Content | Leadership

The hierarchy of effects & content marketing

by on 15th August 2018

The Hierarchy of Effects is a model by Lavidge and Steiner (1961) usually applied to advertising. Here I want to explore how this model can be applied to content marketing to help you create the right sorts of content for the type of influence you’re looking to have on your audience.

The Hierarchy of Effects model presents six stages a customer is deemed to go through from first becoming aware of a product to making the purchase.

The classic order of the stages in the Hierarchy of Effects model is:

  1. Awareness
  2. Knowledge
  3. Liking
  4. Preference
  5. Conviction
  6. Purchase

These 6 stages, a clear reflection of the sales funnel, are divided into 3 categories of human behaviour:

Awareness and Knowledge = Cognitive

The cognitive stage is all about information processing. The extent of processing a customer does depends on both their ability and motivation to parse the information at hand (Petty, 1980). As such, to appeal to customers at the earliest stages of the sales funnel, your content should:

  • Clearly convey the important information you want your customers to know, like a key product benefit or a brand attribute.
  • Be designed and written with the abilities and capabilities of your target customers in mind.
  • Motivate engagement by, for instance, including a fun hook that makes your target audience personally identify with the content.

Liking and Preference = Affective

This stage is about attitude formation – the way customers feel about your brand. To influence your customers at this stage, your content should bring across the sort of feeling you want your brand to be associated with. As a result, this content shouldn’t be focused on a product, but rather on emotions, lifestyle, values and other factors that can help you to change and shape your customer’s attitude.

To make the difference between Cognitive and Affective focused communications clearer, I’d like to show you two examples from Dove.

The first one is cognitive, it’s very straight forward and communicates the benefit of using the brand’s product. Now watch the second one:

The second one is affective, it’s one of the videos from their real beauty campaign. This content is not about any of their products in particular at all, it’s about the emotions Dove would like customers to associate with their brand.

Conviction and Purchase = Conative

Yeah, I didn’t know what Conative was when I first encountered it either. It’s defined as

“The aspect of mental processes or behaviour directed towards action or change and including impulse, desire, volition and striving”


If the cognitive is to do with intellect, the affective to do with emotion, then the conative is how a person acts in response to intellect and emotion.

This is the decisive behaviour that drives the action of making a purchase, or that of a customer adding your offering to their list of considerations, or simply the rise of purchase intent.

Content for these final stages – the ultimate goal of your initiative – is your lead-generating and conversions oriented content. This needs to, for example:

  • Instil confidence in your product or offering, for example, through customer reviews.
  • Improve user experience of your product or service for retention, for instance, through tutorials
  • Convince customers of their need for a service, e.g. through guides or thought leadership.

Why You Should Care About the Hierarchy Affect

Content Marketing isn’t as young as we would like it to be anymore, its success is also its weakness: There’s just so much content out there. The attention span of your target customers is very (!) limited, as such you need to target your content as carefully as possible.

The behaviour sequence argued by this model is think -> feel -> do

That being said, taking this model at face value can be problematic as we explore below.

The Caveat: The Foot-Cone-Belding Grid (Vaughn, 1980)

Whilst it is very likely that customers pass through all of the stages outlined in the Hierarchy of Effects model, the sequence in which they move through them is generally thought to depend on your product.

Mr Vaughn came up with the Foot-Cone-Belding Grid that distinguishes products based on whether a purchase decision is made more on a cognitive (think) or affective (feel) basis.

To give you a better idea of the sorts of products that fall into different categories, here are some examples:

  1. Low Involvement + Think = Plasters
  2. Low Involvement + Feel = Chocolate
  3. High Involvement + Think = Car Insurance
  4. High Involvement + Feel = Jewellery

There’s another grid by Rossiter and Percy (suitably called the Rossiter-Percy Grid) from 1987 that separates products into informational (reducing the negative) or transformational (increasing the positive) which is a fairly similar categorisation and can help you to better understand the different product groups.

Plasters and Car Insurance are thinkers; they won’t make you feel better, but they’re a necessity.

At the same time, the absence of chocolate or jewellery is unlikely to make you feel bad, but the purchase of them has the potential to increase the positive, which can be in the form of sensory gratification or social approval, for example.

You get the idea, and hopefully, this suggests why it’s important to look at your particular positioning rather than what category your product types typically fall into. Car brands are a good example of why this is important; some are very much utility purchases (as we will look at below) whilst others are typically bought for reasons of the ego (affective).

The behavioural sequence of this model looks as follows:

Low involvement + Think = Do -> Think -> Feel

This type of product decision-making doesn’t require much cognitive effort on behalf of the customer and often happens out of habit. Consequently, people need regular reminders about the product, as well as clear information on what sets it apart from the competition, for example, news of a discount or a fact that explains why product A is better than product B.

Low Involvement + Feel = Do -> Feel -> Think

These are our impulse buys – products we buy for hedonic reason: because we feel like it and the purchase risk is (usually) minimal.

Ryman Font

Which I think is a wonderful example, because as it hadn’t really been done before and has helped the brand to instil meaning in fairly low involvement products like stationery (find out more here)

High Involvement + Think = Think Feel Do

The cognitive takes centre stage for these types of products. Customers will need large amounts of information from you because the purchase risk for your product is high.

A lot of car brands fall into this category. Take Volkswagen: After establishing themselves as a solid car brand, they used content like the Fun Theory videos to enable customers to develop more personal emotions and feelings with the brand.

High Involvement + Feel = Feel -> Think -> Do

Purchase decisions when it comes to these products are closely related to a person’s self-esteem. As such, from a content marketing angle, enabling target customers to identify with the emotions and lifestyle associated with the brand on a personal level is a key tactic.

Final Note

It’s key to note that even though the different stages may not be equally applicable to your offering and the sequence may be variable, it’s still important to create content that enables your customers to move across the cognitive(think), affective(feel) and contaive(do) stages, it might be that some of your most profitable leads are stuck along the way.

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