When the search actually occurs, what do people do with the information? How do they spot, understand, and recall information? In other words, how do they process information? This broad topic is important for understanding buyer behavior in general as well as effective communication with buyers in particular, and it has received a great deal of study. Assessing how a person processes information is not an easy task. Often observation has served as the basis. Yet there are many theories as to how the process takes place. One widely accepted theory proposes a five step sequence.2
- Exposure. Information processing starts with the exposure of consumers to some source of stimulation such as watching television, going to the supermarket, or receiving direct mail advertisements at home. In order to start the process, marketers must attract consumers to the stimulus or put it squarely in the path of people in the target market.
- Attention. Exposure alone does little unless people pay attention to the stimulus. At any moment, people are bombarded by all sorts of stimuli, but they have a limited capacity to process this input. They must devote mental resources to stimuli in order to process them; in other words, they must pay attention. Marketers can increase the likelihood of attention by providing informational cues that are relevant to the buyer.
- Perception. Perception involves classifying the incoming signals into meaningful categories, forming patterns, and assigning names or images to them. Perception is the assignment of meaning to stimuli received through the senses. (More will be said about perception later.)
- Retention. Storage of information for later reference, or retention, is the fourth step of the information-processing sequence. Actually, the role of retention or memory in the sequence is twofold. First, memory holds information while it is being processed throughout the sequence. Second, memory stores information for future, long-term use. Heavy repetition and putting a message to music are two things marketers do to enhance retention.
- Retrieval and application. The process by which information is recovered from the memory storehouse called is retrieval. Application is putting that information into the right context. If the buyer can retrieve relevant information about a product, brand, or store, he or she will apply it to solve a problem or meet a need.
Variations in how each step is carried out in the information-processing sequence also occur. Especially influential is the degree of elaboration. Elaborate processing, also called central processing, involves active manipulation of information. A person engaged in elaborate processing pays close attention to a message and thinks about it; he or she develops thoughts in support of or counter to the information received. In contrast, nonelaborate, or peripherial, processing involves passive manipulation of information.3 It is demonstrated by most airline passengers while a flight attendant reads preflight safety procedures. This degree of elaboration closely parallels the low-involvement, high-involvement theory, and the same logic applies.