How Maslow Can Help Your Online Business

maslow2.jpg Once upon a time, there was a man named Abraham Maslow. He liked people. He studied them. He watched how they developed and evolved. What held them back? What pushed them forward? How did humans behave?

You might not care much about Maslow, but you should, especially if you’re into online business.

Why Maslow is Famous

Maslow realized people had five levels of needs to fulfill, from the most basic to the most evolved. People would satisfy the needs of one level and then work on fulfilling the next level’s set of needs. Some lucky people reach the apex, called self-actualization, but those folk are rare.

We all start at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. We need to stay alive, so we fulfill the most basic aspects of survival. Food, water, sex, sleep… When you get right down to it, humans don’t need much. A nice meal, a good romp and a long snooze, and we’re happy.

Once that’s all settled, we start working on fulfilling needs at the next level, that of security. We like a stable life. We enjoy having a steady job and an income. We want personal safety so we can feel that our world is right.

When security needs are fulfilled, we move on to relationships and belonging. Humans are social creatures. We want to be liked and feel loved. We need friends and family. We want intimacy.

Level four is about esteem – for self and for others. We work on self-confidence and self-worth. We earn respect from other people, and we learn to respect ourselves. We feel pretty good, in fact.

Level five is the big one, where we introspect about our morality and explore our creativity. When you reach level five, you’re about two feet away from heaven, in my opinion. You feel complete – your life has been worthwhile.

Uhhh… So What?

Part of Maslow’s theory is that if you haven’t fulfilled the needs of a lower level, you can’t really move up to the next one up. You’re stuck until you feel comfortable. Your place in the hierarchy isn’t stable, either. You might reach a higher level, but an event in your life shakes a lower foundation – and shakes you down with it.

People tend to move up and down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs all the time. Life’s great, and we get up to level four. The company we work for lays us off, and we’re back down to worrying over level two. We get a new job with new friends, and we’re at level three. But we’re not secure in that new job so we struggle with level two.

What’s even cooler is that as we fulfill needs, we feel nothing. We don’t care much. It’s really no big deal.

But if any need is unfulfilled, we feel anxious. We worry. We stress. We can’t forget about an unfulfilled need, because we just don’t feel comfortable.

That’s important to your business, because there are two areas where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs come into play. How you sell to others, and the moves you make in your own business.

Maslow and Marketing

It’s useless and ineffective to target a market without knowing the full profile of the people you are trying to convince to buy. You have to know what need these people are trying to fulfill.

Here’s an example:

You have a great idea to fill the demand for the niche of building confidence. Fantastic.

But you’re targeting new business owners. This group of people is at level two of the hierarchy – security. They’re worrying about their jobs and supporting their family. They don’t care about feeling confident.

That means you have to adjust your marketing strategies and target people in a different way, honing into their worries and anxieties to sell. You may need to alter your sales tactics and push that a confident person achieves financial stability.

Or, you can target the smaller group of people at the level four stage of esteem and tap into that market alone.

Examine the world around you. What level are most of your friends at on Maslow’s hierarchy? Are they at level three, trying to build relationships? Are they at level two, stressing over income? Are they at level one, striving to feed a family?

People aren’t going to care about what they already have. They are going to be anxious about what doesn’t feel settled in their lives. Your marketing strategies need to target people where they’re at, right here and right now.

Maslow and You

It’s important to know what level you’re at in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What needs do you want to fulfill to feel good? What’s stopping you right now from reaching higher? Solve the issue. Focus on fulfilling your immediate needs so that you can strive for higher goals.

If you reach up on a shaky ladder that doesn’t have a strong foundation, you’ll only fall when outside events rumble your world.

So do a little introspection. Where are you sitting on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Perhaps you’re focusing on building relationships with others at the third level. Perhaps you’re at level four, examining your own confidence as you make moves and take decisions. Or are you at a level one, with a new online business struggling to make money? Maybe you’re at level two, contemplating leaving a company job to be an entrepreneur.

Figure it out – and use Maslow’s hierarchy to take your world to the next level.

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Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Wow! I haven’t seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applied this way before, James. I liked the way you worked through the analogy. It’s so true as well. When I was studying educational theory, this was correlated with a grid that showed the movement from new learners to independent learners. I can’t remember the name, but it’s similar to the progression in any career, where you start off feeling ignorant and needing to check everything with others, while you gain more confidence and integrate your knowledge as you move through, ending as an evolved learner who knows that s/he doesn’t know anything but can deal with it. Just like an experienced freelancer, that learner is less worried by peaks and troughs. Well, it’s sort of related, anyway. 😉

    Sharon Hurley Hall’s last blog post..Posts On Writing March 2008

  2. James – a very well written piece, with a great spin on Maslow.

    (Twilight Zone time) I was out with two friends last night and we were talking about Maslow’s hierarchy. Not with respect to an online business specifically, just about life change – you don’t happen to know tonight’s Keno numbers do you? 😉

    I don’t need to win enough for a yacht, but if it pays for a pizza that is good enough…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  3. Hey James, this post couldn’t have at a right time. Just the other day I was flipping through my marketing books and was reading Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

    I think Maslow’s theory can be very well applied on how you can give customers what they want. If you take this approach towards product or services you are offering to your clients, you can really boost your marketing strategy and generate sales and loyalty from your clients. I had written a piece on this one and was thinking about posting it soon. Will see…. you beat me with this post 🙂

    Ritu’s last blog post..Blog Sustainability Depends on One Thing and Nothing Else

  4. On the odd chance that I come across as totally “thick’, I never even heard of Maslow. No, seriously I haven’t. But then I didn’t grow up in an English speaking environment so maybe I am excused a smitten. LOL.

    The only time I’ve seen this pyramid before was in conjunction to eating a balanced diet. Interesting and very deep post James.

    Monika Mundell’s last blog post..Use The Pareto Principle To Sack Annoying Clients

  5. James – I was just thinking about this the other day! Seriously, I almost wrote an article along the exact same lines…but it wouldn’t have been quite as clear or coherent as yours.

    In the marketing section, I agree with the idea of choosing a smaller target market instead of trying to sell security and confidence at the same time.

    Does Cadillac sell their air bag systems or safety features? Hardly…it’s all about luxury, because they aren’t targeting people who feel the need for security.

    Does the Ritz Hotel sell their “free breakfast”? Not likely, it’s beyond that…

    Your “Maslow and You” section is great!

    Chad’s last blog post..13 Reasons Why You Should NOT Be A Freelance Writer

  6. Oh man, I was just thinking about this exact topic last weekend and here you’ve beat me to it…

    Oh well.

    Good post!

    Laura Spencer’s last blog post..Do You Read Comments?

  7. LOL Looks like I beat everyone to the punch!

    @ Sharon – I love psychology. What we often forget is that online business is *all* about psychology and there are many theories that apply to how we could do things or market or sell… It’s fun.

    @ Brett – So where do you figure you are in the hierarchy?

    @ Ritu – I’d be interested in seeing what your strategies would be in relation to the points I brought up.

    @ Monika – Psychology is one of the most studied areas of formal education – generally because it’s easy and fun. But not having studied it doesn’t make you thick in the least – you have a wealth of knowledge I know nothing about.

    @ Chad – What I found interesting is how we try to fulfill needs that we haven’t reached the level of needing yet. Most bloggers want community and people – stage three. Yet they buy a ton of products or info that relates to stage five. Wasted money? You betcha.

    Likewise, you can’t sell productivity to someone who is worried about meeting the bills each month. Incompatible stages of needs.

    And yes, a balanced diet is important for good health. Up with broccoli!

  8. @ James:

    Funny you asked, I was thinking about the answer and for me it depends.

    This morning before I had a coffee, I was at Level 1 🙂

    Generally I’d say I’m floating between 3 and 4, with the odd moment of inspiration at 5, which probably led me to want to start a blog, and some other business ideas, which would be more likely at 2.

    It is like you said, we move around the hierarchy through life. Sometimes out of personal choice, sometimes not.

    Preferably because we choose to do it! It can be a good experience, if you think about it.

    (Think survival camping, if you are into that kind of thing, as an alternative example to starting a business.)

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  9. @ Monika, I agree with James – I learned of this concept in an engineering problem solving course, so it just depends on everyone’s experiences.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  10. Hi James,
    Yeah although I might not be able to portray it as clearly as you did, I think I will give it a try. I will let you know once the post is up.


    Ritu’s last blog post..On Being Creative

  11. I hadn’t heard of Maslow, but have been aware of (many of) the levels of needs humans have — I wrote a recent piece on the Need to Belong.

    While levels one and two are definitely physiologically based, it’s interesting that the upper levels are psychologically based. A lot of who we are, how happy we are, depends greatly on our minds — how we think, analyze, determine.

    We have Body, Mind…

    At the top level — would that be Spirit?

    Anyway, great job applying it to business.

    Men with Pens
    penning your writing needs

    Nez’s last blog post..Why Be Wary of Super Cheap Products

  12. I also find it interesting how it mirrors the chakra system. The lower chakras (energy points in the body for those of you unfamiliar with the term) of red (sex), orange, and yellow represent the physical needs. Green (the heart) is the bridge between the body and mind as we move to blue, indigo, and violet (connection with the divine) which represent the more spiritual side of life.

  13. I never thought of that, Harry. So as you progress through the hierarchy, you could also be fulfilling your divine purpose.

    Sharon Hurley Hall’s last blog post..Taking Criticism: Are You A Dinosaur?

  14. I like this post, b/c I think that subconsciously we all have an inkling of Maslow’s pyramid, but I rarely sit down and think about Maslow and marketing. Really informative post, James.

    @Harry – Interesting insight on the body’s chakras! It seems as though balanced chakras would directly relate to one’s ability to climb Maslow’s pyramid.

    RLD: Taekwondo Happiness’s last blog post..Update

  15. @Sharon & RLD: I know James is going to roll his eyes at this…

    Balanced chakras directly relate to everything. 😉

  16. So they do, Harry , so they do. 🙂

  17. I’m rolling my eyes. I don’t see the link between chakras and Maslow…

  18. Question about chakras – I am familiar with the term but have not really studied it – is the idea that you have to “get each one in order” before you move to the next one up the chain, sort of like Maslow?

    Just curious – you guys got me reading a bit about this, that’s what I love about the comments here…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  19. I’ve read this three times, and each time was interrupted before I could comment. This is possibly the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen. Not sure which of us this fact speaks volumes for, James, but I love this. I am printing it, and I never print anything.

    Amy – Write From Home’s last blog post..Want to Be a Freelance Blogger?

  20. @James: The connection is this:

    The base chakras are related to very physical needs (sex, food, sleep, ect), as are Maslow’s levels. The higher up you move through the chakras, the more spiritual the needs become. You begin to leave the physical behind for something more mental and abstract.

    I may just have to expand on this in a post…or two…

  21. @ Harry – I took a quick search around and found a free test online – quite interesting actually. I’ll have to give this some more thought…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  22. @ Harry – LOL… you go, bro. I’ll roll my eyes while I read 😉 It does make me wonder, though, how many types of religions are based on these principles. Or whether Maslow based his theories on religion… hm, hm!

    @ Amy – Thank you. I’m glowing 🙂

    I’m glad that everyone enjoyed this. I find a lot of tie-ins from my textbooks to how we work online and it’s really rather interesting to look into. I’ll do more of these.

  23. @Brett: No, you don’t have to work on one before you move to another. You sort of work on them all at once to keep them balanced. What kind of test did you find? I’ve never heard of tests for chakras before. Unless you’re talking about using a pendulum for testing. If you’re interested in learning how to do that, email me.

    @James: I believe the chakra theories were around long before Maslow was born! 🙂

  24. @ Harry,

    I found a test here:

    Once I did the test and it showed the results, I sort of wondered whether it worked that way, so thanks for explaining it. I will definitely email you to find out, I’m interested to learn more. I like that kind of stuff. I did a Myers-Briggs test a couple of months ago, and say what you like, but it was DEAD ON for me. I wish I’d done it a few years ago.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  25. @ Brett – I hate to burst your bubble, but the Myers-Briggs test is widely discredited and isn’t considered reliable or valid… I guess that means you can refute all the bad stuff it said about you 🙂

  26. @ James – that’s okay, it didn’t say anything bad about me so I just smiled at the results 😉

    (I hear you though, always best to take this stuff with a grain of salt… usually the one who knows “you” best is, well, “you”.)

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  27. Oh James this is GOOD! Why in the world does everyone on earth (including me but excluding Monika 🙂 ) seem to have been thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs all of a sudden? That is almost more interesting than the pyramid itself!

    I love the idea of tying this to marketing – brilliant! I think that I’m like Brett, somewhere between 3 and 4 in most areas of my life. Step 5 seems like a huge jump from the rest of the pyramid and one day I’m going to figure out how to get there!

    Christine O’Kelly’s last blog post..Lies I Told Myself That Kept Me Broke and Lazy

  28. @ Christine – now the trick for me is to get my own business to a 3 or a 4, like you. Love your latest post btw, I’ll chat over at your place… 🙂

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..the privilege of choice.

  29. @ Christine – LOL, what… you didn’t think I had it in me? 😉 And the diff is, everyone in the world was thinking of Maslow – but I moved on him first.

    Dave would be proud. Fire, fire, fire!

    I think I’m past a two, definitely. Past a three, yes. Into four. I’m swimming around in there, got some solid footing. Not interested in 5 yet. But four? Oh yeah.

  30. I studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs many years ago, and incorporated it into my nursing practice of holism; along with Orem et al. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit like algebra and calculus; when out in the real world, outside of the health care environment.

    Your post is fascinating and brings something long forgotten back to the fore; it made me realise that I’ve been incorporating this into my fledgling hand-made greeting cards and wedding stationary business.

    My tag-lines are Giving You The Gift of Time, Making Your Special Occasion Extra Special, etc. Obviously I’m hoping to appeal to folk at the level 3 stage of their emotional evolution; forging relationships with the need for approval, etc.

    Business wise I’m a beginner and broke, probably just at level 2; however, in my personal life I’ve never been so happy. Quite where I’d put myself on Maslows Hierarchy I don’t know…

    Thank you for an extra-ordinary insight into the world of marketing. Thank you also for generating an interesting conversation in the comments as a result of your post!

    polly peirce’s last blog post..Pollys Peri-wrinkles & Piercings!: Polly Catholic?

  31. @ Polly – You’re very welcome. I find online marketing (and marketing in general) extremely interesting, and I realize there are ways that everyone can learn a little about how to market more effectively. Understanding Maslow’s theory is one of them.


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