Determining Sales Cycle Promotional Strategies

The last post highlighted how startups could apply the traditional marketing mix framework – Product, Price, Place, & Promotion (the four “Ps” – to develop an integrated market entry strategy. Now let’s take a deeper look at the selection and testing of promotional strategy to reach and convert early target customers.

As a starting point, most marketing decisions begin with a specific target customer segment in mind. As noted in previous posts, startups should select their early customers based on several criteria, including:

  • the importance & urgency of the customer need,
  • the team’s access to the customer,
  • the customer’s ability to pay, and
  • the degree they are dissatisfied with existing solutions in the marketplace.

Your early promotional strategies should be laser-focused on your selected target customer.

Once you have your target defined, you want to consider what you want to communicate at each sales cycle stage. Your messaging comes directly from your product positioning work referenced in the marketing mix post. You need to be clear as to what the offer is and how it helps your customer. You should be explaining why your offer is the best choice for your customer compared to other options in the marketplace. Why is your product better, and why you are the best source to solve their problem. Throughout your messaging, you want to demonstrate that you understand their needs and fulfill them. 

Another essential element of your customer messaging is to clarify how they can learn more about your offer as needed and how to purchase when ready. As part of the sales cycle, you need to provide a clear call to action points. Depending on how much the customer needs to learn before deciding to make a purchase, you may need to create an intermediate call to action, such as providing ways to request additional information.

Once you have the message you want to convey to the customer, creating a customer or buyer journey map is the next step. This journey map identifies all the points you believe the customer will engage your venture from initial awareness to post-purchase services. This mapping activity is a significant step towards deciding what promotional, and channel strategies will be most effective.

In an earlier post, I outlined the use of customer mapping to help you articulate your assumptions about the customer’s experience with the problem they are trying to solve (or job to be done). Mapping the customer experience before being exposed to your solution facilitates your understanding of the customer’s problem, experience with current solutions, and what benefits they expect from a better solution. You to visualize the steps and actions that the customer takes to solve the problem in a specific context, the challenges they face, and their mindset throughout the process. Experience maps look at how customers are engaging with other brands to find a solution to their problems. This information is invaluable to understand how the customer goes about looking for answers, what their decision process looks like, and what options currently exist in the marketplace. The focus is on the customer’s experience with the problem, emphasizing all the challenges throughout the process. Your solution has not yet entered the picture.

If you applied this mapping activity earlier in your customer discovery phase, you would have a solid foundation to understand better the customer or buyer journey with your brand and solution. Customer (or buyer) journey maps focus on the customer’s engagement with your brand at each touchpoint, from initial awareness through purchase and post-purchase engagement. Therefore, you should consider starting with the earlier customer experience map or beginning fresh with the sales cycle phase as the focus.

Sales Cycle Stages

For a customer or buyer journey map, it is best to outline customer behaviors across a typical sales cycle or funnel framework. While there are many variations, I suggest you start with these four – Awareness, Consideration, Decision, and Post Purchase. You will want to provide compelling content that addresses the customer’s pain points, functional and emotional needs, and desired outcomes at each stage. The information at each stage becomes increasingly more detailed. You must provide clear guidance for the customer at each step so they can move through the process seamlessly, gaining confidence in your ability to solve their problem along the way. 

Awareness. When does your target customer become aware that you are offering a solution to their problem? Understanding this starting point can be challenging to identify all the ways this can happen. Are your customers actively searching for a solution? What precipitated the search? Where do they look for an answer? Who do they speak with to learn about possible solutions? You will want to consider possible answers to these questions so you can determine the best ways to get your offer in front of your customer at the right time. As I will discuss in a future post, your solution will need to be where and when the customer needs it (and you will need to make this happen with large numbers of potential customers). 

At this stage, a strong positioning statement drives your message to the customer. You need to concisely let the customer know that you understand their pain points, have an effective solution to their problem, and solve it better than others in the marketplace. The message needs to be compelling enough to motivate the customer to learn more about your offer. At this early juncture of the sales process, make sure that you provide a clear path to learn more about your products and brand.

Consideration. Once interested, your target customers will look for additional information to help them decide whether your solution is right for them. At this stage of the sales cycle, you want to provide information that demonstrates how your product will solve their problem. An in-depth understanding of the customer pain points is helpful at this point. You want to show that you understand what they are going through and possess what they need to improve their current situation. 

During this phase, the customer is looking for more details on how your product will solve their problem. You need to showcase how your solutions address each pain point while reinforcing that you have the capacity and expertise to deliver on your offer. The level of detail will depend on the overall complexity of the decision process. In general, customers will conduct more research on solutions that are both long-term and costly. Additionally, if the customer is already entrenched using an alternative solution, motivating them to switch may take more effort. In any case, the proof that you can solve the problem better than existing solutions must be credible and compelling. There are many strategies to reinforce your expertise, including testimonials, case studies, educational content, and the like. Again, your understanding of your customer’s experience with the problem, where they look for or who they turn to for information, can drive your content decisions.

Decision. Once your customer is leaning towards going with your product, you want to guide them through purchasing. There is nothing more frustrating to a customer after deciding to purchase something and finding it difficult. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to but something and found it challenging to complete the transaction. 

As you guide your customer toward closing the sale, make sure that each step is straightforward and as seamless as you can make it. The more complex or costly the decision, make sure that you have the proper support to answer any last-minute questions. Remember, the customer is still evaluating your capacity to solve their problem, and any cause of frustration can result in a lost sale. 

Post Purchase. It is not unusual for early startups to focus on selling to the customer and celebrate each successful conversion. However, I consider engaging the customer after the sale even more critical for continued growth and sustainability. As data shows, acquiring new customers is six times more costly than retaining them. So there is a clear economic advantage. But there is a more compelling reason to have a successful strategy to keep existing customers happy. You want your customers to become advocates for your brand, helping you spread the word about the benefits of your solutions. 

Engaging existing customers with compelling content is essential to keep them posted on your venture, current activities, and new products. This outreach should be customer-centric in support of their needs and interests. Don’t just pitch new products and services. Please take the opportunity to make them a part of a community, people with like interests and needs.

Customer/Buyer Mapping

Applying the above sales cycle to map the customer journey provides a useful framework to outline your marketing strategies. As noted earlier, if you started visualizing your customer’s experience before developing your solution and then validated assumptions during customer discovery, you have a great start. 

As mentioned in an earlier post on customer experience maps, start by thinking about your target customers’ experience with the problem at hand. Next, review your assumptions about the specific problem, the context in which they occur, and what the customer wants as a successful outcome. Finally, with this information as a foundation, you outline critical actions and behaviors and cognitive or emotional reactions throughout the experience. If you created an earlier version of the map before developing your solution, this is an excellent time to review your initial assumptions. Have your earlier assumptions been validated during customer interviews, surveys, and other market research? 

Pain Points. Hopefully, your discovery efforts have produced a deep understanding of the customer pain points. You should have valid answers to questions like What challenges are they experiencing as they attempt to perform the task/job or solve the problem? And how important is it to the customer to solve these challenges? Demonstrating to your customer that you have a solid understanding of their challenges and solutions to them becomes an integral part of your promotional message. Your customer wants someone who understands their functional and emotional needs and can fulfill them in the desired manner. 

Messaging/Content. Once you have the above information gathered, you can now address how you plan to convey the value of your solution to the customer. The best way to articulate the benefits of using your solution, expected outcomes, and the steps are required to acquire your solution. Your messages to the customer change as they move from awareness to consideration to final decision and post-purchase services. Content should transition from benefit highlights to a deeper dive into how the solution works. Here is when you begin to provide information about how your solutions have worked for other customers to show the efficacy of your offering. Post-purchase messaging can include additional information, including “how to use” videos and ways to stay connected to the brand and customer community. 

Call to Action. An important message to the customer relates to what they need to do at each step of the sales cycle. You are helping them to navigate each step with clear guidance on what they are supposed to do next. In the awareness stage, you should be showing them how to get additional information to support the consideration phase. In this latter stage, you will be moving them towards making a purchase decision with information about special offers, discounts, and other incentives to get them to the final step.

Most importantly, you should provide clear guidance on how they can stay engaged with the brand after they have purchased your product. Unfortunately, many startups do little to engage their customers after purchase. This lack of engagement is a critical mistake and one that will most likely lead to eventual venture stagnation. 

Touchpoints. Now that you have formulated your content strategy across the sales cycle, it is time to determine which promotional channels will be optional for delivering your message to the customer. You should have a pretty good idea of where your customer solicits their information from your customer discovery efforts. Where are their go-to information sources? Who do they ask for advice? Learning what they currently do to solve the problem will provide a good starting point for determining where to promote your solution. As with the other promotional decisions, the channels you use to reach and connect with your customer will change as they move through the sales cycle. During your awareness campaign, you may use more outbound strategies such as social media or Google ads. As you move into the later stages of the sales cycle, you can use a more inbound approach such as emails and direct messaging. 

Metrics of Success. The last element to consider is what data you should collect and monitor to hit promotional goals. Many of these goals relate to the number of customers that are moving from one stage to another. For example, if you plan to reach customers using Google Ads, you budget and track how many customers visit your website and how many of those visitors purchase your product. From this information, you can determine your conversion rate for this particular promotional channel, the percentage of total visitors to your site that become paying customers.

Promotional Element by Sales Cycle Table

Next Up

I will spend more time discussing how to project and measure customer acquisition rates and associated costs in future posts.

For more on this subject and other entrepreneurship topics, get a copy of Patterns of Entrepreneurship Management, 6th Edition.

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