The Five Awareness States: Automating Customer Development

Active during the golden age of advertising, by the end of his career Eugene M. Schwartz had a resume boasting tens of millions in revenue generated from his work, a long list of classic headlines to his name, and several books published on his topic of expertise: copywriting and advertising. 

Among those books is the classic Breakthrough Advertising. First published in 1966, it’s still referred to frequently by copywriters around the world. Now out of print from major publishers, there was a time when the privilege of owning a second-hand copy of this book would set you back between five to nine hundred dollars (and it’d likely arrive full of notes and highlights courtesy of its previous owner). 

One of the most powerful concepts Schwartz provides in the book is the Five States of Prospect Awareness, or the Five Awareness States. Put simply, the Five Awareness States describes the depth of understanding a subscriber has about your product. Some will understand precisely the way your product benefits them and are ready to buy, while for another, its value isn’t clear to them yet.

There’s a spectrum of the education prospects require before you can successfully make the sale. The Five Awareness States provides all the different points where a given subscriber might sit on that spectrum:

The Five Awareness States

As another legendary copywriter Robert Collier has said, effective copy must “enter the conversation already going on in your prospect’s mind”. By using the Five Awareness States as reference, you can adjust your messaging so that it meets your subscribers where they’re at. In doing so, you make your emails more timely, relevant and valuable, improving engagement and pathing the way to conversion. 

The Five Awareness States

1. Unaware: Prospect is unaware they have a problem

Since this person is unaware a problem exists, there’s no motivation to solve it. So at this point, your actual product is irrelevant. Describing its benefits won’t matter because there’s zero relevance. An important thing to note is that this doesn’t necessarily mean the problem doesn’t exist. The person simply hasn’t recognized they’re being affected by it. 

2. Problem Aware: Prospect becomes aware they have a problem

At this stage the person knows they have a problem, and they have at least a vague sense that your knowledge, products or services can help them solve it. Generally speaking, if someone has taken the time to subscribe to your email list, they’re probably already at the “problem aware” stage. 

This is good news, because the gap between “unaware” and “problem aware” is actually quite difficult to establish. For these reasons, the details for how to do this are outside the scope of this book. But broadly, when someone moves from unaware to problem aware, it means they’ve identified with a problem that’s been introduced to them.

3. Solution Aware: Prospect becomes aware a solution to their problem exists 

The bridge between Problem Awareness to Solution Awareness is likely where we’ll intercept a new subscriber to our email list. 

In a solution email, you provide value in the form of solutions to problems you know your subscribers are struggling with. By providing advice and expertise, your audience can come to recognize you as an authority with the experience and know-how to help them. As you send Solution Aware emails you educate, build rapport, and establish trust.

In 1972, Allen Newell and Herbert Simon published a book called Human Problem Solving. Here, they outlined their theory of the problem space: the area where people search for solutions to a problem. According to the theory, a problem space consists of the current problem state, the goal state, as well as all the possible states in between. 

What happens in the Solution Aware stage, is we help the subscriber fully establish their problem space. They become aware of the desired goal state, as well as any other possible states in between that might inhibit their process toward that goal. It’s our job to show them the solutions so they can make their own way. 

4. Product Aware: Prospect becomes aware your product solves their problem

The passage from Solution Aware to Product Aware is the realization that your product is what will most effectively take them towards their goal state. Your product should  now be introduced as the tool they’ve been looking for to help them reach it.  

If awareness has progressed successfully, then at this stage a product offer or promotion will rarely be seen as annoying. You’ll be simply providing more value. In fact, if you’ve followed the stages correctly, you will never once have annoyed your subscriber. You’ll have only ever been seen as providing massive value, always there to help provide advice and help with the problem they’re grappling with. 

This doesn’t mean you’re forcing anyone to buy. There’s no hard selling. If your product isn’t a good fit, that person isn’t a customer — you’re simply introducing your product to someone who likely needs it. It also doesn’t mean you don’t have to sell your product at all; you must still do the work of stating product benefits and tying them back to the problem. We must make it explicitly clear that your product bridges the gap between the current problem and the goal state, passing over the uncomfortable indeterminacy of the other possible states in between.

5. Most Aware: Prospect becomes aware your product is the best solution

The passage between Product Aware and Most Aware is subtle. This is where you reassure your subscriber that your product will take them to their goal state. They know what your product is and how it can help them. They’re ready to buy, and these emails help you assuage final concerns to ultimately convert.

For subscribers who are Most Aware, they need concerns and questions addressed, security guaranteed or price adjusted. This is somewhat equivalent to the objection handling stage of the sales process. It’s where conversion optimizations are implemented, with incentives such as discounts, bundles or guarantees now taking center stage in your messaging strategy. 

The Awareness Automation

One of the biggest mistakes people make (myself included when I first started out), is to put on the “auteur architect” hat and start penciling out a masterpiece email automation strategy from scratch. From my experience, this is always the wrong way to go about it.

Just like a natural ecosystem, complexity is never planned, but emerges. As Gall's Law states, "A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked''. As we’ve addressed with the top-down cascade, ideal conditions can only develop by provision of a strong foundation. 

So I always recommend those just getting started with email marketing and automation to keep it simple. Instead of planning a masterpiece funnel from scratch, it's always better to start with good fundamentals and add pieces from there as they make sense. For many store owners exploring email marketing and automation for the first time, building a simple foundational strategy that I call the Awareness Automation is the best place to start. It nurtures your new subscribers and makes them more likely to become buyers, as we’ve covered, but it also provides some other huge benefits. Specifically, it: 

  • Resurrects your old blog articles, social media posts and emails.
    All that old content you spent ages creating? This can finally be reused to repeatedly add value, seen anew by every new subscriber you add. By setting up an Awareness Automation, you’ll breathe new life into your old content. 

    Automated emails will allow you to share your valuable existing content with every new subscriber. This will communicate a strong narrative about your brand, provide value, build engagement and of course progress the stage of awareness. 
  • Keeps your engagement high and your list healthier than it's ever been.
    By ensuring each new subscriber is receiving only valuable content upfront, you’ll be building a great first impression that establishes a behavioral feedback loop to engage. This will skyrocket your engagement. 

    People sometimes don’t believe me when I tell them that you can sometimes achieve open rates of 35-45% for this sequence, but that’s the goal. The whole point is not to tank your engagement with irrelevant emails and always provide value. 
  • Identifies and automatically sends offers to subscribers when they’re ready to receive them.
    The Awareness Automation automatically sends relevant offers when your subscribers are product aware — when they’re most ready to receive them.

    While we’ll build on the conversion of subscribers into customers in the next chapter, even with the Awareness Automation you can expect conversions to start occurring as subscribers are nurtured to the point where buying makes sense. 
  • Allows nearly endless scope and customization.
    The Awareness Automation is built with expansion in mind. After setting up an Awareness Automation you can theoretically take your automation strategy in any direction you want, confident your foundations are strong with a sequence that forms a solid ecosystem base.
  • Gathers engagement metrics and enables you to make data-driven decisions.
    There are few better ways to gather conversion and engagement metrics, and fewer again that build stores of that data automatically over time. This will be valuable in the following chapters, but for now it’s the first step towards making decisions based on more than just intuition. 

How the Awareness Automation Works

Let’s first look at an overview of how the Awareness Automation works, then dive into each part in a bit more detail. What I’ll outline here is a basic guide that you can use to apply the principles of the Awareness Automation, no matter what EMS you use, from the most simple to highly advanced. 

With this in mind, you can be creative about how you apply it to your business. For example, the exact conditions that represent a progression of awareness (“last five emails”, etc.) matters far less than the central heuristic of only sending to subscribers you are certain have exhibited strong engagement before specifically trying to sell them products. 

Use the following guide, as with all others throughout this book, as general strategies within a broader useful framework. This way, you’ll be more creative in how you apply it to your unique situation and avoid myopically copying what is a necessarily simplified system. Below is an idealized awareness automation that can be used to progress new subscribers through the stages of awareness.

The Awareness Automation

The Awareness Automation is made up of three main sequences you’ll build inside your email marketing software (EMS): 

Sequence 1. Problem Aware > Solution Aware

Goal: Introduce the Problem Concept. 

Sequence 2. Solution Aware > Product Aware

Goal: Introduce the Goal State. 

Sequence 3. Product Aware > Most Aware

Goal: Conversion.

Immediately after a new subscriber is added to your list, they’ll be placed into the first of these, which is nothing more than a series of five to fifteen emails (depending on how much content you have available), with each email delivering just a single piece of content. 

How do you know when a subscriber has successfully progressed between each stage? It’s simply a condition based on engagement. In Sequence 1 the subscriber will eventually be sent all of the emails within it. At the very end of the sequence, all we need to do is add a condition that checks: “has this subscriber interacted with any of the past five emails?”. 

It will be either yes or no. If yes, we can confidently say they’ve been engaging with our content and in turn have been exposed to a series of problems and solutions. If no, this person has low engagement and we should reduce our sending frequency by filtering them out.

So most subscribers will receive both Sequence 1 and 2. But only subscribers showing strong engagement will be graduated to the final Product Aware Sequence 3. The reason for this, is that including low engagements in the next sequence (Product Aware) is likely to hurt overall engagement — the foundation of your ecosystem.

That’s really it. You have three sequences of emails arranged according to the States of Awareness, and you use conditions to filter out subscribers who don’t engage. 

Designing Intentional Feedback Loops

Part of the reason the Awareness Automation is so effective is because it intentionally creates a feedback loop where engagement is encouraged. 

In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, author and behavioral designer Nir Eyal describes a feedback loop that helps software companies establish user behaviors which compound into beneficial outcomes. Although conceived for the reinforcement of behaviors in the context of software products, this mechanism can also be applied to your email database.   

Diagram  Description automatically generated
The Hooked Model. Credit: Nir Eyal 

Eyal’s feedback loop, The Hooked Model, has four stages: 

  1. A Trigger: Beginning with an external motivation from the product, a user is driven to take a first action. 
  1. An Action: After being prompted by the external trigger, the action is performed successfully.
  1. A Variable Reward: In response to successful action, a user is given a “variable” reward. 
  1. User Investment: The above variability is an element of novelty. By making the exact reward for an action unknowable in advance, it develops user interest in continuing to take the action. This investment leads to an internally motivated trigger (rather than the initial external one), and the user becomes invested in taking further action on their own. 

A simple example of the Hooked Model in action is Facebook’s notification system. After becoming a user, Facebook hits you with an initial notification. You head to the app and select the bright red notification icon which takes you to whatever has happened in your social network. 

The variable reward then kicks in: was the result something boring? Or was it exciting like someone commenting on or liking a picture you just posted? The variability of this reward creates user investment. 

Next time you get a notification, you’re much more likely to click on it in order to see what type of reward is in store: will it be boring or exciting? Over time, you won’t need to be prompted to log back onto Facebook. In fact, many people refresh their Facebook newsfeed dozens of times a day to see what new notifications are waiting for them. 

When designed thoughtfully, the Dispersal Stage also does this to an extent. We can incorporate each of the Hooked stages into the way new subscribers experience their first interactions with your brand’s emails.

An email from a new brand in a subscriber’s inbox is novel and interesting. This is the reason “Welcome” emails have famously high open rates (at around ~50% industry-wide).. The newness is novel, but it very quickly wears off. By using this novel interest as a chance to provide value with your very first impression, you provide a reward for that initial opening. From that point on, consistent value in your emails results in them standing out and being more likely to be opened in future.

The Problem with Engagement Metrics

There is one problem with engagement metrics that is worth noting. Most email clients use in-built spam detection measures which automatically trigger opens (and sometimes clicks) as they scan messages coming into the Inbox. What this means is that it’s becoming increasingly unreliable to track the traditional engagement metrics of Open and Click rates. 

This has been accelerated by recent changes by Apple, who in a June 2021 press release announced a new suite of privacy changes to their proprietary email client, Mail. In the statement, Apple announces the new feature they dub Mail Privacy Protection, which “… helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.”

The privacy debate fuelling these changes is multifaceted with strong points on both sides. Yet the important thing to understand is that despite changes by individual email clients, the reliability of these metrics has been on a downward trend for years. In fact, your current numbers for opens and clicks are likely already misleading or somewhat inaccurate. 

So what’s the solution? How do we properly measure engagement going forward? 

The most reliable solution I’ve found is to look at the actions subscribers take from your emails rather than their actual engagement with the email itself. This is a much more reliable indicator of how effective a marketing message has been. In fact, as one recent experiment discovered, opens and clicks can actually be poor measures of engagement especially if not seen in light of broader business goals. This reflects my own experience, and is why I recommend that instead of relying on opens and clicks to determine engagement, instead focus on the following:

  • Keep Unsubscribes Low: Instead of aiming for >30% opens, optimize for <0.5% unsubscribes. 
  • Track CTA Completions: Instead of aiming for >7% clicks, optimize for the number of results generated from the CTA (form fills, cart adds, enquiries, etc.).

It’s important to note that Opens and Clicks aren’t useless. Even if your EMS tells you that you get 30% open rates on average, the number itself isn’t as important as the fluctuations from this point. For example, if you notice in three months that this average has decreased to around 20%, it’s still a safe bet to say your engagement has decreased.  

There is a reason I recommend using them for the Dispersal stage: they are still a helpful method for tracking engagement over time. The measurement itself won't be accurate but it's movement can still be a lagging indicator for declines in engagement and overall list health. 

Planning your Awareness Automation

So with a broad overview of how the system works, how does one actually build it? It's easy to talk about these different stages and what they mean. It’s easier still for me to tell you that you need to send content that represents each stage. But in practice, progressing between each stage smoothly is much easier said than done. You can't simply send email after email of “value” hoping that it also progresses a subscriber.

The first step for building an Awareness Automation is some planning. You need a solid understanding of your brand’s value proposition, who your target customers are, and what existing content you have at your disposal. In other words, you must have the fundamental knowledge and background research of your market that would typically be required to write effective copy.

Along with that, take the following steps to prepare building an Awareness Automation:

Step 1. Gather your previously published blog articles, social media posts, videos and emails. 

All your content from site copy to blog posts to whitepapers. Choose content with an emphasis on those that aren’t simply trying to sell products. These are rarer than you might think and you’ll need all of them for the earlier awareness states. 

Step 2. Refer back to the Five Awareness States and arrange your content to fit beneath the stages Problem, Solution and Product Aware. 

Refer to the explanation earlier in this chapter to see where they fit best.

Step 3. Beginning with your Problem Aware content, outline the sequence of your Awareness Automation. 

There will be one email per unique piece of content. Line up each email in the order you plan to send them based on your arrangement in Step 2.

This is the hard part. While the structure is deceptively simple, the way you construct your Awareness Automation requires a bit of thought because it will play a large part in determining the brand experience for new subscribers, and that’s a topic with enough depth for a book of its own. It’s worth setting aside a decent amount of time to think through this, as every new subscriber will be receiving this same brand experience. 

So make it powerful. Pay attention to the narrative you’re creating with each email; what you’re saying about your brand; and especially what world you’re building for your subscribers. A subscriber must first buy into your brand’s universe — the possible future identity it represents to them — before they’ll buy your products.

Building your Awareness Automation

Part of the beauty of the Awareness Automation is you only need very basic features to pull it off. In its most basic form, it’s really just a string of emails with some quite basic segmentation conditions. 

Each EMS is slightly different. But even the free plan of the most entry-level EMS is usually enough to set this up (which is great as it allows beginners to experience the massive ROI these sequences yield, with little to no extra commitment or software migration headaches). 

Individually, each of these emails are very simple. The subject line is related to the content you’re sharing. When the subscriber opens the email there is a brief description of the article with a call-to-action (CTA) to read the content. 

This content can be anything from an existing blog article or social media post, or repurposed copy from your site, for example. The point is, each email is meant to loop your email subscriber back onto your social media account, website, blog, or other platform where you regularly share content.

With this in mind, these guidelines should help you figure out how it should all look when you're finished:

1. Begin with a Welcome email

Immediately after you add a new subscriber, send them a Welcome email. Here you'll briefly give an introduction to the problems you'll be helping your subscribers solve.

Welcome emails are very high engagement by nature, but definitely don’t be tempted to add an ask just yet. Instead, use the Welcome as an opportunity to make a great first impression. Introduce yourself (but keep it brief) and try to offer something you’re certain will be valuable upfront. 

Keep in mind the importance of feedback loops: this is an opportunity to set expectations on the value you aim to provide in coming emails. 

2. Create your Problem Aware emails

Write a short description for each email, and include a clear call-to-action that links to the blog post, video, etc. Write a short description that connects your content to the problem you're helping your subscriber identify. Include around 3-6 of these. For the first sequence, a typical Problem Aware email might look like:

Subject: How to Tell if You’re X

Message: Introductory text either pulled from the article or written to draw subscriber interest. 

CTA: [Click here to read How to Tell if You’re X]

3. Create a dedicated “narrative" email

If you have a well written “About” page on your site, this is a great way to repurpose it.

The goal of this email is to establish not only that you understand what the problem of your subscriber is (which you've already proven by linking useful content), but also what you’re all about, and how you're uniquely poised to help solve it.

It also pre-frames the next section of emails, so subscribers can better understand the personality behind the authority you’re trying to establish.

4. Create your Solution Aware emails

Write a short description for each email and include a clear call-to-action that links to the blog post, video, etc. Write a short description that demonstrates how the content helps to solve the problem. Include around 3-6 of these.

For the second sequence, not much changes in terms of email structure. You merely arrange your content by virtue of either introducing problem concepts or introducing goal state concepts. For the second sequence, a typical Solution Aware email might look like:

Subject: 5 Ways to Solve X

Message: Introductory text either pulled from the article or written to draw subscriber interest. 

CTA: [Click here to read 5 Ways to Solve X]

One to three times per week, a new piece of this content is sent to the new subscriber. Make sure you have at least two days (for shorter content) and up to a full week (for longer and more in- depth content) between each email.

This may seem a bit contrarian: common advice urges more email equals more sales. But this only applies to Product Aware or Fully Aware subscribers who are already considering purchasing. Sending too many emails to subscribers too early will cause overwhelm, leading to disinterest, leading to poor engagement and unnecessarily increased unsubscribes. 

So, it's better to start off slowly. Once your subscriber has reached Product Awareness, frequency can then be increased. 

5. Create your Product Aware emails

For Product Aware emails, make sure your content describes the benefits of your product. (This is a good place to repurpose promotional and sales material for your product).

Alternatively, if lacking promotional benefit-driven content, start by linking directly to the sales page for the product. In any case, make sure at least one email links directly to an opportunity to purchase. Include around 3-4 of these. Increase sending frequency for Product Aware subscribers, optimizing for more emails with high engagement and low unsubscribes.

So to recap, the Awareness Automation is designed to help you get started with automation in the simplest way possible. It's also the easiest way to automate sending emails to your subscribers in a way that:

  • Consistently adds value, not asks.
  • Builds strong engagement.
  • Reduces unsubscribes.
  • Builds trust with your subscribers.
  • Progresses audience awareness so they're more likely to buy.
  • Collates and collects conversion metric data for better decisions.
  • Repurposes your old content you spent hours making.
  • All the while guaranteeing more sales than any non-automation alternative.

This checks all the boxes necessary in building a strong foundation for more advanced automation.

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