Let’s start with a familiar, even obvious idea: marketing won’t work unless you know your audience.
Marketers have all kinds of useful tools for “knowing their audience.” One easy example is demographic data; it’s always helpful to have details like the age range, geographic distribution, and gender breakdown of your customers. Another easy example is (any version of) a customer avatar, which might add rounding details like your audience’s preferred work publications or their favorite pieces of pop-cultural canon.
All well and good. But for this series, we’re focused on one specific question about your audience:
Are you trying to communicate to the Buyers or the Consumers?
Let’s oversimplify a bit and say that marketing audiences only have two kinds of people in them:
💰 Buyers are the people who make purchasing decisions. Buyers do want to solve problems (or they wouldn’t spend the money at all), but their primary concern is value; they want to make sure that the purchase is cost-effective and competitively priced.
🛠 Consumers are the people who actually use the purchased item. Consumers care about utility and efficacy; they want things that actually work and that help them “get somewhere.” Price is a secondary (if not irrelevant) concern for Consumers as long as they don’t feel ripped off.
Buyers and Consumers aren’t exclusive groups—some people will be both at the same time—but they’re still very different roles, and the difference matters for defining a marketing audience effectively.
A common marketing mistake is failure to (sufficiently and specifically) address the Buyer.
We all know that, at the end of the day, Buyers are the real butterers of marketing bread. You’re literally out of business without Buyers, so “failure to address the Buyer” might seem like a rookie mistake. Yet this mistake is surprisingly easy to make—especially when your mental image of the audience glosses over this Buyer/Consumer distinction.
Just because people want to consume something doesn’t mean they want to buy it. It’s not enough to tout virtues and features for the Consumer; you also have to present your offer knowing that the Buyer is, whether literally or figuratively, a second person who needs their own convincing.
One final caution for today…
Tools like demographic data and customer avatars are helpful for knowing the audience, largely because they afford us the useful image of a single “average” customer. But all too often, defining that average customer creates the illusion of a monolithic audience in which everyone is average and everyone has equal potential to buy.
In some ways, this simplification is necessary to keep the analytics from overwhelming us—but it also ignores the division of roles that many of your prospects have to navigate in reality before they can become customers.
Buyer and Consumer as Separate Parties
It might not be obvious that Buyer and Consumer are separate people. People play both roles in many of their mundane everyday purchases. Imagine yourself at the store; if you get to choose what you buy AND you’re the person who will consume it, you’re playing both roles.
But review the items you’ve purchased lately and you might see numerous ways that Buyer and Consumer quietly diverge. To name two:
👥 Single Buyer, Multiple Consumers. You (ostensibly) wouldn’t buy dog toys and dog treats unless you had a dog to consume them. Either way, let’s be honest: a company like Barkbox knows that (A) only the hoo-mans can be Buyers and (B) the hoo-mans will buy more if, in their amusement, they become Consumers in their own right.
🛒 Buyer Shops on Consumer’s Behalf. The genius of Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign was to make exactly this distinction between Buyers and Consumers while looking the Buyers in the eye.
The ads banked upon the sturdier elements of the Domesticated Male trope: he wants his deodorant to smell good, but more to the point, his lady wants the same and (historically) she’s likelier to do the shopping. So the ads addressed her, not him.
Side Note: Old Spice’s pseudo-aggressive campaign with Terry Crews was meant to appeal more directly to men—to, essentially, get in their faces—as a contrast to Isaiah Mustafa’s suave charm.
Even if you know that your Buyers and Consumers are separate people, you might not be addressing them as such. If you know your Buyers and Consumers are separate, there’s a good chance you’re deep in B2B; perhaps you’re one of those marketers with a good thing to sell, but it’s complex or niche or expensive or it has a long sales cycle or something like that.
The more this describes you, the more you need to have a sense of the dynamic between Buyers and Consumers in your market—and the more you’ll need to facilitate between them to maximize your conversions.
You’re not trying to put yourself in the middle of everyone’s daily business. Like any good marketer, you’re just trying to equip both roles with the information they need to make their own informed, win-win-win decisions.
Twilio is a good example here. Twilio is an API company; you could say they’re a SaaS company for SaaS companies (their platform allows other developers to integrate phone calls and text messaging into web apps).
At first, Twilio struggled to scale because, while their prospective Consumers (developers) knew Twilio and knew its value, prospective Buyers didn’t understand what the bleep Twilio was talking about.
Twilio’s marketing solution boiled down to three words of copy: Ask Your Developer. Most famously, they put those three words and their branding on a well-placed billboard in San Francisco; the ad started conversations within many of Twilio’s target companies which brought Buyers and Consumers into alignment. Twilio has done well ever since.
Customers Playing Both Roles
Sometimes, Buyer and Consumer are two separate people, like a manager and a developer working for the same company. But in a lot of cases—especially in one’s own personal shopping—a person will play both roles at the same time, and that’s the dynamic we’re examining today. (We’ll use the term Hybrid for a person playing both roles at once.)
Hybrid shoppers have a Jekyll-and-Hyde problem. All of us know the “tug-of-war” feeling between our shopping personalities. On one hand, we’re thrifty, resourceful, mature adults who hate waste—but on the other hand, we like what we like and more is better. When we play both roles, we usually compromise between them; the final purchase is neither spartan nor extravagant. With us so far?
Three things to notice:
1️⃣ This process of compromise never ends. Sure, it’s faster for familiar purchases like groceries, but it still happens every time you shop—and for unfamiliar purchases (whose compromises are new to us), our brains usually allow marketing to have the first word.
2️⃣ Both sides of the Hybrid brain are fishing for reasons. Your brain already knows that shopping is subjective, that people choose different things for different reasons… but what are your reasons? This internal compromise never ends because our brains want a conviction that isn’t possible until we’ve argued with ourselves a bit.
3️⃣ Hybrids’ purchase choices can “win decisions” in a variety of ways. Without claiming to cover all such possibilities:
The Spartan: The item does what I need for the lowest possible price. (Buyer is thrilled; Consumer is sated but unsatisfied.)
The Traveler: I don’t love the item, but I didn’t overpay and it’ll work fine until I get something else. (Buyer and Consumer are both ambivalent.)
The Goldilocks: The item’s balance of value and utility is juuuuuuust right. (Buyer and Consumer are both satisfied.)
The Opportunist: The item wasn’t “cheap,” but I got an unusually good value for my money. (Buyer is ambivalent; Consumer is thrilled.)
The Hedonist: The item definitely wasn’t cheap, and it probably wasn’t the best value, but holy crap it’s my favorite thing in the world. (Buyer is anxious; Consumer is over the moon, at least temporarily.)
The Unicorn: Somehow, the item manages to be the cheapest option AND my favorite option. Today is a good day.
The Grieving Walter: $180 for an urn? JUST ‘CAUSE WE’RE BEREAVED DOESN’T MAKE US SAPS! (Is there a Ralph’s around here?)
Two parting thoughts:
👥 Always address both Buyer and Consumer, even if they’re the same person. Whatever you sell, they need to want it AND to justify its purchase.
💭 Enter the conversations already happening in people’s heads. Whatever you sell, imagine it on a store shelf in front of you. If you’re a member of the target market, what debates are popping up in your head—and (in those debates) what are the strongest reasons someone would decide to buy?