Earlier this week, on the MarketingProfs blog, Paras Chopra of Wingify offered three tips for improving website conversion rates. It got me thinking—what if your visitor’s goal isn’t (yet) to convert? Should you treat him the same? How can marketers identify and nurture visitors who aren’t ready to purchase? These questions are important in helping shape your customer experience strategy. I’m betting we’ve all experienced the uncomfortable feeling of being pressured by an overbearing sales rep or telemarketer. It’s likely these individuals lose deals they might otherwise have won had they only identified their visitors as being earlier in the buying cycle (and tailored the sales pitch differently).

Of course, regardless of your website’s goal (whether to drive sales, attract leads, or monetize traffic), conversions are a necessity. But at any given time, a majority of your site traffic may not be in a ready-to-buy state. They’re conducting research, evaluating you against your competitors, and window shopping for the best deal. Think about it: If your site enjoys a 10% conversion rate, then 90% of your traffic is failing to complete your desired goal.

One reason many sites fail to maximize their conversion rate is simply because they emphasize the conversion event as the only logical next step a prospect might take. But in doing so, these sites alienate a portion of their traffic that could be engaged in more relevant ways. The challenge to marketers, then, is how to understand what stage of the buying process a prospect is in. The following graphic illustrates the four stages a typical site visitor goes through before buying:

Let’s examine these four stages in detail:

1) Attract: Whether it’s a paid search ad, display banner, or coupon in a weekly circular, your first task as a marketer is to attract the visitor to come to your site in the first place. You can attract them in a variety of ways, such as promotions and offers (50% off), time-sensitive messaging (Sale Ends November 1st), content targeted to what you know about the visitor, or captivating imagery. If your ad performs well in this regard, you’ll get the visitor to your site, and your first step is complete.

2) Confirm: Once visitors have reached your site, their goal is to confirm what prompted them to click in the first place. Consistency of message is key at this stage. Your website—not just the landing page, but any relevant page—should echo the creative associated with the paid search ad, display banner, or vanity URL that the visitor clicked.

3) Satisfy: If your visitors reach this stage, then they’ve already confirmed they made it to a relevant place (notice I didn’t say the “right” place). Your task as a marketer, though, isn’t finished yet. It’s this very stage where the buying cycle breaks for many visitors, so let’s examine it more deeply.

To satisfy your visitors, you must convince them that your website is the best one (and only one) to buy from, and you need a lot more than a “Buy Now” button to do this. Do you provide reviews showing what previous customers thought of the product? Do you have an accurate and sufficient description of the product or service? Do you highlight unique offers such as tax-free purchasing, free shipping, or free returns? If your product or service costs more than similar goods sold by competitors (or perhaps even yourself), do you explain what makes it better (perhaps it’s the quantity of features, or something as simple as the brand’s long and storied reputation)?

Visitors don’t jump from the Confirmation stage straight toward your “Buy Now” button. Whether you’re in a bad economy or price-competitive industry, visitors demand a depth and breadth of information that satisfies them that you—and only you—are the right company from which to buy. Unsatisfied visitors never make it to the last stage, and if you’re only thinking about conversion rate optimization, you’re likely leaving a lot of conversions on the table!

4) Entice: By enticement, I refer to all the common tricks of the trade that encourage a satisfied visitor to initiate the checkout process. From the size, shape, layout, and messaging on your “Buy Now” or “I Want One” button, to the presentation of multiple payment options, enticing action is the final step in the visitor’s decision to purchase from you. (Note that I treat cart abandonment, correctly or incorrectly, as a separate issue. In most cases, visitors abandoning their carts had a sincere intention to purchase from you but were thrown off by other issues during checkout. For tips to reduce cart abandonment, check out Bryan Eisenberg’s excellent two-part series.)

As Bill Gates once said, “If you want to be rich, don’t make it your goal to be rich.” The path to maximizing your conversion rate is an indirect one, requiring the marketer to nurture visitors at all stages of the buying cycle. Understand these four stages, and you’ll be on a much better path toward optimizing your conversion rate.