In marketing, there are different levels of buyer awareness or “marketing awareness stages.” They go from one end of the spectrum where buyers are unaware of the problem they’re experiencing (or one they will experience if they do nothing about it), to the other end where they are fully aware and intend to solve that problem.
It is critically important to know and understand this about your market so you may build awareness. You want to know their stage of awareness, educate them about the problem at that stage, address the problem based on their awareness, and take them to the next stage.
That’s why I created an acronym called OATH to help you remember. When you want to remember, think of it as, “How prepared is your market to take an oath?” OATH means the buyers are:
- Oblivious about the problem (i.e., they’re unaware).
- Apathetic about the problem (i.e., they’re aware but don’t care).
- Thinking about the problem (i.e., they’re considering solutions).
- Hurting (i.e., they want the problem solved).
I use mnemonics often. And since learning that I have ADHD and that it affects short-term memory, I now know why I love using acronyms and mnemonics so much. They’re tremendously useful tools.
The Origins of Awareness Stages
I came up with the acronym to help me remember when I got this idea after reading Eugene Schwartz’ magnum opus Breakthrough Advertising, a book in which he discusses the five levels of market sophistication. According to Schwartz, they are:
- The Claim
- Amplify The Claim
- The Mechanism
- Amplify The Mechanism
- Market Identification
Here’s a summary (also, this video explains it well).
At the first level, the consumer is completely unaware of the product. So when marketing to them, you’re going to make a claim. The second level is where your market is aware of your claim. But they’re also aware of your competitors, many of whom are making claims, too. So now you need to elevate and expand your claim.
At the third level, people are aware of both your claim and your competitors claims. So you need to more than just saying you’re better. You need to backup that claim, differentiate it, and make it stand out. You need to educate your market about your USP, which is your unique selling proposition or “unique mechanism” according to Schwartz. This is where you state your superiority.
Level four is where competitors are all doing the same, claiming their own USP or unique mechanism (likely by copying yours). So now your goal is to prove the superiority of your mechanism and elevate it. Finally, at the fifth level, everybody is doing the same thing. The market is by now saturated, skeptical, and jaded. Your goal is to identify with your market. It’s to connect and create relationships with them so they buy, remain loyal, and even evangelize for you.
Awareness vs Sophistication
These five levels are essentially the stages through which new products and services enter the market and become adopted. Schwartz focuses on a market’s level of sophistication because it’s based on uniqueness, and how sophisticated the market is about that uniqueness. The less unique you are, the less you will need to educate your market.
Market sophistication is product-centric. Most new, unknown, or previously unsought products and services are unique. How unique your product or service is will determine just how sophisticated your market will be from the start — and the work you have to do to communicate and educate that level of uniqueness.
But I prefer to be problem-centric than product-centric.
It’s also user-focused rather than market-focused.
Not to boast (well, maybe a little), but I created this formula back when I taught marketing management in college, circa 1999-2000. The concept of “marketing funnels” wasn’t as popular back then. I can’t take credit for the idea. Remember, Schwartz wrote about it in 1966. The AIDA formula (i.e., Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action) predates it when Elias Lewis first mentioned it in 1898.
A funnel is the various stages a market or user goes through to finally want to buy a product (or solve a problem). AIDA is about buyer awareness where sophistication is about market awareness. But they’re both essentially the same. So too is my OATH formula. It just looks at awareness levels from different perspectives.
Whether it’s marketing funnels, sales funnels, customer journeys, or sales pipelines, it’s all essentially the same, too. A funnel is breaking down the buying journey into distinct stages and moving the user through them. It doesn’t matter what you call them. (Sales funnels have more to do with the sales cycle and qualification process.)
In SEO and content marketing, the term “content funnel” is more popular. This is the term I prefer and will use from now on.
Funnelizing Awareness Stages
A funnel is based on five levels of awareness:
- Most unaware: completely unaware of the problem.
- Problem aware: aware of the problem but unaware of any solution.
- Solution aware: aware of solutions but considering nothing specific.
- Product aware: aware of a specific solution and considering it.
- Most aware: completely aware of the specific solution and wants it.
Today, the common marketing lingo, especially in SaaS circles, is “top of funnel” or TOFU (not the soybean curd kind), “middle of funnel” or MOFU, and “bottom of the funnel” or, you guessed it, BOFU. (I’m French-Canadian. “BOFU” sounds like a clown’s name to me.)
I like this top-to-bottom explanation because funnel sections often describe the types of content that will serve as catalysts throughout the buyer’s journey, taking them from one level to the next.
Before people enter the funnel, they are “out of funnel” or OOFU (I’m creative, I know). At this stage, they are oblivious, completely unaware of the problem. At TOFU, they are now problem aware and entering the funnel. As they go down to the middle, they become more aware of the problem and that solutions exist — or at the very least, they know they want to solve it somehow. They’re solution aware.
At MOFU, they are aware of solutions and perhaps your solution in particular. They enter deeper into the funnel where they become more product aware — aware of your solution, its benefits, and your unique value proposition. At BOFU, they are now fully aware of your product or service. They are closer to being ready to buy and completely aware of what they need to get to the next step, whether it’s reassurances or incentives, such as guarantees and/or promotions.
Your Content is an Awareness Creator
The goal of your content should be to take your audience from being completely unaware of the problem (i.e., they’re oblivious) to being fully aware of your specific solution (i.e., they’re hurting). To take them from unaware to aware. Sometimes, this journey is short and sweet. Other times, it’s a long, educational process.
What does this mean to you?
When you’re creating a content marketing strategy, remember that each piece should have a goal and a purpose. It should raise awareness and drive actions. These actions are not always purchase-driven. They can be taking someone to the next stage of awareness, such as offering a course, a newsletter, a white paper, or simply a link to another article that introduces them to your specific solution.
Here’s a look at content geared for each part of funnel.
OOFU: Content For The Oblivious User
This is content that invites your audience to come forward and enter your funnel. They want to know more about this potential problem they’re experiencing. Once they get there, if they’re not aware of the problem, it makes no sense to hit them over the head with your solution right away. They’re not hurting yet let alone want to solve it — better said, they’re not aware they need to solve it yet.
For example, take the hair restoration industry. If you want to target people with hairloss, then saying you’re the best surgeon with the best results, right out of the gate, will fall on deaf ears — only a handful might be interested if they’re already aware. But with the majority of people in your audience, you’re not sure if they’re interested in doing something about their hairloss. Neither do they.
Remember, hairloss is not the problem. The real problem is the drawbacks one personally feels from having lost their hair. When I wrote ads for hair transplant doctors, the best headlines were not the ones that said, “We offer the most advanced procedures” or “the most natural-looking results.” The best ones more often than not said, “Do you have hairloss?” Or better yet, “Suffering from hairloss?”
Articles about the causes of hairloss, the drawbacks of hairloss, and the benefits of treating it is a great way to attract targeted traffic. By answering some of the most common questions people search for, the content will get those interested in knowing about hairloss and doing something about it to “raise their hands,” come to the website, and ask for more information (i.e., to enter your funnel).
TOFU: Content For The Apathetic User
This is the content that piggybacks on the previous one mentioned earlier. By explaining the causes of hairloss, the drawbacks, and the benefits of doing something about it, it might explain all the potential solutions, the risks involved, the costs, the results, and what happens if the user were to ignore the problem. You can write an article such as:
- “10 reasons to consider hair restoration,”
- “7 factors that make you a candidate for surgery,”
- “The risks and costs of hair transplant procedures.”
Remember, hairloss is a problem but not the real problem. In this scenario, they’ve entered your funnel so they’ve admitted their hairloss bothers them. That’s the real problem, not hairloss. Or they may have considered doing something about it in the past but didn’t because of outdated procedures with less-than-desirable results. That may have amplified the problem and their apathy.
The content’s goal is to raise awareness, of course. But it’s to get them to care about it. It’s to take them to the next level where they’re aware your specific solution and why it’s different. For example, it may be more advanced, more natural-looking, less risky, faster healing, and more modern than the alternatives.
MOFU: Content For The Thinking User
Your content introduces your solution, makes them aware of the benefits, and motivates them to consider solving their problem with this solution. Users at this point are essentially thinking about doing something. So while they’re considering the solutions, the goal is to get them to think about your solution. Therefore, your content needs to point out what makes your solution the ideal solution for them.
Users who may already be aware may enter the funnel at this point. They don’t have to enter from the top — if they’re already sold on the idea of doing something about their problem (i.e., they have a little more sophistication), now is the chance to educate them on your solution and why it’s better than the alternatives.
This is your Schwartzian “unique mechanism.”
Following the example above, you can educate them about your hair transplant procedure, what makes it better than other forms of hair restoration on the market, what are the specific results it produces, and why those results are better. Some doctors I know use powerful microscopes to transplant follicles instead of traditional, unsightly plugs (i.e., clumps of hair). Therefore, this is where content can discuss this unique process and differentiate it from others.
BOFU: Content For The Hurting User
Users at this point in the funnel are sold on your solution. They know they’re hurting and they want to solve their problem — by the time they get to the bottom, they’re considering your solution. Your goal is to move them into action. You want to provide them with enough information to help them decide. It can be reassurances (e.g., case studies, social proof, ROI, etc). It can be incentives (e.g., promotion, discount, special deal, add-ons, financing options, etc).
For example, a hair transplant doctor can offer content that explains pricing, answers objections, discusses what to expect (such as healing and regrowth), shares before-and-after photos of other patients, offers financing options, and describes next steps — such as how to book the surgery and what the patient must do to prepare.
At this point in the funnel, the user is product aware, and the goal is take them from product aware to most aware. For example, they have hairloss and want to do something about it. They have considered all the possible solutions and decided on getting a hair transplant. Now they want to confirm if your solution and you as the provider of that solution) is the best choice to solve their problem.
A final point and a caveat.
In the end, remember that these are just some examples and not the example. Plus, these stages are not perfect. The lines between them often blur and overlap, and they’re not meant to fit people into neat little boxes or put labels on them. Awareness is a spectrum and users may happen to be anywhere. Moreover, they may fall on it anywhere, depending on how aware they already are.
A common question I get is, “Where does my client fit in?” Or, “What if [this] or [that] puts them in one category when they should be in another?” The thing to remember is, knowing your audience’s level of sophistication and the different marketing awareness stages they must go through does not mean you must define your audience according to one specific stage or to fit them neatly into one more than another.
It’s better to understand what content to write for each stage of awareness. With SEO, create content that answers the types of questions people at each stage in the funnel may be asking. That content will naturally attract traffic that will ask those same questions and want your answers.
So when creating your content strategy, understand what users need in terms of information to help them get to the next level and eventually solve their problem — and just give it to them.