The Curmudgeon’s Hierarchy of Net Needs

If you took a psychology class as an undergraduate, then you may remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Abraham Maslow wrote that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs and that certain lower needs need to be satisfied before higher needs can be. For example, the most basic physiological needs — for food, water, and sleep — have to be met before the subject seeks to get the need for safety met.

These needs and their position in the hierarchy are often illustrated by a pyramid, with the base representing the basic needs and the top representing the highest needs:

I think a similar hierarchy of needs exists for Internet users, one that relates to adoption rates. To use the same pyramid illustration, technologies and applications at the base of the pyramid have the deepest penetration into the user base, while technologies at the top of the pyramid are the technologies used by the fewest number of people.

How is this important for email marketing? Because items at the bottom of the pyramid are accepted faster, understood with minimal friction, and simply used more often, products that use bottom-of-pyramid technologies or applications are likely to be adopted by a greater number of people. So if you’re using email to market such a product, your efforts are more likely to be successful. By the same token, if your email marketing efforts are being made on behalf of something that makes use of more complex and less widely used technologies or applications, they may be met with resistance and possibly rejection.

The dot-com failures of 2001 point to the fact that there are certain applications and processes that work well online and provide a lot of value to the customer, while other applications and processes simply do not work with current technologies.

And attempts to further cram these ideas into people’s heads will be futile.

Let’s go over the basic-needs hierarchy for the average Internet consumer.

Level 1. The hierarchy starts with the applications that are critical for just about everyone. People get on the Internet just to use these services and nothing else. They adopt the tools and skills required to use these tools before they do anything else on the Internet. This is the largest market, and most email marketing campaigns must, at a minimum, please these people. If you can attract and retain this audience, you have an excellent chance for success. These are also the people that virally spread your marketing message.

Level 2. This level has applications and systems that offer “known” quantities. That is, people who use these applications know what to expect. They order music, books, and certain electronic gadgets that have been highly recommended (e.g., PalmPilots). Once users successfully buy online with a credit card for the first time, they continue to do so. So it is very important to communicate that your system is safe for transactions and clearly outline how credit cards are processed and whether you keep credit card numbers in your system. (Hint: You shouldn’t!) When people are comfortable at this level, they are ready to venture to e-commerce Web sites that offer convenience and the chance to save money.

Level 3. Here we find online business applications as well as consumer-to-consumer applications like auctions and online exchanges. Half.com and Keen.com, as well as personal Web site portals like Tripod and GeoCities, are excellent examples of consumers getting involved as e-commerce participants. Instead of looking to companies to service their needs, they look to other consumers to do so. Only the most innovative business models fit the needs of customers at this level; online business applications that facilitate collaboration between individuals fall into this category.

When customers start getting involved and becoming product champions of your system, you have a customer for life. It’s difficult to reach this level in the hierarchy but worth the effort. Email marketers should strive to have all their customers reach this level in the Curmudgeon’s Hierarchy of Net Needs.

Level 4. When all consumers have reached this level, a digital economy will truly exist. This is where consumers have the utmost trust in the online experience. The customer is comfortable making transactions on items that are “unknown” quantities. This is usually where the price point of the transactions rises much higher; at this level, items like automobiles, furniture, and even homes can be sold successfully online. If you’re using email to market to this group, referrals from other consumers and try-before-you-buy programs will help assure consumers that they will be making the right choice.

Think of the Hierarchy of Net Needs as a way to shape a marketing plan so that customers at the different levels are having their needs met throughout the customer/vendor life cycle, and a clear way exists for your customers to progress from one level to the next. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments.

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