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July 7th 2021
The buyer decision-making process is constantly changing. As the internet and marketing channels and tactics have evolved, consumers now have access to more information about suppliers and products than ever before.
This has meant the way people make decisions about products has become much messier, no longer using the internet to compare product prices but to compare well, everything. And to make things even messier, they do it while jumping from one device to another (research by Monetate has found multi-device journeys make up as much as 65% of all purchase journeys).
Google’s Insight team and Behavioural Architects refer to this as ‘the messy middle’:
“The ‘messy middle’: a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts.” (Google, Decoding Decisions, 2020).
According to Google, people look for information about a category’s products and brands and then weigh all the options. This equates to two different mental modes in the messy middle: exploration, an expansive activity, and evaluation, a reductive activity. Whatever a person’s doing, across a huge array of online sources such as search engines, social media, aggregators and review websites, can be classified into either exploration and evaluation, and they repeat the cycle as many times as they need to make a purchase decision.
What this means
In a nutshell, as consumers are given more information and choices to interpret and manage when making a purchase, their already non-linear purchase journey becomes an even more complicated web of touchpoints that differs from person to person.
And with more consumers online than ever before, making sure your brand successfully negotiates the messy middle is as important as any other element of your marketing strategy.
So how can you master the messy middle?
There are a number of steps you can take to give your brand the best chance of coming through the messy middle to successfully win customers.
By taking a focused, consistent and, if possible, personalised marketing approach across all channels – social media, video search, search engines or whatever – you’ll make sure your product or service is easily visible when and wherever consumers go looking.
…produce as much as content as you can! Consumers are hungry for content, in various formats, to help them identify their options and find the product that is of the most value to them.
Best vs cheap: You can easily see on Google trends how people’s search behaviour is changing. One powerful example shows the large decline in the use of ‘cheap’ searches, being replaced in terms of search volume by ‘best’ related keywords.
Of course, the complication arrives as the clear search indicator you can determine from a “cheap“search (the search intent is to find prices!), is replaced by broader terms like “best”, which could relate to a whole range of attributes from price, quality, popularity, speed of delivery and so on.
Ideally, you’ll be producing content that covers all of these purchase influences and each stage of the user journey, but of course, money (& our time is limited); so more realistically, you can use it to influence your search strategies and how you want to be found online.
In terms of PPC, it could be as simple as ensuring your ads show consumers as much information as possible at initial interaction – for example, integrating reviews into your text ads, utilising image extensions or using site links to take them specifically to a video testimonial or demo.
From an SEO perspective, many brands have benefitted from taking a content pillar approach to their SEO strategy, identifying target topics as opposed to focusing pages on specific keywords.
The competition for your potential customers is hotter than ever, and consumers have busy lives – so if your site keeps them waiting or is difficult to read, they’ll more often than not go to one that gives them what they want simply and quickly.
Looking deeper into the messy middle, Google identified 6 cognitive biases they believed influenced why a consumer buys one product over another.
There are all sorts of ways you can make sure your offer follows these principles, with examples including: having product descriptions summarise key product benefits and specifications as concise bullet points; using stock indicators (These are pretty much common place on large ecommerce sites such as ASOS and Argos); and introducing ‘social proof’ to your product pages (e.g. 360 virtual product views, demo videos or image reviews).
Video has the ability to convey information much quicker than text formats. In fact, research has consistently found that users retain up to 95% of information from a video compared to 10% from text – so it’s clear video can play a crucial role in mastering the messy middle.
How can you use video to best advantage? Product demos and explainer videos can show a product’s features and benefits clearly and concisely in detail, while customer testimonials can ensure your social proof is as authentic as possible and offers a more human-to-human interaction.
Once consumers have noticed your product, you should aim to convert them into purchasers quickly, and give them less time to explore competitor brands and products.
That might mean removing barriers to purchase by offering a range of payment options for example, buy now, pay later options, which continue to grow in adoption. Or simply providing a quick and easy-to-navigate user experience from product to purchase (ideally a one-button purchase path).
In summary, while it might seem harder than ever to attract customers when they’re faced with an ever-more complex purchasing journey and endless information, the key is to keep things simple. Use the data sensibly to put your product in the right places, and use the tools and tactics you can to create content that truly adds value to the end user.