By Anthony Power published June 25, 2010

How to Develop Content Based on A Need Stage

There has been lots of good discussion about the role of content and the “sales funnel.” For instance, Robert Rose had a two-part  series on segmenting based on personas and lead stage. There are also good arguments to flip or even forget the funnel. Seth Godin and Joseph Jaffee have written books on the topic and Rahel Bailie had a post this week on how you need to think beyond the traditional sales process.

This post offers an alternative view on segmenting prospects based on their state of need at a given point in time. A fresh perspective might help for a couple of reasons:

  • The majority of people aren’t in the buying mood right now. In the B2B world, it is estimated that 90% of companies aren’t actually in a buying cycle when we first contact them. (Source: Selling is Dead)
  • While the funnel is perfectly logical and rational, it lacks an emotional component. And without satisfying an emotional need, we can’t decide so we don’t buy. (Source: How We Decide)
  • While the idea of moving through a funnel, even a leaky one, might resonate in a sales and marketing class it is not how we tend to view ourselves. We simply don’t like to be manipulated.
  • Even if we accept the funnel, the reality is that we would actually be in a set of parallel-funnels, one for each product or service in the consideration set.

At the center of each of the previous points is the notion that the prospect is the center of the universe, not the company. So rather than our sales funnel, let’s look at their state of the prospect’s mind to shed some light on content development and delivery.

Taking a page from medicine, at any point in time an individual with a need may be described as being in one of several states.

  • Acute: those looking for immediate relief. The ‘buy’ decision has been made; it is simply a matter of selecting the best option. Content should focus on ease, convenience and satisfaction. Personal recommendations, whether thru first hand experience, or “I’ve heard good things” work well because they create a short cut to a purchase decision.
  • Chronic: those who know they have a need and should seek relief but haven’t yet acted. Buying a product simply isn’t a priority yet. Content should focus on empathy and the benefits of the future state in order to elevate the situation to one of action.
  • Latent: those with a potentially invisible need or only expressing curiosity. Content should focus on building awareness and a sense of familiarity and competence.

Depending on the industry and market, it is possible that the same content can be crafted differently to satisfy the three types of demand. For example, in B2B marketing there should be three versions of a white paper, each with its own marketing approach:

  • Acute – focus on implementation steps, checklists, and testimonials to convey a sense of ease and low risk. Since the prospect is actively seeking solutions tie this content to search and other inbound marketing tactics.
  • Chronic – focus on emotional benefits and justification for funding a project. Since prospects are aware of the issue and are often marshaling resources to get the project approved, create and deliver content that reflects the social nature of the buying team.
  • Latent – focus on thought leadership and expertise. Since prospect are only slightly interested in a solution today, tie content to air cover and broad sponsorship opportunities to establish a position in their minds for when they’re ready.

For a fresh perspective at content and the sales funnel, try imagining the prospects’ needs based on their point of view and what stage of demand they are currently in. Hopefully, you’ll find some new and interesting ways to help them choose.

Author: Anthony Power

Anthony Power is a principal in Flyiron, a marketing services firm geared to helping educational institutions and B2B technology firms develop solutions that help prospects choose one solution over another. Follow him on Twitter @apowerpoint, his blog at Power Points and on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Anthony Power

  • AchintaMitra


    I really like your medical analogy to explain the three stages and how you've put the focus on the prospects' needs.

    I agree with your suggestion of creating three versions of a white paper. Do we serve up all three versions and let the user choose? Do users recognize their needs stage and download the appropriate the version? The difficulty I see for content marketers is determining what is appropriate unless we can track and measure other interactions and behaviors to get a handle on the prospect's stage on the buying cycle.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding a fresh perspective.

  • Anthony Power

    Thanx for your comments. Agree with you that we need to know who does what. In this scenario I'd host and distribute all three versions letting 'self-selection' guide the appropriate follow-up. Since the B2B buying process is simply a social network in disguise, pass along value and recommendations are important. The objective is to find common ground for a discussion.

  • Marino Fadda

    Medical analogy is very interesting and ingenious.
    I think that it's possible to consider the customer's buying process and to see the correlation between steps in a prospect's buying process and the sales effort togheter with tactics that might be of interest at each stage.

  • ALPHA Marketing

    No need to re-invent the wheel here — content based on need stage fits perfectly within the findings of McKinsey & Co. . To summarize, the sales funnel as a linear process no longer reflects the consumer purchase journey. There needs to be content that triggers interest, content geared towards those actively in the market to purchase, content surrounding the moment of purchase, and content post-purchase that will keep the purchaser loyal — which by the way simply means they would consider purchasing the product again.

  • globalcopywrite

    Hi Anthony,

    I, too, appreciate the medical analogy you used in this post. It's definitely an accurate reflection of how I view prospects even though I hadn't thought of it in these terms.

    I'm having difficulty with your recommendation to develop 3 different white papers – or any content – to address each type of demand. In my own business, and that of my clients, getting one paper out the door tends to be a significant undertaking. If I were to suggest 3 different versions of the same white paper, I don't think I would get many takers.

    I often use the same white paper for all three groups. How it gets delivered to them is a different story. The latent group will often pick it up off my website. The chronic group finds out about it at conferences and places where I'm speaking. The acute group receive it as part of my active sales cycle. Do you think a well-crafted white paper can address all 3 areas as long as you're prepared to distribute it in multiple ways?

    I don't disagree with what you're saying in theory. In practice, I think it's a difficult ask especially for SMEs.

    Thanks for giving me something to ponder today.

  • Anthony Power

    You're welcome on the 'something to ponder' point. As you note, creating content isn't as easy as we sometimes make it out to be. Rather than separate pieces, one with the three distinct types or styles of content could work well. The distribution channel could emphasize or lead with one message or another.

  • Anthony Power

    Thanx for the link to the McKinsey piece.

  • Laurie Dunlop

    In addition to White Papers, do you suggest the same for website content? For example, should a web page address the three prospects separately, or incorporate a “something for everybody” mixture of options on the page through calls to action, links, segments, etc.?

  • Anthony Power

    Laurie – in a word 'yes' – all content should be approached from the perspective of the consumer, for they decide what content is relevant. Whether it is the home page or easily found sub page is a matter of usability and the product/category. Example: for a home exterminator someone in the acute (“I see roaches in my kitchen”) stage makes a decision very rapidly and needs all the information necessary to make it. Someone in the chronic (“I'm buying a house in Houston”) stage has different information needs. These two chunks of content can probably be provided succinctly on one page – credibility improves the odds of contact. If not, make it absolutely clear which path they should take. (see Tim Ash's “Landing Page Optimization” for a discussion of this.)

    The other question is 'tone and manner' – we often try to ensure content has the same feel and style throughout. This may not always be appropriate for people looking for solutions now (or soon) and those simply looking to understand. Continuing the exterminator example, is an example of content targeting the latent segment. This site, sponsored by the industry association, allows for co-marketing and sponsorship opportunities thus focusing on air cover and awareness.

  • Jody Pellerin

    Exactly what I needed! I have been following Ardath Albee's excellent advice in her book “eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale” and this adds a valuable component.