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What Is The Messy Middle?

In Google’s own words, the messy middle explores the “complex space between triggers and purchase, where customers are won and lost.”

Let’s break this down a little.

Pick up a business book or listen to a lecture on “the funnel” and you might walk away thinking that the buying journey follows a somewhat linear structure, moving nicely from one stage to the other in an orderly fashion.

Awareness > Consideration > Purchase

It’s a nice, structured, and predictable sequence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really reflect how people navigate the digital world. Yes, people do move through phases, but the way in which they do so is becoming increasingly, well, messy. 

That’s why we’re talking about ‘The Messy Middle” – a great piece of research from Google that can help us further understand consumer behaviour.

In this blog post, we’ll break down what the messy middle is, how you can use elements of behavioural science to succeed in that space, and how we can help you do so.

Graphic credit: Search Engine Journal

A trigger refers to the prompt that moves a consumer from a passive state to an active one. This usually takes the form of a problem that requires solving, and an online search (or many online searches) is used to investigate the most appropriate solutions.

Hopefully, this is where the consumer would gain awareness of your brand as you appear in their searches.

In the traditional concept of the funnel, the consumer would politely work their way through linear stages, starting with this initial awareness.

They would then move into consideration, where they weigh up a decision to purchase and familiarise themselves with your offering and brand to see if you could adequately resolve their problem.

Next, of course, is action – A.K.A. purchase.

However, research conducted when investigating the messy middle uncovered that users go into long and complex cycles of exploration and evaluation of the many options that could be considered potential problem solvers.

How Can Businesses Win In The Messy Middle?

These two mental modes comprise the messy middle: exploration mode is an “expansive activity” where consumers are looking for more options and more information, and evaluation mode is a “reductive activity” where the consumer drops options that are deemed unsuitable and narrow their choices down.

These two modes encompass any consumer action across a vast number of online modalities, such as search engines, social media platforms, review sites, brand websites, comparison sites, aggregators, and more.

This cycle of expansion and reduction is repeated over and over again as the consumer is influenced by different information until they eventually make, or choose not to make, a purchase decision.

Take a look at this graphic from Think With Google.  

Google conducted an experiment to prove that there are tools at your disposal to succeed in the messy middle.

The experiment monitored over 300,000 simulated purchase scenarios across a number of different sectors. 

Shoppers had to select their top two favourite brands from within a category. After this was done, a range of biases, which we’ll explore shortly, were applied to see if they could be encouraged to switch from one brand to the other.

They even included completely fictional brands to see if they could convince shoppers to switch to a brand they had zero exposure to.

Take a look at this graphic from Think With Google.

For this experiment, Google used 6 biases that can influence the purchasing decision:

  1. Category Heuristics: These are digestible, short descriptions that list out key product/service information to simplify the purchase decision.
  2. Power of Now: Ensuring that delivery of product/service was as swift as possible, noting that the “longer you have to wait for a product, the weaker the proposition becomes.”
  3. Social Proof: Utilisation of online reviews and testimonials in strategically positioned locations.
  4. Scarcity Bias: Adding to the desirability of a product or service through indicators that communicate to the consumer that stock/availability is decreasing.
  5. Authority Bias: Utilising industry experts or trusted and authoritative sources to back a brand’s product or service offering.
  6. Power of Free: Offering some sort of complimentary gift with a purchase, even if the gift is not directly related to the purchase itself.

The results are quite dramatic…

The “least effective challenger” – a fictional cereal brand, managed to win over nearly 30% of shoppers from their already established favourite brand when it was boosted by some of the biases mentioned above, namely the inclusion of five-star reviews and an offer to receive 20% extra cereal for free with your order.

The most extreme result revealed a completely fictional car insurer won nearly 90% of consumers when it utilised all six cognitive biases!

Google also revealed some key insights into how brands of all shapes and sizes, from established giants to brand-new challengers, can optimise their presence in the messy middle.

A key point to remember is that, from the perspective of the consumer, the messy middle isn’t messy at all, it is just how they like to shop. 

You should not concern yourself with trying to artificially force consumers to exit the loop, but instead focus on providing the information needed for them to come to their decision.

Here are Google’s top tips for brands navigating the messy middle:

  1. Ensure brand presence so you are thought of and discoverable during the exploration phase.
  2. Utilise behavioural science principles, such as the 6 cognitive biases discussed above, to make your offering seem as attractive and compelling as possible during the evaluation stage.
  3. Ensure that the gap between trigger and purchase is as small as possible (make purchasing EASY) so that you minimise the chances your customer will be exposed to a competitor.
  4. Build teams that can work and communicate effectively across functions to ensure you do not fall into creating branding silos that leave gaps in the messy middle.

How Do I Implement These Tips?

Let’s dig a little deeper into some of these points and reveal how we can help you succeed in the messy middle…

Brand Presence

Ensuring your brand is present during the exploration phase is something we can help with. We can work with you to optimise your website for search engines, giving you the best chance of appearing for highly relevant search queries.

This means you are present when consumers are looking for solutions to their problems, and your website has a much greater chance of getting organic qualified traffic.

This could mean we optimise your existing website, design and develop a new one from scratch or work with you on your ongoing SEO content and maintenance needs to keep your site in tip-top shape.

We can also use our graphic design services to help create a consistent, impactful visual identity across your website, social media profiles, and digital presence.

Utilising Behavioural Science Principles

If you sell online, we can help you develop a fully optimised online shopping experience for your customers that take advantage of cognitive bias implementation.

We can introduce these elements sitewide, create conversion-optimised copy, and ensure that your product pages are giving you the best chance of winning on the battleground that is the messy middle.

Even if you do not sell online directly, we can help, as all of these principles still apply and can have a tremendous impact on your conversion rate.

That means more qualified leads for you to work with! 

In regards to online reviews and testimonials, we can help fully optimise your Google business profile and work with you to create strategies that encourage your clients/customers to positively review your business, as well as introduce design elements on-site to promote client testimonials and reviews.

Closing The Gap

We want to help make the buying experience as intuitive and easy as possible for your customers.

When designing a new site or optimising an existing one, we look to establish and promote UX design principles to ensure just that, as well as ensuring that your landing pages are optimised toward conversions.

We can work with you to remove any barriers to purchase or lead generation and use the experience and technical knowledge of our e-commerce team to ensure that site visitors are pushed toward conversion in a strategic and effective manner.

What Next?

If you’re interested in reading more about the messy middle, you can access the entire 100-page report here.

If you’re looking for further advice or you want to optimise your digital presence to boost your chances of success in the messy middle, get in touch with us today for an obligation-free chat.

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