you yourself make significant purchases, or change in significant ways. It should: the research has been validated through scores of empirical studies with thousands of subjects. What becomes clear through these studies is that to affect people’s purchasing behavior, you have to know what stage they are in. In other words, the support mechanisms that are effective for people at one stage of the process are not what these same individuals need at other stages of the process. Providing support that is appropriate to the prospect’s stage of change can increase the number of individuals who eventually end up ready to take action.

In hindsight, this should be obvious. Early stage buyers – that is, people who are in denial about the need for change (Stage 1: Precontemplation), or those who are starting to think about change (Stage 2: Contemplation) have a different level of commitment and need different support mechanisms than late stage buyers – that is, people who are planning for change (Stage 3: Preparation) or those who are ready for change (Stage 4: Action).

What is needed at each stage of the buying process?

Early stage buyers need inspiration.

Prochaska’s research shows that early stage changers (people in Stages 1 and 2) need to increase their perception of the positive aspects of changing. This focus on the pros rather than the cons can be summarized as follows: early stage buyers need inspiration. Remember that one of the differences between Stage 2 Contemplation and Stage 3 Preparation is that buyers in Stage 3 begin to focus on the future (rather than the past) and the solution (rather than the problem). Inspiration allows early stage buyers to paint a picture of the future, and to make the transition to later stages.

If early stage buyers need inspiration, what do late stage buyers need? The research clearly shows that later stage buyers (people in Stages 3 and 4) need to decrease their perception of the negative aspects of changing. This focus on the cons rather than the pros can be summarized as follows: late stage buyers need reassurance. Reassurance is what allows late stage buyers to feel comfortable moving forward, knowing that they are on the right track.

When to say a lot, and when to say a little

Late stage buyers need reassurance.

Let’s return to the topic with which this newsletter opened. Does this model of purchasing behavior shed any light on how, how much and when to communicate to prospects? Yes; early stage prospects need inspiration and late stage prospects need reassurance. Inspirational communication should focus on the benefits of purchasing, and should be less detail-oriented than communication designed to reassure. In contrast, communication designed to reassure will need to be more complete than that designed to inspire.

In short, when communicating with early stage buyers you should communicate fewer details and focus on the benefits. Late stage buyers need more details, so longer communication is appropriate with them. To summarize: Inspire early, reassure late.  Be terse early, and less terse late.

Communication needs for different stages in the buying cycle.Early stage buyers (Stage 1 Precontemplation and Stage 2 Contemplation)Late stage buyers (Stage 3 Preparation and Stage 4 Action)
At this stage prospects need…InspirationReassurance
Communication should focus on…Increasing the perception of the benefits (the pros).Decreasing the significance of the disadvantages (the cons).
What length of communication is appropriate?Shortest, with fewer details; focused on what benefits will be received.Short (though some length is acceptable, if you must); focused on how the benefits will be delivered/achieved.

Table 1: Shape your communication with your prospects to best encourage commitment at every stage of the process.

There are more early stage prospects that late stage prospects

Any salesperson will confirm there are more early stage buyers than late stage buyers; more people are in denial (Stage 1) or “thinking about it” (Stage 2) than actively preparing (Stage 3) or taking action (Stage 4). This anecdotal evidence is reinforced by the fact that the model predicts that Contemplators can remain in Stage 2 for a long time. Also, dozens of sales training models depict the sales process as a funnel; you need multiple prospects entering the top of the funnel to get a single buyer to commit at the bottom of the funnel.

Applying this model to marketing in the life sciences sector

Over the decades that we have been working in this sector we’ve learned that most life science marketing actually addresses early stage prospects. This is true because most life science purchases are consummated via a sales person, not in an online or retail environment. While there are some exceptions that I call transactional sales, such as reagents, lab supplies and other disposables, the vast majority of life science purchases (e.g., CRO services, lab services, diagnostic equipment, etc.) are consultative sales and are completed with the assistance of a salesperson. Most consultative sales represent a significant dollar value and many require a customized deliverable. For these reasons, among others, life science purchases are rarely conducted without the intervention of a salesperson.

Most general marketing materials should be addressed to early stage buyers, by being inspirational (and short).

If salespeople facilitate the sale, they will be able to supply the necessary reassurance. So most general marketing materials should be addressed to early stage buyers, by being inspirational (and short). And this is exactly what is wrong with the examples with which I opened this newsletter:

  • the home page of a life science web site that requires extensive scrolling because there is so much copy,
  • a life science trade show booth that is covered in extensive (and small) text and dozens of images and charts,
  • an answer to the question, “So, what business is your firm in?” that’s a 15 minute (or even longer!) dissertation, rather than a short, well crafted sentence or two.

All these communications are full of reassuring details, but the audiences in the examples above are typically early stage buyers. In these cases, reassurance is not what is called for – rather, inspiration is. These examples are typical of over-communication to prospects that are still in Stages 1 or 2.

The implications for life science marketing

There are some clear implications from Prochaska’s theory; ignore them at your peril. For products or services that require technical, consultative sales and are facilitated (closed) by a salesperson, you should:

  • carefully analyze each marketing touchpoint (see Volume 1, No. 5 of this newsletter for a discussion on touchpoints) and determine if it is focused primarily on early or late stage buyers,
  • craft a message of reassurance for those touchpoints that are unequivocally focused on late stage buyers (e.g., sales support presentations or collateral only used during closing),
  • craft a message of inspiration for those touchpoints that are unequivocally focused on early stage buyers (e.g., trade show booths, banner ads),
  • carefully examine those touchpoints that can be used to address both early and late stage buyers (e.g., web sites). In our experience, these touchpoints are actually focused more on early stage buyers than on late stage buyers. Their function is to encourage the early stage prospect to raise their hand, at which point they can be engaged by a salesperson. In the vast majority of these cases, the material should be crafted to inspire the prospect. Let reassurance come from your sales personnel and from material specifically designed with late stage buyers in mind.

Summary

In closing, here is a brief summary:

  • People going through the buying cycle will progress through a multi-stage change process.
  • The stages of change are described by Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model and have been validated by numerous studies.
  • To affect people’s purchasing behavior, you must identify the stage of change that they are in.
  • Providing support that is appropriate to the prospect’s stage of change can increase the number of individuals who eventually end up ready to take action.
  • Early stage buyers need inspiration; late stage buyers need reassurance.
To affect people’s purchasing behavior, you must identify the stage of change that they are in.

Prochaska’s model has many other interesting facets and implications. Rather than “trying to say these all at once”, I’ll address them in coming issues.

 


[1] Prochaska, James O., PhD, et al., Changing for Good (New York, William Morrow, 1994). This model for change was brought to our attention by Blair Enns of Ennmark Performance.