Marketers at the most successful organizations specifically design Web content to draw buyers into the sales cycle. People considering a purchase always go through a thought process prior to making a decision. In the case of something simple and low cost, say deciding to download a song from iTunes, the process is likely very straightforward may and only take seconds. But for a major consumer item such as buying a new car, where to send your child to college, or deciding to accept a job offer, the decision may take weeks or months. For many business-to-business sales, the sales cycle may involve many steps, multiple buyer personas (a business buyer and an IT buyer perhaps) and take months or even years to complete.
Effective Web marketers take Web site visitors' buying cycle into account when writing content and organizing it on the site. People in the early stages of the sales cycle need basic information about their problems and the ways that your organization solves them. Those further along in the process want to compare products and services and they need detailed information and benefits of your offerings. And when buyers are ready to whip out their credit cards, they need easy mechanisms linked directly from the content so they may immediately buy (or donate, subscribe, etc.).
For an example of a very long sales cycle, consider the decision to apply to a college or university. When students visit colleges in person, they tend to be juniors and seniors in High School, but when students first visit college Web sites, they are likely freshman or sophomores. The university Web site is often the first place that a student comes into contact with the college and must cater to an audience of young teenagers who won't be ready to apply for admission for two or even three years. Creating appropriate content to develop a lasting relationship over a long sales cycle is only possible when an organization knows the buyer personas well and they understand the sales process in detail. The university must provide high school students appropriate content so they get a sense of what college life would be like if they were to attend and what the admission process entails.
A focus on understanding buyers and the sales cycle and developing appropriate content that links visitors through the cycle to the point of purchase is essential for a great site. Based on my years of research, the vast majority of sites are little more than online brochures or vast one-way advertising vehicles. These sites are wholly ineffective. The Web offers significant opportunities to those marketers who understand that content is at the forefront of the best sites.