The 4 Layers of Decision Making: How to Become a Pressing Need

Marketers are in the business of belief formation and behavior modification. 

Great content has to spur some sort of action, whether that’s to pay attention, to consume, to follow, to request admittance, to take a call, or to hit the buy button. The desired action depends upon where in the lifecycle you’re focused. But, fundamentally, your content must shape how your audience thinks about you, your product, and the problem at hand. This process of teaching audiences how to think (about their relationship to those things) has to be for their highest benefit, and yours too. Artificial or manufactured marketing won’t last long term. 

In order to set the stage for real transformation, we have to understand the psychology of decision-making.

There’s essentially four concentric layers of our awareness that govern how we make decisions. Those are: “periphery,” “preference,” “priority” and “pressing.” Inspiring action means making marketing that’s geared to systematically slice through each of these levels both on a macro and individual level, simultaneously. 

The four levels of human decision-making that lead to a choice to take action.

On the outermost level, you have the Periphery. At the beginning of this stage, we’re just becoming aware of something, but it’s on the fringes so we don’t yet have an opinion about it.

After that comes the Preference layer. Here, we might like to do something or we’d rather have something than not have it or we plan on getting around to it in due time, but it’s still existential. We’re still thinking, evaluating, or focusing on other things more top-of-mind.

One layer inward, you have the Priority circle. This is where we know we desire something and have narrowed down options from preferences to favorites. Most marketers stop at this phase assuming there’s nothing more they can do other than keep hounding prospects with the same tired tactics and generic outreach templates they’ve always used. The truth is that most people are drowning in a sea of options, alternatives, and to-dos hurdling at them from every direction. Real priorities carry real pressure. There’s an art to tactfully manufacturing a little pressure in a personalized way, which I’ll explain momentarily. But the important thing to recognize here is that most people operate within a world of constant change and chaos where priorities shift daily—and most just don’t care about you or your product (yet), at least no more than the next task on their list or the dozen other vendors in their inbox.

So the final layer of the psyche to penetrate to catalyze decisive action is to become a Pressing need. People only take immediate action once something is truly pressing. Typically, that means the thing has to be intrinsically connected with individual psychological drivers.

It’s similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization) but applied to decisioning instead of life, in general. The hard part about tapping into this framework isn’t knowing which level of the pyramid your product solves for; it’s figuring out which level each individual is currently at and being able to alter how you frame your value proposition for them . . . in real-time.

Getting as granular as true one-to-one is the only way to cut through the layers to the core, and that process can never be automated or achieved with AI. Why? This kind of work requires a contextual awareness of an individual’s “current state,” often requiring continuous weeks-long dialogue to connect the dots from where someone is to where they want to go—predicated on their underlying “why” which they’re not telling you up-front. Painting that roadmap for prospects, ideally along their side, is the only way to build the necessary rapport to sell any high-involvement or big-ticket product. However, this formula is universal, so it will work no matter what you sell—whether thousand-dollar services or one-off products in an e-commerce store. Let’s take a closer look.

Breaking Down the 4 P’s 

Let’s talk about how these four levels work together, what consumers generally need at each, plus the kind of marketing that dissolves the barrier at the respective tiers. 

#1: Periphery

At the early periphery, there’s no incentive to act because we can’t take action on something we don’t know exists. At this point, marketing is meant only to gain mindshare. This is achieved through consistent deployment of content (hence, the purpose of running a content hub), topic repetition, and zigging when everyone else zags (differentiation). The goal at this juncture is to capture and keep attention—driving views, follows and subscribes so you can communicate with your list and present them with information that’s geared to move them progressively closer toward the next phase. 

The hard sell is often difficult here. People are only becoming marginally aware of a brand at this point, and cold outreach will generally run up against a wall since trust hasn’t been earned or established yet. 

This is where mass messaging actually makes most sense (we’re at the Discovery phase of the Continuum). Broad content dissemination is technically mass marketing since it’s one-to-many. As you build your public domain audience, content is really just a conduit to let your market know you exist and attract a portion of them inward. At this stage, it’s important to empower people to make the decision to follow you. This is why I advocate for using social media to generate followers and requests to your private group but not necessarily (or solely) for prospecting. This is why the hit rate for cold messaging on social media is generally so low. There’s no brand equity in place—it’s like a stranger coming up to you on the street and proposing for marriage out-of-the-blue. Chances are, you’d be confused! You’d probably tell them to leave you alone then continue on your way, wondering what they were smoking. That’s how most people feel when they get cold pitched on social media! “Who the f*** are you,” they think. “Go away!” Delete.

So if you’re doing cold outreach or running ad campaigns across social media, instead of sneakily pitching your product, drop an invitation of some sort—to subscribe to your newsletter, to follow you, to attend an upcoming webinar, to hop in your group, or at the very least to check out your profile and let you know if they think you can help them. All of these options put the ball in their court where they must proactively decide to take the next step. You’re not pushing or prying or even asking; you’re inviting and including. 

The point is, you’re simply commanding attention, driving toward your ecosystem, then converting that acquired attention into affinity where people start to gradually get to know you, like you and trust you. With time, this prompts a shift into the next level of our matrix: the Preference layer. 

#2: Preference

At this stage, a portion of your total addressable market (TAM) will follow you and know what you do. But, even though you control a tiny slice of their attention, the internal incentive probably isn’t strong enough to spur action just yet. 

At this level, ideally, we’re not cold messaging either. We still have to convey our ability to solve the need that may or may not be evident. This is the point at which you must deploy content that alerts your audience about the imminent threat at their doorstep. Sometimes you’ll hear marketers refer to the “problem” their product solves. This is a crucial mindshift: we have to not only know the problem we solve, but then figure out how to talk about it not as a generic problem but as an urgent danger that’s putting your target’s livelihood at risk. 

Until you know the grave hazard your audience is facing (which you alleviate or protect against), then your marketing isn’t going to have the sizzle it needs to stop people in their tracks and get them to say “oh sh*t . . . I better pay attention here!” 

The Preference layer is about recognizing the gap that exists between where people are and where they need to be. And, you have to live and breathe it—this has to be your raison d’être, your reason for being. It has to be a cause you believe in, a crusade to correct some massive issue plaguing the world. You have to know your mission (not just your content mission, but your larger one), then share that mission in your messaging

Tactically, there’s several approaches to take. One option is to tell stories of those you’ve already helped—comparison case studies (sensational “before” and “after” snapshots) help illuminate the impact you bring clients. You can also create loss-aversion content—content that explores the pain and turmoil that people who failed to take action are undergoing. As you work these angles consistently with well-produced content, a percentage of your audience—and it will always remain a minority percentage—will be ready to move into the subsequent tier: the Priority circle.

#3: Priority

As things become a priority for individuals, you’ll start to activate more inbound inquiries. As a rule of thumb: if someone comes to you proactively, they’re in the Priority circle. 

This is also where you’ll have to suss out those who may be open to changing their lives and actively connect with them—with warm outreach notes, ideally. Warm outreach might include following someone and liking their posts before shooting a message. It might mean commenting on their content asking them to message you. Maybe you shoot a high-status message after someone comments on your content or requests to join your group. This is what’s meant by warm outreach.

These people will be more likely to want to engage because you have a reason to reach out. They already know you, they know about the issue (or opportunity), and they know you can help. In terms of what angles to take with CTAs, the best incentives at this stage are scarcity (capturing a fleeting opportunity) and FOMO (taking advantage of something that others are already changing their lives with). You don’t want to apply too much pressure but you do want to be doing strategic follow-ups to try and determine their individual state and goals.

Use lots of social proof at this stage—like recent client wins—to help tilt intrigue to a precipice. People in this circle are convinced they need to do something soon to solve the problem and they’re probably open to change but they might still be doing diligence or ironing out kinks in their personal life to make room for a new project, whatever it is. If you can obtain intel on personal drivers (which is only doable through intimate direct conversation), you can then work on framing what you have as a natural and obvious solution to the problem at hand.

#4: Pressing Need

Only once that happens—only once someone sees you as the best and most obvious antidote to the most pronounced issue in their life—will they take action. 

This is the Pressing layer where it dawns on people that they have to do something now or things will never change. Life or death is the strongest motivator, here, because if your survival is at stake, well, there’s not much stronger an incentive than that. Of course, not all problems are that grave nor do all products solve that deep an issue. 

Going back to the hierarchy of needs, figure out which level you naturally solve for, and try to match that to where each individual is at. 

Here, you do want to use the hard sell, and urgency is the best angle—so, specific offers with expiration dates which give that extra push to help people across the finish line.

Hidden Fees, Bait-and-Switch & Changing Terms———————————————————————————
The biggest mistake companies make at this threshold, right as they’re about to cross the finish line (or after they’ve gotten verbal commitment), is to throw wild cards into the checkout process. It doesn’t matter how tempting it might be, or how sneaky you think you’re being—do not embed hidden fees in the final price; do not have any unexpected steps or prerequisites that weren’t discussed prior; do not have anything that might create friction or cause your customers to second guess their decision. Many companies either don’t disclose certain terms or think that just because someone is hooked, they can throw in extra fees and it’ll all be swell. Except, it won’t be! Tacky nickel-and-diming like this will destroy the positive forward momentum you worked hard to build, and it will cause people to second guess the legitimacy of you as a provider and of the investment itself. If there’s more than one cross-sell, I always X-out. Doesn’t matter how bad I want the product. If I get to the booking page, say, for a flight or car rental, and there’s five additional fees, I’m out the door. The best companies do the complete reverse: they throw in free add-ons, bonuses, and discounts during checkout to add an extra token of goodwill as customers prepare to separate themselves from their money. This is the right way to do it.

A creator’s job is to facilitate movement of their audience from a peripheral awareness to stark recognition of a pressing need. This can be done with content that establishes the gravity of the situation at hand and empowers followers to self-select to do something about it. 

Marketers must match the story they tell with the stage each prospect is in. That starts by priming and educating an audience at-large, getting specific about the issue or opportunity at hand, working to build rapport one-on-one to unlock a vision for a new reality, and then, once the need becomes pressing enough, handing true prospects the key to making it all possible.

The only way to catalyze people toward a visceral recognition of a dire need is to develop the adaptability to cater how you talk about the benefit of your product to each individual. This is the overarching framework of human decision-making.

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