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The "messy middle" of the purchase journey is the key to how people decide what to buy

The decision-making process is messy by itself. What happens between interest and purchase it's even more complicated because is NOT a linear process. What is less clear, however, is is how people take all the information along the way.

The Internet has transformed from a tool for comparing prices to a tool for, well, comparing everything. Purchase behavior change over the years. Let's take "cheap" and "best" as an example: "best" has outpaced Google searches for "cheap". And that's the same in every Country if you analyze the localization of those words.

"Cheap" (blue) vs "Best" (red) Google Searches in the US

"Cheap" meaning could include a variety of values, but it still carries a singular meaning. But "best" can have a wide range of meanings, including quality, popularity, or performance.

This is the behavior that happens in the messy middle between interest and purchase. As COVID-19 has accelerated online shopping, it's more important than ever to learn about it.

The messy middle: Two mental modes

People look online for information about products, services, brands, and other user's reviews, then weigh all the options. Each person can experience one of the following mental modes: exploration (an EXPANSIVE activity) or evaluation (a REDUCTIVE activity). Whatever the person is doing across a huge array of online sources (social media, search engines, review websites, and more) can be classified into one of those two mental modes.

Google has created the following image to explain it. People loop through these modes, repeating the cycle as many times as they need to make a purchase decision.
6 biases that influence purchase decisions

As people explore and evaluate in the messy middle, cognitive biases shape their shopping behavior and influence why they choose one product over another. While many hundreds of these biases exist, Google prioritized six:

  1. Category heuristics: Short descriptions of key product specifications can simplify purchase decisions

  2. Power of now: The longer you have to wait for a product, the weaker the proposition becomes

  3. Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive

  4. Scarcity bias: As stock or availability of a product decreases, the more desirable it becomes

  5. Authority bias: Being swayed by an expert or trusted source

  6. Power of free: A free gift with a purchase, even if unrelated, can be a powerful motivator

In an experiment, shoppers were asked to pick their first and second favorite brands within a category, and then a range of biases was applied to see if people would switch their preference from one brand to another. To test an extreme scenario, the experiments also included a fictional brand in each category, to which shoppers had zero prior exposure.

The results showed that even the least effective challenger, a fictional cereal brand, still managed to win 28% of shopper preference from the established favorite when it was “supercharged” with benefits, including five-star reviews and an offer of 20% extra for free. And in the most extreme case, a fictional car insurer won an 87% share of consumer preference when supercharged with advantages.

The experiment showed 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.

The marketing history is full of stories of new brands that came out of nowhere to seize substantial market share. The thing is: brands that know how to help consumers navigate and simplify decision-making are often richly rewarded.

How to succeed in the messy middle

Remember that, for consumers, the messy middle just feels like normal during the purchase process. The goal isn’t to force people to exit the loop shown in the model, but to provide them with the information and reassurance they need to make a decision.

  • Ensure brand presence so your product or service is strategically in front of mind while your customers explore. - Use available data to qualify and categorize shoppers who are exploring – data-driven algorithms should eventually make this identification possible at scale. - Provide a great user experience that makes exploring your offerings as easy as possible. - Present all the relevant information potential customers need to make a rapid transition into the evaluation and then on towards purchase.

  • Employ behavioral science principles intelligently and responsibly to make your proposition compelling as consumers evaluate their options. - Use available data to qualify and categorize shoppers who are evaluating – data-driven algorithms should eventually make this identification possible at scale. - Ensure that your ad messaging is tailored to the needs of evaluative shoppers, containing behavioural biases relevant to your category. - When shoppers visit your site, the user experience should make the evaluation process as simple as possible, with appropriate detail and functionality. - Use tactics such as retargeting and basket-abandonment messaging to engage with evaluative shoppers who are in danger of exiting back into explore mode.

  • Close the gap between trigger and purchase so your existing and potential customers spend less time exposed to competitor brands What might barriers look like to close that gap? - Poor site speed, particularly on mobile. - Inconsistent or unclear messaging, particularly between ad copy and landing page. - Inadequate information, such as missing product details. - User experience issues, such as unclear navigation, pop-ups, and limited payment options.

  • 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


The better brands get an anticipating shopper's needs for information and guidance, the better customer experience will become overall.


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