If we’re naming just one benefit of the internet, some might say it’s the accessibility of it. It’s open 24 hours a day, weekends, holidays, and can lead you to very nearly anything you could dream of. Tell it what you’re shopping for, and you’ll find countless options, iterations, and results. You can see what other people think of it, your friends, family, industry giants, and even celebrities. And you still might not be inspired to complete your purchase then. You might peruse other offers, stores, options, and yet you may or may not end up back when you began. The folks over on Google’s Consumer Insights team have aptly dubbed this: the messy middle. And they’re invested in figuring out why it happens the way it does and how brands can best mitigate the messy middle ensuring their products win out over the competition. With consumers having more and more online time and less access to physical stores, navigating the messy middle of the purchase journey is becoming more crucial.
Over two years, Alistair Rennie and Jonny Protheroe on Google’s Consumer Insights team have worked on decoding the way consumers “interpret and manage” the excess of information and choices they’re presented with when shopping online. It’s no surprise that there is an unknown number of touchpoints between the start of a client’s shopping journey and their actual purchase. But what their study goes more in-depth into is how consumers process this information and, ultimately, how it all comes together to result in a sale from a specific brand.
“[…]when applied intelligently and responsibly, behavioral science principles — and the behavioral and informational needs they align with — are powerful tools for winning and defending consumer preference in the messy middle.”
They found that consumers gather information from searches, social media platforms, review websites, peers, paid endorsements, and many other places. This causes shoppers to cycle through the messy middle as many times as they need to before they make a purchase. As noted in their diagram below, these cycles can be categorized as “exploration, an expansive activity, and evaluation, a reductive activity.”
Six Main Cognitive Biases to Navigate the Messy Middle
While there are hundreds of cognitive biases that influence consumer behaviour, Rennie and Protheroe have identified six that took priority in their research:
- Category heuristics: Short descriptions of key product specifications can simplify purchase decisions.
- Power of now: The longer you have to wait for a product, the weaker the proposition becomes.
- Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive.
- Scarcity bias: As stock or availability of a product decreases, the more desirable it becomes.
- Authority bias: Being swayed by an expert or trusted source.
- Power of free: A free gift with a purchase, even if unrelated, can be a powerful motivator.
Part of their study highlighted the result of an experiment where consumers were presented with branded products, including one fictional brand. Their results stunned the team. Their fictional cereal brand won 28% of the shoppers over with their 5-star reviews and a 20% extra value offer.
While surprising, their experiment starkly illustrates their conclusion that “when applied intelligently and responsibly, behavioral science principles — and the behavioral and informational needs they align with — are powerful tools for winning and defending consumer preference in the messy middle.”
Of course, being the consumer choice and having your product be the end purchase is the goal. However, Rennie and Protheroe are quick to clarify that brands shouldn’t be aiming to edge customers out of the explorations and evaluation phases, but rather the goal should be to “provide them with the information and reassurance they need to make a decision.”
But what does this mean for brands in the real world?
This information has a different weight depending on the size and establishment of your brand.
For major heavyweight brands, it’s critical to come to terms with the fact that understanding and catering to their clients’ mindset is “a vital part of protecting their market share.” Brands that speak to clients at the start of their journey only, aren’t doing enough—no matter the brand size. Ensuring your brand is present and reassuring consumers every step of the way through all the iterations of exploration and evaluation is the best way to make sure it’s your product that clinches the deal.
For smaller or less established brands, the messy middle actually presents a place for them to shine. More prominent brands are often quieter in the stages between need and purchase, allowing smaller brands to offer their products and disrupt the consumer’s mindset and maybe even land some new sales and customers.
“We’re asking ourselves every day, ‘Is this creative or ad placement right for this moment and in this context?’ And when the answer is no, we pivot. [. . .] we’re mindful that some of our products . . . can be more helpful today than they were even yesterday.”
Google’s Consumer Insights team’s Suggestions to Succeed in the Messy middle—no matter the Brand Size
- Ensure brand presence so your product or service is strategically in front of mind while your customers explore.
- Employ behavioral science principles intelligently and responsibly to make your proposition compelling as consumers evaluate their options.
- Close the gap between trigger and purchase so your existing and potential customers spend less time exposed to competitor brands.
- Build flexible, empowered teams who can work cross-functionally to avoid traditional branding and performance silos that are likely to leave gaps in the messy middle.
Need More Navigational Advice?
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Primarily because from your customers’ perspective, their habits haven’t changed. They are merely shopping in settings that are accessible to them. But for marketers, the change in setting and offering amount is considerable. Suppose you need a little extra push to make your campaigns really pop. In that case, Joshua Spanier, Google’s Global Marketing VP for Media, shares a few of the questions he and his team ask when evaluating or creating a brand campaign:
- Is this campaign right, given the current context in a local market?
- Though we greenlit this campaign last month/last week/yesterday, is it still right for the context and moment?
- Are all of the creative elements — tone, copy, visuals, keywords, placements — appropriate and relevant to this new reality?
- What are the most relevant brands, products, or campaigns our media can support right now, and do we need to shift budgets?
- In what ways can our brand — and even our owned media channels — be helpful to people and businesses in this moment of need?
“We’re asking ourselves every day, ‘Is this creative or ad placement right for this moment and in this context?’ And when the answer is no, we pivot. Our guiding principle as a brand, particularly in this moment, is to be helpful. And as people turn to technology for information and connection in these times of need, we’re mindful that some of our products . . . can be more helpful today than they were even yesterday.”
Focusing on how to best serve and help your current consumers, long-time brand supporters, and new customers is, by far, the best way to navigate your brand through the messy middle of the purchase journey. Supporting shoppers with information, value and instilling trust will always win out—and guide them to the finish line of your checkout process.