March 15, 2008

We all likely know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory -- usually reserved for sales training to understand the state of consumer needs and how they apply to consumer decisions.

I used to teach sales training early in my career. It was a hard pill to swallow, to have a 25-year-old teach a 45-year-old sales veteran about Maslow and how to read customers through a sales process. Not sure that many get that deep when contemplating consumer communication strategies. We usually think we understand the consumer state and what drives "reasons to believe." Yet if email is a notification agent, an influencer to purchase and change, an educational and motivation outlet and a promotional tool, shouldn't you consider the customer state and how email can influence drives to satisfy needs?

I'll use Maslow's hierarchy to talk about email programs and where they fit in helping consumers fulfill needs.

Self -actualization: This is the desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming. People who have everything can maximize their potential. They seek knowledge, peace, aesthetic experiences, self-fulfillment, and oneness with God etc... The email programs that come to mind when I read this are: Sports and Fitness, Nutrition and Diet, Cooking, Religious... I tend to think the string of emails we get with motivational stories of religion are motivated by this need to share.

Self-esteem: There are two types of esteem needs, self-esteem and esteem from others. The gaming and fantasy leagues pop out when I think of this. They play off of competition, the need for recognition and the need to belong.

Love and belongingness: The need to belong to groups, communities, religious groups, gangs, etc. -- I haven't yet seen a gang-related newsletter, but with email the consummate social networking vehicle, the niche newsletter market is littered with community-centric new-related email. Today you have your children's schools sending out newsletters, your churches, not-for-profits, and companies are on the verge of numbing their workforce with too many e-newsletters.

Safety and security: This is tied to the need to establish some norm, control or consistency in a chaotic world. We need the sense of security in home and family -- and much of what motivates us is protecting these things we cherish. Think utilitarian now and recognize that a bulk of email we get appeals to this level of need. Life insurance, home mortgage, financial planning and every product or service related to death, disability and natural disasters are all targeted at this level of awareness.

Physiological Needs: These are very basic needs such as air, water, food, sleep, etc. When these are not met, we can feel sick, irritation, pain, discomfort. These feelings motivate us to satisfy these needs as soon as possible to establish homeostasis. I can't seem to find a connection to email that helps people satisfy this. If we are sick, hungry or uncomfortable, it's highly unlikely we'll open up that inbox. But if I had to reach, I'd say the fast food industry keys on this need with coupon-driven promotions.

With Maslow's model, needs feed off of each other. The theory is one cannot move from one level of need to the next without satisfying the prior levels. If you are hungry, you won't worry as much about home and safety, and if either of these needs aren't fulfilled, you will likely not worry too much about a sense of community or belongingness. Self-fulfillment and self-actualization are advanced states that we play off of as marketers. The new car, the new house, the great clothes, and the need to live in a great community are both needs tied to recognition and the sense of "I've achieved."

What makes this so fascinating from a behavior side is, there are thousands of email programs that we belong to that play into each stage. The million-dollar question is, are we truly helping people satisfy these needs, supporting the migration between needs -- or are we thinking so internally that we don't even consider the consumer state and what change we can make? Even better yet, are we looking to response and changes in our consumers as these needs are met?

Great communication strategy begins with needs and translates them to value and channel.

by David Baker
David Baker is vice president of email solutions at Avenue A/Razorfish. Visit his blog at
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