Is that customer who made an inquiry about your product comparing it to your competition? Are they just about ready to make a purchase? Or are they evaluating your product after having already purchased it?

Understanding what stage of the buying process your customer is in is essential to crafting a compelling message that will propel them to take action. The significant amount of social data available about your customers means that you can determine where they are on their buying journey, and provide the right content at the right time.

There are five major steps that most consumers take when making a buying decision: they begin by becoming aware of a need for a product, move on to considering that product for purchase, and then evaluate that product against alternatives. Next is the actual purchase of that product, followed by a post-purchase evaluation of the product and their experience with it. Positioning content so that it resonates with your customer’s position within this process means more actionable content, fewer wasted resources and ultimately more purchases.

So how can your business leverage social media to better understand the buying process?

It all begins with knowing your customer.

Understanding what stage of life your customer is in – whether he is a married homeowner or a recent college graduate – will provide a snapshot of what stage of the buying process he is in, especially for larger life purchases.

Tapping into Twitter can shed light on a number of questions about your customer’s stage of life. For instance, if he tweets about concerts, lectures and Frosh Week, it’s likely that he is a college student. And if you know this, you might know that he is eager to buy his first new car… but that he might be a few years out from actually having the financial means to do so. He could be in the awareness, consideration or evaluation stage of the buying process.

But knowing what stage of life your customer is in is not enough. This information needs to be combined with a much more specific, contextual understanding in order to best narrow-down where your customer is in his decision process.

Social media doesn’t just offer data about a customer’s demographics and lifestyle – it can go much deeper. By giving you access to you customer’s content, network, likes and dislikes and more, social media can show you which customers are primed to make a purchase, which ones are recommending your product to their friends, and which ones are unsure of whether your product or your competitor’s suits their needs.

For example, your college student might actually be a coop student in his final semester. He already has significant savings, and is thinking about getting married after graduation. While he thinks about his future, he sends out a tweet to his network: “I’m looking for my first new car. Would like a reasonably priced, reliable one. Suggestions?”

Your customer is clearly in the consideration stage of the buyer decision process. He is leveraging his social network for product suggestions, having already identified his need for a car. He is not yet evaluating one brand against another, but he is seeking the information to do so.

Armed with this knowledge, your car company can send this customer an invitation to test drive the newest model, and can target ads and other content that will appeal to his need for more information about the product.

The wealth of consumer information that social media provides can equip your business with the knowledge it needs to reach your customers at the right stage of the buying process. It’s just a matter of tapping into this data and using it to connect to your customers.