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Using The Hierarchy of Effects Model For Marketing

Learn about the hierarchy of effects theory and how to use the model to structure your marketing campaigns

Picture this: You’re struck with a brilliant idea for a sales campaign for your small business. 

But it takes time to turn this idea into a reality. From managing costs to creating the right messaging and determining the best marketing channels, there is a lot of groundwork to be laid first. 

Campaign planning frameworks, like the hierarchy of effects theory, ensure you don’t miss out on essential elements while keeping your messaging relevant for your target audience. Let’s explore this theory and how to use it to maximize your advertising effectiveness.

What is the hierarchy of effects theory?

Today, people typically first encounter your brand online—whether it’s through a search engine or a social media platform like Instagram. As a result, customer journey maps and the buyer’s journey have become 2 go-to tools for digital marketers.

However, before the digital age, marketers relied on other tools. In the 1960s, when people were more likely to encounter brands on TV, on the radio, or in print, American marketers Robert J. Lavidge and Gary A. Steiner developed the hierarchy of effects theory. It’s a marketing communication model to study how successful advertising influences a consumer’s choice.

Using a mix of marketing and advertising, brands guide the consumer through 6 sequential stages of increasing familiarity and the desire to take action: awareness, knowledge, liking, preference, conviction, and purchase.

How does the hierarchy of effects theory help businesses attract potential customers?

It’s difficult to remember a new brand after a single ad. Likewise, people need to be exposed to your brand multiple times just to build a connection with it, and we’re not even talking about purchase decisions yet!

Other marketing principles—like the marketing rule of 7—follow a similar approach, where you need multiple ways to get prospective customers interested in your brand.

However, this principle doesn’t tell you how to structure and vary your messages for maximum impact, which is where the hierarchy of effects theory takes things a step further. Here’s how it can benefit your marketing campaigns.

Craft marketing messages that leave a lasting impression on your potential customers

What your audience finds convincing can change depending on where they are in their purchase journey. For example, a person comparing 2 brands to see which she prefers would find customer reviews and product demos more persuasive than someone encountering a brand for the first time.

The hierarchy of effects theory can help you identify the stage your target audience is at and craft messages that directly address their needs. This increases the chances that potential customers will make a purchase.

Get clarity on your marketing strategy

There are many elements that go into a marketing plan, such as identifying the target audience, setting advertising message objectives, and creating your value proposition.

Think of the hierarchy of effects framework as the blueprint to give your marketing plan a clear direction. Aim to create marketing messages that lead your potential customers through all 6 stages and end successfully in a purchase.

Using the hierarchy of effects model, map consumer behavior stages to questions you need to answer in your marketing that will lead them to the next stage, such as:

Awareness: What idea do I want to associate with my brand?

Knowledge: What information do I need to provide to give my target audience confidence in my product?

Liking: How do I want my target consumer to feel when they see my marketing?

Preferences: How can I encourage consumers to choose my brand over others?

Conviction: Are there any common pre-purchase hesitations I can address in my messaging?

Purchase: How can I ensure a straightforward purchase experience?

Ensure your messaging is consistent across multiple channels 

According to McKinsey, B2B customer journeys now involve 10 or more marketing channels over 3 engagement modes (in person, remote, and self-service).

That’s a lot of channels to plan content and strategy for. Frameworks like the hierarchy of effects theory can help keep communication consistent by setting a specific objective for your marketing messages at each stage of the consumer decision-making process.

Stage 1: Cognitive stage

At this initial stage, consumers are encountering the brand and product for the first time, so focusing on education is key. Consider what you’d like your target audience to learn or know about your brand after they’ve seen your marketing messages.

1. Awareness (What is it?)

Similar to the awareness stage in your customer journey map, your messages here should aim to ensure people know your brand exists and how it solves a problem your target audience is facing.

For example, before its launch, Dropbox created a step-by-step demo of its seamless file synchronization capabilities targeted at a niche community of technology early adopters. Narrated by its CEO, this seemingly personal tutorial drove beta signups with specific community in-jokes and its ease of use.

2. Knowledge (What about it?)

So, you’ve gotten your potential customer’s attention. Here, they’ll start researching your brand and how well your product meets their needs, so focus on providing key information about your brand and product.

Examples of informative messaging include:

  • Product features
  • Educational content
  • Company history and track record
  • Endorsements by trusted external sources

Stage 2: Affective stage

People buy more from brands who share their values, and at this stage, you’re looking to form a deeper, more authentic connection with your customers by appealing to their emotions.

3. Liking (I like it) 

Here, you’ll want to appeal to emotions and your target consumer’s values to help them reach the final stage.

Ask yourself what emotional response you want to evoke with your marketing. Is it joy? Serenity? Admiration? You might be surprised by the many emotions you can induce in others. Check out Plutchik’s wheel of emotion if you need more inspiration.

For an example that brilliantly deploys emotional marketing, insurance company Thai Life Insurance is known for its engaging ads that help people form authentic connections with the brand.

4. Preferences (I prefer this)

By now, consumers will have a detailed understanding of your brand. They’ll then start comparing your brand and product with your competition to choose the one they prefer.

Here, it’s important to differentiate yourself with storytelling. You can even be tongue-in-cheek about it! In the 1960s, Avis’s We Try Harder campaign was based on the fact that they were trailing behind market leader Hertz. The ad campaign playfully emphasized Avis’s superior customer service and underdog status as unique selling points against Hertz, which helped narrow the market share gap between the two.

Emphasize your brand and product’s unique selling points to convince potential customers to go with you. Maybe you deliver your service differently, have a unique brand personality, or source your materials more ethically than your competitors.

Stage 3: Decision-making stage

Aim to close the deal at this final stage by encouraging a prospective customer to purchase or sign up for your service.

5. Conviction (I think I’ll buy it)

Your customer is almost sure they will buy from you, but some doubts may remain. Use a free trial offer or give free samples, a money-back guarantee, or a demo to let your potential customer try the product for themselves before making their final decision.

6. Purchase (I’m buying it)

Your customer’s ready to buy, so your focus should be on making the purchase experience as straightforward as possible.

For example, e-commerce brands could gain $18 billion in yearly sales revenue just by fixing shopping cart issues. So, it’s super important to spot checkout problems and sort them out quickly, especially if you’re selling online.

Does the hierarchy of effects model still hold up today?

Since the hierarchy of effects model was conceptualized in 1961, the media landscape and how people engage with brands have changed dramatically. Will the hierarchy of effects model be useful for your business? Here are some points to consider.

It may oversimplify customer decision-making

The hierarchy of effects model assumes customers behave neatly and sequentially from awareness to purchase.

However, customer journeys today are nonlinear and involve many people, especially if you sell to businesses. The model also does not reflect decision-making factors such as cultural background, risk tolerance, and financial resources.

It only accounts for traditional advertising’s effect on consumer decisions

The internet has given people a lot more agency in how they research, discover, and buy products or interact with brands. Consider that Lavidge and Steiner developed the hierarchy of effects model when brands primarily communicated through TV, print, and radio advertising.

Take buying a new phone for instance. A survey found that, before purchasing a new phone, consumers researched online, asked friends and family, consulted reviews, and/or spoke to a sales executive directly. The hierarchy of effects model doesn’t account for these methods.

Hierarchy of effects: a classic marketing framework that remains relevant

If you’re unsure how to bring a marketing idea to life, the hierarchy of effects model can help give your ideas structure. Instead of relying on this framework alone, it’s best supported with customer research to learn specifically how your audience behaves, what issues they encounter, and the messaging they resonate with.

That way, you can use the framework as a foundation for marketing strategy planning, while ensuring your strategy remains relevant for your target audience and marketing channels. It’s definitely an approach that will improve your marketing results!

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