The Life-Stage Marketing Opportunity

When my wife and I bought our house here in San Francisco (a nice little place — the only kind anyone can afford), we were greeted by our new neighbors and a few new marketers as well.

Is this today’s welcome wagon? Instead of a home-baked pie, we received visits in the form of mailers, brochures, and a few annoying phone calls. Like our neighbors, the marketers knew we’d arrived and wanted to establish a relationship. The most welcome of the group was Home Depot, which sent a coupon for 20 percent off our next purchase at its store. It made out like a bandit. We probably spent $600 there that day.

When you buy a house, the purchase becomes part of the public record. Anyone can access the information. I imagine what Home Depot and the rest do is once a month or so pull those records and do a coupon mass-mailing. It’s smart. We call events like buying a house, getting married, having a kid, or retiring “life-stage transitions.” They’re events we all go through. Savvy marketers have always kept an eye on them.

Life-stage transitions are important for marketers because they’re moments of brand reflection, brand consideration, and brand decision. You know the conventional wisdom that says marketers must target the young, because brand preference is established early in life? Narrow-minded thinking. Although some brand preferences are established in youth, it’s during life-stage transitions, which occur throughout life, that large chunks of brand decisions are made.

During these transitions, people think not only about what they need (diapers for a new baby) but also how they will be. They make decisions about quality and value; hardwood for the new kitchen floor, not cheaper, inferior-quality vinyl, for example.

Marketers should be concerned with life-stage transitions and embrace the Internet not only as a means of finding consumers experiencing transitions but also as the most natural medium to communicate with them.

Finding the Right People

It’s relatively easy to find new homeowners. What about new-home shoppers? When a house is purchased, information is publicly available. When a couple begins looking for a house, it’s registered only in their own minds. However, their behavior clearly reveals their intentions. A new-home shopper begins to look at mortgage calculators, real estate listings, perhaps contractor listings. An Internet connection invites exploring ideas before making a formal commitment to them.

I’ve written about contextual advertising, the practice of serving ads based on the sites a consumer surfs and the content of pages viewed. The theory is absolutely dead-on. It’s a significant, meaningful jump from that fiction called demographics. There are concerns people have with some of the implementations. However, contextual advertising provides us with precisely the tools marketers need to pinpoint people who are experiencing, or about to experience, a life-stage transition. If for no other reason, the ability to find consumers as they begin to telegraph short-term plans makes contextual advertising an extremely appealing opportunity.

Communicating the Right Way

One school of thought says people first make decisions about the type of life they want, then seek opportunities to experience and express that life. Someone decides he has or wants an artistic life. Then, he’ll look for gallery openings to attend. The Internet accelerates and amplifies the process by providing people with an ability to try on different lifestyles with little risk and virtually no commitment.

During a life-stage transition, this behavior is accelerated and amplified. Internet marketers should ensure their products and services are represented as attractive candidates during these critical try-on sessions.

For these consumers, everything is new. Brand names, product categories, price ranges… everything. The winning brands are the ones that seek to partner with consumers through a rapid-education process. The losers are the ones that try to take advantage of confusion to make a quick sale.

The winners partner with consumers by providing content: how things work, how they’re used, what the options are, and (maybe most important) what to do if things go wrong. No medium is better at providing this type of content than the Internet. Remember, the key to introducing a consumer to a new product is building an association: “like kitty litter for your new car.” If a life-stage-transitioning consumer learns something during the first few seconds she spends with your brand, congratulations. You won.

Winning counts. A person has four to six major life-stage transitions in a lifetime (plus a series of smaller ones). Each represents a new opportunity for a brand. The shot clock is reset to 24. Take the shot. And use the Internet as a key part of the communications strategy.

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