How Consumer Buying Behaviour Can Skyrocket Your Sales
Virginia Woolf was one of the first authors to accurately describe the chaos of our minds. Before Woolf, storytellers gave us the impression that human thought was highly ordered and logical, when in fact, our thought processes are stuttered, repetitive, and jumbled up like a bowl of cognitive spaghetti. That’s why understanding human behaviour is so tough. But in the realm of business, it’s absolutely critical for marketers to understand the buying behaviours of their target market, known as their consumer buying behaviour. Like Woolf, they need to understand the way that people really think and behave, so they can service them more effectively.
In this article, we explore the concepts behind consumer buyer behaviour, and how you can get to grips with the behaviours of your target audience. This can help you to create superior marketing campaigns, produce better products and services, improve your customer service, boost retention and customer loyalty, predict future growth, and ultimately, increase the amount of money you make as a business.
What is consumer buying behaviour?
Consumer buying behaviour is how a person decides to purchase a product or service, and the actions they take throughout. It’s a complex psychological process that can include their attitudes and beliefs about the product, the reasons they want it, rationalisations that justify buying it (or not buying it), and the ultimate decision on whether to buy. Because all of this information is kept firmly inside a person’s brain, and much of it may not even be conscious to them, understanding their buying behaviour is tough.
But it’s not impossible. Software and machine learning tools have made things much easier, and by researching hard quantitative data alongside softer qualitative information, a consumer’s buying behaviour starts to become clear, and when you segment them into personas, you can predict their needs more accurately.
We can analyse consumer buying behaviour in three ways:
- Emotional—how they feel throughout the process. This could be a sense of longing for a designer handbag, concern about an energy provider’s environmental policies, or something else. We’re driven by emotion, so understanding a person’s emotional responses is crucial for predicting their future behaviour.
- Mental—their rational thoughts throughout the process. These are logical arguments for purchasing a product or service, with the purpose of finding something that best solves the problem. In reality, decisions are made from both an emotional and mental/rational standpoint. In fact, if we lose our emotional capabilities, which happened to a man who had a brain tumour removed, we can no longer make a choice at all.1 Pure reason leaves us completely stuck when it comes to making decisions.
- Behavioural—how they behave throughout the process. The actual things that the person does when deciding whether to purchase something. This includes the tools they use for research, the things they decide to read, their body language, reactions, and more.
In addition to these behaviour types, marketers should also have a good understanding of the basic buyer journey that a person goes through when buying a product or service, so that they can cater for them effectively. This varies depending on the type of consumer behaviour and the price of the product, but can be broken down into four basic stages, with the customer shifting back and forth when it suits them:
- Problem recognition. The person recognises that they want or need something, which becomes a “problem” they have to solve. This could be anything. They might be struggling to organise their daily tasks, their car’s window wipers might be falling apart, or they might be wondering whether their narcissism is getting in the way of their personal relationships. They recognise they have a problem, and they have a desire to solve it.
- Research. They research how to solve their problem. The person struggling with their tasks might Google “apps to help me organise my work.” The person with tattered wipers may visit their local Supercheap Auto and talk to a sales rep. The narcissist may chat to their friend who recently went through therapy. If the problem being solved is a complicated or expensive one, the person will likely seek out various sources of information.
- Evaluation. With the research gathered, the person has the info they need to evaluate their options. They may consider their choices against their particular needs, preferences, finances, and more.
- Purchase. If the person is satisfied that a certain product will solve their problem, and it fits their budget, they’ll purchase it.
The 4 types of customer buying behaviour
Customer buying behaviour can be narrowed down into four distinct types, each of which illustrate wildly different behaviours and customer journeys.
1. Complex buying behaviour
Complex buying behaviour is when a person is highly involved in the purchase decision, usually because they are buying something expensive like a house or car. It can also happen when there’s big differences between the products they are comparing for each brand.
During this behaviour, because the purchase is financially risky, the person will consider a variety of factors like features, cost, durability, usability, return on investment, and recommendations, and will compare them to similar options from different brands.
2. Dissonance-reducing buying behaviour
Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort someone experiences when they hold two conflicting beliefs. This is illustrated beautifully in the documentary Behind The Curve, when flat-earther Jeran Campanella carries out an experiment that disproves his own theory. As the cognitive dissonance takes hold, he looks upset, confused, and in denial, and when a person feels that way, they’d do anything to feel better again.
Dissonance-reducing buyer behaviour is when a person has these uncomfortable feelings while going through a purchase process. They want to get rid of those feelings by seeking out information that allows them to make a more informed decision, which can be particularly difficult if the products they’re considering are similar. As with complex buying behaviour, the person will likely continue researching until they are confident, at which point the dissonance dissolves.
3. Habitual buying behaviour
Habitual buying behaviour is when a person isn’t particularly involved in the buying process, and tends to buy the same product from the same brand. It’s common for cheaper, less complex items where familiarity with the product is high, and the difference between brands is low. This means that the purchase is low risk, so doesn’t require a lot of decision making. Common examples would be household items like food, cleaning products, and stationary, which are often purchased during a quick visit to the supermarket that requires little thought or deliberation.
4. Variety-seeking buying behaviour
As with habitual buying behaviour, variety-seeking buying behaviour also tends to occur for lower cost products. But in this instance, the consumer seeks variety rather than buying the same brand every time. It’s a more experimental form of buying, so requires a little more thought and consideration, but not enough to require much energy. Again, this type of behaviour tends to occur for regularly purchased items like groceries, and the “research” is often a glance at the labels of two competing products.
How to understand your customers’ buying behaviour
Customer buying behaviour is a sophisticated field of social science, and is also studied in fields like anthropology, psychology, sociology, and behavioural economics. But despite its complexity, it’s possible to build a more accurate profile of your target customers with basic research techniques, so that you can sell to them more effectively.
The goal of this research is to create detailed buyer personas that include not just their demographics, but also their wants, needs, goals, challenges, behaviours, and a whole lot more. The more thorough your research, the more vivid your personas, and the more accurately you’ll be able to predict and cater for their buying behaviour. Demographics like age and salary can only take you so far, and can even lead you up the proverbial garden path.2 Behaviour, on the other hand, is a much more accurate predictor of how someone will act in the future.
If you don’t already have them, we wrote an article on how to create buyer personas, so we recommend reading through that to learn the process. For this article, we’ll focus on the behaviours themselves, rather than the various factors that influence their behaviour.
Behaviours to research
These are the behaviours that can provide great insights into your customers’ buying habits, and so are good to include in your personas.
To research these behaviours, you can use a combination of qualitative methods like surveys, interviews, and focus groups, and quantitative methods like sourcing data from Google analytics, Google Search, HubSpot, and your website’s reporting tools.
Before the internet came along, product research consisted of reading adverts, talking to salespeople, and getting recommendations from our friends and family. With Google at our fingertips, we can complete extensive research on our own terms, without worrying about being hoodwinked by a sneaky salesperson.
Your customers can browse your webpages, read your blogs, look at your adverts, check out your customer reviews, watch your YouTube channel, read your social posts…the list goes on. Knowing the research methods your customers use when buying products in your industry will allow you to focus your resources on them. If they spend a lot of time reading through your website, hire a copywriter to make the writing incredible. If they were recommended by a friend, reward your loyal customers to encourage even more recommendations.
What search queries do people use when finding your products or services? These are known as transactional keywords (because they can lead to a profitable transaction), and so are crucial for you to understand. If your SEO game is strong, your entire website should be built around your transactional keywords, with its structure and content based on them.
When it comes to your individual personas, some people may use different keywords to others when searching for your products. So you’ll need to learn the most common keyword phrases for each persona.
How a person uses a product, how often they use it, and how long they use it can help you to identify your most valuable customer segments, who you can shift your focus towards. On the other hand, if there’s personas who don’t seem to get much value from a product or service, they’re unlikely to become loyal advocates, so may be worth less attention.
We discussed the common buyer journey stages earlier, which you can fill in with the person’s behaviours during each stage. For example, a typical customer might do the following on their journey:
- Find your product through Google
- Look at your customer reviews
- Find a competitor’s product through Google
- Compare your product with your competitors
- Ask their friends whether they use your products
- Make an enquiry about both your product, and your competitors
Every customer is different, but with enough information, you should be able to start recognising common patterns in their behaviour, which add depth to the buyer stages they move through, and refine your personas.
Types of content
Some people like to read articles, others prefer watching videos. Some love quick-consumption infographics, others like delving into a 20-page white paper that talks about the specifics of an issue. Knowing the types of content your target audience likes to consume will allow you to allocate your resources in the right areas, and produce content that gets much more engagement.
Content can be an incredibly powerful selling tool. Produce enough of it, and in the right formats for your audience, you can see immense long-term growth.
Preferred product categories
If you run an e-commerce business with predefined product categories, which categories do your personas prefer? This information allows you to promote the right categories to the right audiences, whether through adverts or other forms of content. You could also focus product development in these areas if certain categories outperform others.
While beliefs aren’t technically a behaviour, it’s worth talking about them because of their strong influence buying decisions. Beliefs are considered a key influencer on consumer behaviour—an insight directly from behavioural science.3
A person who has recently started watching animal rights documentaries and is tumbling down a rabbit hole of Netflix suggestions may not want to purchase meat anytime soon, and may reduce their meat consumption despite previously buying a ton of it. An American Trump supporter probably isn’t going to be interested in a new book on the urgency of climate change, and will ignore adverts that promote it. A person who abhors violence in every form won’t want to watch the latest bloodthirsty Quentin Tarantino movie.
Our beliefs guide our actions, including how we decide to buy things. So it’s important to get a basic understanding of people’s beliefs. Which religion do they follow, if any? What’s their political affiliation? Which types of books do they read? The more you know about your persona’s beliefs, the better you can predict and meet their needs.
We also hold beliefs about products and services themselves. A person may be a staunch petrol-head who openly scorns electric vehicles, until his buddy puts him behind the wheel of his new Tesla, and he feels its power. Beliefs are notoriously hard to change (try convincing an anti-vaxxer to get a COVID vaccine), but we can be surprised and delighted by certain products, and if that’s the case, we can happily change our old beliefs. We may even become advocates for the product.
Consumer buying behaviour—summary
When you’re trying to meet the needs of your target audience, their demographics can only take you so far. To really understand what they want and need, and how they go about getting them, you’ll need to delve into consumer buying behaviour. By carrying out a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research techniques, and gathering behavioural information like research methods, content types, and beliefs, you can beef up your marketing, improve your customer support, and deliver better products and services. This can do wonderful things for the growth of your business.
- Drake Baer, 2016, How Only Being Able to Use Logic to Make Decisions Destroyed a Man's Life, The Cut
- Aaron Raddon, 2020, Believe It Or Not, Belief Systems Drive Our Buying Behavior, Forbes
- Tamara Charm, Ravi Dhar, Stacey Haas, Jennie Liu, Nathan Novemsky, Warren Teichner, 2020, Understanding and shaping consumer behavior in the next normal | McKinsey, McKinsey & Company