Buying Triggers: 6 Steps to Create Explosive Demand

Aug 16, 2021

Buying triggers are perhaps best explained with video games.

If you’ve played video games like Crash Bandicoot or Angry Birds, you may have stepped on some explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) wooden boxes like this one:

TNT is an interesting compound.

It was originally used as a yellow dye. It took 30 years to discover its explosive properties because it’s an extremely stable compound.

It can be safely poured into shell cases...

It doesn’t interact with water...

You can move it around, shake it...

...and it won’t explode.

HOWEVER, if triggered by a small starter explosive, it will explode magnificently.

That’s why it’s used by the military and in industrial applications for creating big holes in the ground.

You see, buyers behave just like TNT...

TNT doesn’t explode unless it's triggered.

Likewise, people don’t buy unless something causes them to buy.

This is often overlooked, yet I would argue it is the most important piece of information you can collect about your customers.

It’s something I notice a lot with participants in my program, Stand The F*ck Out (STFO). It’s hard for people to get their head around it.

It doesn’t come naturally.

And it’s something most marketing experts don’t talk about much.

Without this info, you will likely:

  • Struggle to find customers ready to buy

  • Struggle to know what they search for on Google

  • Struggle to know what to say to them

  • Struggle to know where to advertise

  • And more...

And just to rub some salt into the wound... the leading brand will eat the piece of the pie that you could have taken.

A buying trigger is that one missing ingredient to turn prospects into buyers...

Alan Klement, expert on the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) methodology and author of When Kale and Coffee Compete, explains that demand, or in others words, getting someone to buy, is all about a chemical reaction:

Alan Klement explains how buying triggers are necessary for a customer to purchase

"Demand is like a chemical reaction.

I'm not out there searching for a product to make my fingernails stop growing. The reason why I'm not doing that is because I don't believe that's possible.

So, there might be some things that people don't like about the way things are, but unless they believe that there's some solution that is out there, then demand won't happen.

So, there's one part of, there has to be some idea of a better future for myself with those, some kind of be-goals of how I would like things to be.

And then the second part is, I have to believe that there's some product out there that can help make that actually happen.

And then there has to be some constraints that I'm facing right now that's preventing me from attaining that be-state. So those three things have to exist that come together. And then that's what creates demand."

People can be in pain and have dreams for years without doing anything about it.

For example, pay very close attention to how brand consultant and former marketing professor, Mark Ritson describes how he made the decision to finally create the mini-MBA course after thinking about doing it for about a year:

Mark Ritson explains how something triggered him to take an action

"It took about a year of not giving a fuck first.

Then I had my first child. We'd been married a long time. I did two weeks a month on a plane working for clients, and it was suddenly not going to be possible to do that.

So this idea I'd had, but not really done anything about, suddenly became an imperative because my wife was going to chop my balls off if I got on planes anymore with a three month old baby.

She just basically went, “What are we going to do about this? Cuz you can't travel anymore, and you have expensive tastes.”

Very interesting, isn’t it?

Mark was thinking about launching a course so he wouldn’t have to travel, something that was on his mind for a long time, something he probably kept thinking about in the shower.

But!… He never did anything about it.

It was a dream, but it stayed a dream.


He had a child, and his wife expected him to be home more often.

Suddenly, his dreams and constraints were met with a new child, and the chemical reaction happened.


He took action.

With all the necessary ingredients which includes buying triggers, a purchase can happen. Boom.

Desired state, constraints, and buying triggers

You need three ingredients for the chemical reaction to happen:

(1) A desired state (dreams, pains), AND...

(2) Constraints (obstacles, habits, and anxieties), AAAAAANNNDD…

(3) Buying triggers!

And then… Boom goes the dynamite!

Here’s an example from Paul Mellor, advertising wizard and founder of the UK ad agency, Mellor&Smith where he discusses how he got rid of 70% of his clients in a matter of weeks after being in business for around 4-5 years doing average work for average clients.

See if you can spot the (1) desired state, (2) constraints, and (3) buying trigger.

Paul Mellor explains how he was triggered to take an action.

"We were working on a particular project, and what should have been a two- or three-month at the most project turned into over a year, and it was killed. It was killed by indecision, design by committee, the brief changing halfway through, just all of the things that don't create good work.

We weren't strong enough, and we didn't fight back, and we just kind of took it. We tried our best to roll with the punches and keep the project going. I just got to the end, and we got it out, and I just thought, 'Fuck this. I'm never doing that again. I'm just never going to put my name to something like that ever again.'

That was the trigger. A couple of months later, the transition took no time at all."

Did you spot all the ingredients for the chemical reaction?

Let’s see...

  • His desired state: He wanted to never waste time with the wrong client ever again.

  • His constraints: If he let go of the clients, maybe he wouldn’t get enough money to pay his team’s salaries and to live comfortably.

  • His buying trigger: After a number of shitty projects, one particular project was the last straw.

Alan Klement uses the word “catalyst” to explain how buying triggers cause demand formulation:

"The way that we think about demand is like a chemical reaction. Things have to come together in order for demand to be synthesized.

The catalysts are particularly helpful for marketing. And it also gives really important context for product development.

So, for example, when people are thinking about getting a CRM solution, a catalyst might be, "We're about to launch a new product," or "We're about to expand our sales team," or "There's been a shake-up in our upper management, and they want new tools or new ways of thinking about how to do sales."

These are the things that are causing the demand formulation, causing a change to happen."

Specifically, you can formulate customer demand in one sentence:

When <buying trigger happens>, I want to <alleviate constraints>, so I can <reach the desired state>.

Alan Klement categorizes buying triggers (what he calls “catalysts”) as follows:

A list of different types of buying triggers

If you go one step further, you realize that triggers don’t necessarily mean someone will buy a product/service. It could be that they take an action that has nothing to do with a purchase.

Through research by Google, an updated decision-making model began to take shape.

In the center of the model lies “The Messy Middle” - a complex space between triggers and purchase, where customers are won and lost.

Google's "The Messy Middle" explains how buying triggers might lead to a purchase

​​They say that these types of triggers are responsible for moving consumers from a passive state to an active purchase state.

Jenny Romaniuk, co-author of How Brands Grow (P2) with Byron Sharp, calls this sub-category of buying triggers Category Entry Points (CEPs) because they are pathways to the brand, meaning once the buying trigger happens, the person is likely to think of the types of things you sell:

Jenny Romaniuk explains that a subset of triggers are buying triggers, which she terms as CEPs.

Buying triggers (CEPs) have the following characteristics:

  • The connection from trigger to category tends to happen instantly without any careful thought.

  • They depend on context. If you’re hungry and in the office, you won’t go to the same restaurant as you would if you were celebrating your 20th birthday with your partner.

  • They are inconsistent. A trigger today may cause the person to think of your brand, but the same trigger tomorrow may cause them to think of a different brand. (This is why you need to constantly refresh memory structures.)

9 real examples of buying triggers

Here are some examples of buying triggers that came from my own experience working with clients, in researching companies, and from past Stand The F*ck Out participants.

Example 1: A group of senior living facilities

A senior needs to join a senior living facility when…

  • A recent diagnosis of sickness requires a high-care facility but not a hospital.

  • They develop a disability (broken hip, etc.) which causes them to reconsider whether they should still live on their own.

  • A family member notices an unhealthy living routine.

Example 2: An app teaching coding to primary school teachers in the UK

A school needs to purchase coding education when...

  • The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) will be visiting soon, and if teachers don’t have a solid coding programme, the school will receive a bad Ofsted grade.

Example 3: A service supplying snacks/drinks in breakrooms

A business needs to purchase at-home breakroom supplies when...

  • The pandemic causes employees to work from home.

Example 4: An inventory software for small retail stores in Bolivia

A retail store needs to purchase inventory software when...

  • The store sells an out-of-stock item and customers get pissed off about it.

Example 5: Consulting for early-stage B2B SaaS startups

A SaaS business needs to hire a consultant when...

  • Investors provide fundraising.

Example 6: Ritson’s mini-MBA

Mark Ritson decides to finally create the mini-MBA when...

  • He has a new baby and his wife wants him to stop traveling.

Example 7: My microphone purchase

I purchased a fancy podcast microphone when...

  • I listened to a Joe Rogan episode which made me want to record in a low, deep voice.

  • I had to use some professional development budget.

Example 8: Hotjar, a behavior analytics company I used to work for

Someone needs to use Hotjar when...

  • A new boss joins the team, and they need to increase conversions.

  • Conversion targets have not been reached.

Example 9: Organic shampoo for Latinas

Latinas need to purchase this special shampoo when...

  • There is humid weather which causes extra friz.

  • They have to go to a party in a few days or to some kind of social setting where they want to be noticed and look good.

6 steps to use buying triggers to activate purchases

The big picture here is to figure out how you can be top-of-mind as a purchasing option when the buying triggers happen.

Here’s how to do that, step-by-step.

Step 1: Discover the buying triggers

A) Interview customers who recently bought from you

This is the main way to discover a buying trigger, and it applies not only to expensive B2B products but also to anything else.

You must understand the journey the customer took from the very first time they thought about the product/service (the buying trigger) all the way to buying the product/service.

Here’s what Khalid Saleh, founder of the CRO agency, Invesp, recommends on how to interview customers:

Khalid Saleh explains how he performs customer research to discover buying triggers

"One of the first things that we tell our clients is, “Let’s look at your customers who bought from you.” I like [to interview] people who bought within the last three months, and we segment those into different buckets because with each bucket, there are probably different emotions that trigger that event. We want to interview one or two recent customers from those buckets.

And we want to hear their story. We want to spend about 45 minutes about how you made the decision to buy the microphone.

I think of it as shooting a documentary. The camera zooms in on you, and the director is asking you questions: “What was the day? How was the weather? Was it day or night? Did you get the phone call?” As you drill a bit deeper, something happens.

You will eventually ask a question, and you bring the person back to that state. And it's, “Oh no, I remember. Yeah. Oh, it was Tuesday. And it was just two o'clock and it was a little cloudy.”

I don't really care about those details, but the minute I see that light bulb go on, I know that I've got... that's a mental state. I’m actually trying to capture the mental state of how you made the decision, what triggered you? That's number one, but then think about the mic.

What I would have asked you is to say, so let's go back a little bit further down the memory lane: 'When was the first time you actually considered buying a SMB Seven?'"

B) Observe people in the buying environment

Make it a habit to observe people: why they make certain decisions, why they do certain things and why they don’t. Try to reverse-engineer what happened. What was the buying trigger?

Try to think of the last purchase you made… What was the buying trigger? What made you buy?

Be very curious about why people make decisions. That will help you uncover buying triggers moving forward.

C) Use your intuition

Some things can’t be observed or asked about.

Even after you interview customers, you always have to fill the gaps with your intuition.

The Value Pyramid may help you understand the reason people purchase:

The Value Pyramid illustrates the reasons people buy after being exposed to a buying trigger

There are always multiple reasons why people do stuff. If you only focus on the bottom of the pyramid (functional values), even for B2B, then you will miss out on buying triggers that are emotional, sometimes life-changing that are based on status.

Status is usually involved in any buying decision.

In his book, This is Marketing, Seth Godin details 6 truths about how humans purchase to elevate their status:

Customers may be motivated by status to buy something after being exposed to a buying trigger

You can see it’s very deep.

However, with the combination of interviews, observation, and intuition, you will be able to discover very specific buying triggers.

Step 2: Select the right buying trigger

Start with ONE buying trigger (no surprise there), especially if you’re a small company up against a big brand.

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. How common is that buying trigger across the people who buy from you? Is the buying trigger very common amongst all your buyers, or is it only a buying trigger for one or two people?

  2. How original is the buying trigger? Is the buying trigger only experienced by a key segment of your market, or is it experienced by everyone? Also, is this buying trigger specific to people who are very interesting to you because they bring you joy, because you have access to them, because they are in great pain, and because they can pay you?

If the buying trigger is common and original, then refine your segment to only the people who experience that buying trigger.

Step 3: Be where they experience that buying trigger when they experience it

“When” could be:

  • When there’s humid weather

  • A new baby arrives

  • At dinner time

  • When Ofsted is about to visit

Guillaume Cabane, Ex-VP of Growth at Segment, Drift, and Gorgias, currently an advisor to B2B SaaS startups, talks about multiple buying triggers/signals for his business:

Guillame Cabane on how buying triggers signal to him that customers are ready to purchase

"I've built a specialty acquiring, I'd say what we call, a signal data, a business signal data. I'll go through a couple of examples. We talked about Datanyze [to identify] what are companies using as technologies. I've used stuff from PredictLeads, which is a company that tells me what roles are companies hiring? Are they currently hiring for salespeople, CS people, VPs of sales, VPs of product, whatever.

This is public data that's on their job board. So the company scrapes all the job boards of all companies in the US and structures that. So it's legal, it's out there. It's just structured in a way you can use it, because for me, a company hiring a bunch of salespeople is a good signal. That's one example.

I buy the data from G2 because they have instant data telling you which companies are currently in a buying process, looking at multiple tools in your category. Also a great signal.

I look at [a tool to see which] companies are reading on the web. I have like tons and tons of signals to try and understand what's happening in the life of that company. I use it both to understand is it the right time, also to craft the best message."

Also, think about where you can be when people are experiencing the buying trigger.

“Where” can mean a physical location or online.

Think about physical locations where people experience their buying triggers. If they get hungry at the beach, then maybe that’s where you need to advertise, for example.

Online, you can create content for when people are triggered to search for things related to your category (hello content marketing and SEO!)

People will search online and talk to friends when they experience buying triggers, so do your best to be there when people are experiencing the buying trigger.

Step 4: Build mental associations between a buying trigger and your brand

In her book, How Brands Grow (P2), Jenny Romaniuk describes this as reaching out to folks who might potentially experience a buying trigger in the future.

For example, if the buying trigger is humid weather which creates frizzy hair, then you can create a campaign which will start building an association between humid weather and your product.

That means the next time there’s humid weather (buying trigger), people will be more likely to think of your brand as the solution.

Step 5: Become the buying trigger

Like a mad chemist, you can create certain types of buying triggers in people’s minds:

  • Social proof. How can you make sure that more people see the effect your product/service had on people?

  • Usage. How can you make your product/service more visible so other people see your customers using it? Maybe change the packaging or the way people use it online.

  • Ads. When they see your ad, they think of you, and they might buy straight away.

  • Scarcity. This is a psychological principle that might actually move the person into an active purchasing state.

  • Free. A gift can be a buying trigger that makes the person realize they need to do something next.

Step 6: Close the gap between the buying trigger and purchases

It’s important to close the time gap between the buying trigger and delivering a great experience

Do your best to give the best experience possible as fast as possible to people once they experience the buying trigger.

To summarize

  • Much like TNT which needs a trigger to explode... To get customers to purchase, you need all three ingredients: a desired state, constraints, and a buying trigger.

  • Without a buying trigger, you will struggle to find customers ready to buy, struggle to know what they search for on Google, struggle to know what to say, and struggle to know where to be in what situation.

  • To put this into action, you can follow these steps:

  1. Identify buying triggers by trying to interview as many customers or customers who have bought from a competitor before, and make sure to fill in the gaps using your intuition.

  2. Select the most common, potent buying trigger.

  3. Be where they experience the buying trigger, whether it’s in real life or online (hello content marketing!)

  4. Build associations between the buying trigger and brand

  5. Become the buying trigger

  6. Close the gap between the buying trigger and purchases

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