Understanding the messy middle in the consumer funnel
It is called the messy middle and is “a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts.” More precisely, it is that complex stage that lies somewhere between, precisely, the first trigger and the final purchase in the consumer buying process, where people are at risk of being overwhelmed and confused. Today more than ever, identifying the messy middle, integrating this information into the classic funnel, and being able to understand consumers’ paths can make all the difference for brands, because only the best are able to anticipate their customers’ needs in terms of information and guidance, thus delivering an optimal customer experience.
What is the messy middle: Google’s definition
Messy middle is a concept introduced by Google to describe the complex consumer decision-making process in the digital age, corresponding to the space between the stimulus (or trigger) that triggers a consumer’s interest in a product or service and the moment of actual purchase.
In this “confusing medium,” consumers move back and forth between two mental states: exploration (consideration of a wide range of options) and evaluation (more detailed analysis of a narrower set of options), and this process may repeat itself several times before a purchase decision is made.
The messy middle is characterized by an overabundance of information and options, which can make consumer decision making more complex. People were searching for information long before the advent of online shopping and well before the existence of the Internet, and many of the mental processes used by our ancestors are still present today: however, what we search for and where we search for it can change rapidly.
The origins of the messy middle: early research and recent developments
The messy middle began to be talked about in late 2020, after the publication of an in-depth study by Alistair Rennie and Jonny Protheroe of Google’s consumer insights team, followed by a paper summarizing the main findings of their research on buyer decision making.
The goal of that work was to understand how the process of processing all the information and options that people encounter in their customer journey influences final purchase decisions, starting with an assumption: “the way people make decisions is chaotic and will become even more so, but there are some solid points that we know about purchase behavior.”
One aspect still unexplored, while “we know that what happens between the first trigger, that is, the first stimulus that triggers the funnel, and the actual purchase decision is not linear and that it is a complicated network of touchpoints that changes from one person to the next.”
Today, in 2023, Google and The Behavioural Architects (a team of experts in the field of behavioral sciences) unveiled a second paper, called “Decoding Decisions: Marketing in the messy middle,” which builds on the findings of the previous study and is the culmination of an additional three years of analysis of the behaviours that drive consumer decision-making, focusing on strategies that brands can apply to their campaigns and content to decode the messy middle and succeed in intercepting consumers at this stage of their purchase journey.
How consumer decision-making is changing
In the pre-Internet era, shopping meant going down real roads, limited by narrower choice and less abundant information; people often bought what was closest or available, or relied on familiar brands to reassure themselves that their decisions were correct. Today, as we navigate the virtual streets of the Web, we are inundated with a sea of information, and the options for choice seem endless.
Google’s report was created precisely to understand how consumers handle this overabundance of information and options by examining the ways in which people process online purchasing decisions.
What emerges is that, faced with the vastness and complexity of information, shoppers rely on cognitive biases rooted in our pre-digital brains.This finding underscores the importance for marketers to understand the evolution of consumer decision-making in order to identify new opportunities for growth and defend their position in the marketplace.
The new decision-making model and the messy middle
The analysis uncovered a new decision-making model, at the center of which is the “messy middle,” which is configured as an intricate space located between the trigger that triggers interest in a product or service and the final act of purchase. Another factor of complexity is the display background, which represents all the existing perceptions and feelings a buyer has about the brands, retailers, and products in a category.
Contrary to what one might think, this apparent chaos reflects two distinct consumer behaviors: exploration, an expansive activity of acquiring new information, and evaluation, a narrower activity of selecting among available options. Consumers continually oscillate between these two phases, repeating the cycle until they reach a final purchase decision.
Buyers can switch between these mindsets whenever they need or want to, exploring available products and brands before evaluating the suitability of a smaller set of choices. If none of these products or offerings turns out to be perfectly right, they simply seek more information and options. And if a purchase is habitual or impulsive, they may skip the “confusing middle” altogether. Finally, once a decision and purchase is made, the buyer’s next experience with the product and brand becomes part of their background exposure, ready for the next cycle to begin.
In short, the messy middle is a complicated place, an environment of abundant choice and unlimited information, and it gets more complex every year with the introduction of new ways of communicating, new means of finding information, new forms of entertainment and expression, and, of course, new products and services to buy and new ways to buy them.
Buyers are also quite complicated. What they want may be a moving target, with the intention to buy one product often ending in the purchase of something completely different, and all of this is governed by motivations that are difficult to explore without the conscious mind inventing post-rationalizations. In a time of economic uncertainty such as the current one, then, consumers are forced to do more with less, to seek value more intensively, and to be more vigilant with the family budget.
The implications for digital marketing
The focus of this talk is really in the messy middle, in this confusing space, that brands can win or lose customers.
Google suggests three key strategies for marketers operating in the “messy middle”:
- Ensure brand presence.
- Reduce the gap between trigger and purchase.
- Use behavioral science in creative and responsible ways.
Google’s project started with the insight that ancient behavioral characteristics are key to understanding online decision making, but the end result was even more surprising: “loading” a proposal with albeit modest expressions of behavioral science can be as persuasive as a 10 percent price discount.
Delving deeper into the previous three points, the 2023 research update revealed:
- Simply showing up may be enough to cause a significant percentage of shoppers to switch from their first-choice brand to a competitor. But what does it mean to show up in an ever-expanding digital landscape? Broad coverage has gone from being an aspiration to a necessity. Marketers-and retailers-must show up and connect with consumers wherever they are. And while there is no doubt about the challenge of being present in all possible information spaces in the messy middle, marketers have at least one powerful ally to make it happen: as we enter a new era of marketing, a new generation of tools, including Google’s AI, will enable companies to connect new customers with relevant ads across various channels in real time.
- Reduce the gap between stimulus and purchase. Showing up is critical, but how we show up can be decisive. At every touch point, marketers must rely on their creativity to deliver content and messaging that draws shoppers into their space and meets their information needs. As new channels and surfaces emerge all the time, it will not be possible to manually create content for every possible surface, environment and scenario. Instead, marketers will need to integrate behavioral science into flexible campaigns, with AI taking over to customize specific formats. With brilliant core resources, these campaigns could gain reciprocity by helping shoppers explore, evaluate, and get out of the messy middle.
- Being present is one thing, but being present and useful is different and requires an extra step. After all, it is very unlikely that ours is the only brand to show up in the messy middle at any given time. The behavioral science principles explored in the report provide a powerful set of tools to help marketers improve the effectiveness of their proprietary ads and content. What will ultimately set brands apart is how they harness creativity and human intuition to create compelling propositions that respond to the underlying behavioral drivers that govern what people choose to buy and where they choose to buy it.
The practical implications for those who want to intercept consumers
In general, there are many paths through the messy middle, and each is different: but while the combination of exposure, trigger and path is unique to each buyer, Google’s analysis shows that there are important similarities in the way people search for information, evaluate competing propositions, build trust in a product and ultimately perform conversions, choosing where to make a purchase.
The role of marketing in the messy middle then becomes a story about how to reach people where they are and increase their trust: it is about being present and having broad coverage to maximize connections with customers through as many relevant opportunities as possible, using creativity to build brilliant assets that help bridge the gap between trigger and purchase, and creating compelling propositions that influence what products consumers choose to buy and where they buy them.
Current challenges-economic uncertainty and the impact of Artificial Intelligence- further complicate the scenario, says Google’s latest study.
For one thing, the new generation of advertising tools and solutions, increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, promises to greatly simplify implementation and scalability. In the context of digital marketing, AI will enable brands to anticipate individual consumer needs, enabling them to better connect new customers with relevant content, across multiple channels and in real time. But it is important to remember that while AI will be a valuable partner, it does not replace the knowledge and experience of marketers, who will need to continue to leverage the characteristics that define and distinguish “great marketing“-the ingenuity, insight, and human intelligence behind the strategy.
Then, on the other hand, there are the frequent budgetary pressures faced by marketers, who are tasked with improving (and proving) ROI to ensure profitable growth. In this context, understanding more about how people make decisions could offer a key competitive advantage.
Google insights are applicable in fairly similar ways to established and emerging brands and provide marketers with ideas and inspiration to help shoppers navigate and get out of the messy middle and to succeed in making, in the process, their brand and product more likely to be chosen.
At the heart of this work is the brand: indeed, research shows that leading brands are able to maintain a significant share of consumer preferences even when competing brands, real or invented, offer far superior propositions. In other words, brand continues to be one of the strongest heuristics influencing consumer choice.
The study results: in how much quality and price matter in product search
According to the Googlers, the Web has transformed “from being a tool for comparing prices to a tool for comparing virtually anything,” and this dynamic is clearly evidenced by the changes in buying behavior over the years that can be understood from Google Search.
For example, they say, graphs for the terms “cheap” (economico) and “best” (migliore) show a clear sign of trend reversal: “Globally, search interest for best has far exceeded that for cheap, and this is true for many countries around the world.”
While the “precise value of what can be called cheap may vary from person to person, but in each case the term has a single meaning,” much more complex is trying to understand the concept of best, which has a wide variety of interpretations “that take into account aspects such as value, quality, performance or popularity.”
Changes in consumer behavior
The COVID-19 emergence has globally accelerated the shift to online shopping and Web searches all over the world – in Italy alone, we were also commenting on Google’s guidance on setting up e-Commerce in just a few months, digital shoppers grew by 2 million – and so it is more important than ever for brands to try to understand what it all means.
This scenario convinced Rennie and Protheroe to complete work begun in 2019 to “update the perspective on consumer decision making” and decipher how consumers decide what to buy, conducted with The Behavioural Architects.
By reviewing existing literature and conducting “observational studies of purchase behavior, research trend analysis, and a large-scale experiment,” the team sought “to understand how consumers make decisions in an online environment with countless options and infinite information available.”
A new decision-making model emerges
In the course of the research, “a new type of updated decision-making model has begun to emerge,” at the center of which chaos reigns, which is precisely the messy middle; in the standard process, “people search for information about products and brands in a category and then evaluate all the options available to them.”
As mentioned, there are two mental patterns that take shape at this stage of the buying journey: on the one hand there is exploration, an expansive activity (i.e., aimed at broadening the field of options available to them), and on the other hand, evaluation, which conversely a reductive activity. “Whatever a person is doing, in a wide variety of online sources, such as search engines, social media, aggregators and review websites, can be classified into one of these two mindsets.”
According to the researchers, “people continuously move between these twin modes of exploration and evaluation, repeating the cycle as many times as necessary to arrive at a final purchase decision.”
Cognitive biases that condition purchases
A further finding that emerged from the report is that “people exploit cognitive biases, or cognitive distortions, deeply ingrained in the mind to deal with and manage large-scale, complex concepts.”
In fact, these cognitive biases “have existed long before the Internet,” and so the study sought to analyze “how they affect people’s purchase decisions today,” coming to determine that “in the process of exploration and evaluation they shape people’s purchase behavior and influence why consumers choose one product over another.”
The six cognitive biases that influence consumer decisions
Although hundreds of biases exist, the authors prioritized six specific ones in the research:
- Category heuristics. Providing short descriptions of key product information can simplify purchase decisions.
- Power of immediacy. The longer a user waits to take advantage of a product, the lower the intention to purchase it becomes.
- Social proof. Recommendations and reviews from other people can prove very effective.
- Scarcity bias. The desirability of a product increases if its availability decreases.
- Authority bias. The opinion of an expert or trusted source is particularly influential.
- Power of gratuity. Including a free gift with a purchase, even if unrelated to the product purchased, can be an excellent incentive.
The bias experiment
Building on these considerations, the team conducted an experiment on large-scale purchases with real in-market buyers, “in which we simulated 310,000 purchase scenarios in the categories of financial services, consumer goods, retail, travel, and utilities.”
In this test, shoppers were asked “to choose their first and second favorite brands within a category, and then we applied a series of biases to see if people were willing to change their preferences from one brand to another.” To test choices in an extreme scenario, “the experiment also included an imaginary brand in each category to which shoppers had never been exposed before.”
The results showed the strong impact of bias: “Even the least effective competitor, a fictitious cereal brand, managed to win 28 percent of shoppers’ preferences over an established preferred brand when shown to have an innumerable amount of benefits, including five-star reviews and an offer with an extra 20 percent discount.” In the most striking case, “a fictional car insurance agency attracted 87 percent of the share of consumer preferences when we attributed advantages to it for all six biases.”
The experiment thus revealed that “when applied intelligently and responsibly, behavioral science principles (and behavioral and informational requirements in line with them) are powerful tools for winning customer preferences and retaining buyers at central stages of decision making.”
Advice for marketers
This theoretical discourse may seem complicated, but “consumers simply perceive it as normal stages of the buying journey“; plus, the goal should not be “to force people out of the cycle shown in the model, but to provide them with the information and reassurance needed to help them make a decision.”
The approach to the customer is the same, “whether your business is a category giant or a competing brand.”
- Ensure brand presence strategically “so that your product or service is noticed and remembered by customers as they explore options.”
- Apply behavioral science principles “intelligently and responsibly to make your proposition compelling as consumers evaluate options,” to accompany them as they exit the messy middle and complete the transaction.
- Bring the moment of the trigger closer to the moment of purchase “so you can reduce your existing and potential customers’ exposure time to competing brands” by optimizing site speed, user experience, and onsite messaging.
- Create flexible and skilled teams “to go beyond traditional branding and avoid barriers between departments that risk leaving gaps in the consumer decision path.”
The latest directions for decoding consumer decision making
In October 2023, Google released as mentioned a new report dedicated to the complex topic of the messy middle, which goes more in the practical direction and provides useful insights into how marketers can influence “messy middle.” Over the years, experts have identified a set of mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that people typically employ as they move through this space, and that process has revealed a powerful set of common principles that illuminate how shoppers navigate the tangled web between trigger and purchase before ultimately deciding what to buy.
To ensure that the research was as practical and applicable as possible, the findings focused on three key areas where marketers have the opportunity to experiment and refine:
- Search. Many consumers rely on Google Search in their path to purchase. However, competing with big brands with large budgets can be challenging. Experiments with search network ads show that strategic use of behavioral science can help even brands that do not occupy top positions get a higher share of ad clicks.
- Brand websites are a key resource in consumer decision making: if customers do not feel confident about buying, they will not click “buy.” The research provides practical suggestions on how to enhance website content with behavioral science principles in order to increase customer trust and sales.
- Point of sale. Consumers are more likely to switch their choice in terms of retailer rather than product brand, particularly when price is a deciding factor. However, results suggest that even the application of basic behavioral science principles can influence consumer decision making as much as offering a 10 percent discount.
To summarize with some useful takeaways, then:
- Exploring and evaluating in the messy middle is not just about deciding what to buy: consumers also need to understand from where.
- When it comes to the moment of the purchase decision, many of the behavioral science principles that have been tested to explore and evaluate play an active role. But there are crucial additional principles and factors, such as delivery friction (how quickly you can receive an item) and the role of prices and promotions.
- People’s preference for specific products and services is stronger than that for retailers. Completely invented retailers with super-enhanced propositions were able to attract large numbers of shoppers away from their first- and second-choice retailers: on average, more than eight out of ten in the tests chose an invented but more “convenient” retailer.
- Although promotional activity plays a key role in decision making, enhancing propositions with the best expressions of relevant behavioral science principles can have just as great, if not greater, impact on what people choose.