Three Things Every Marketer Needs To Know From Google’s ‘Messy Middle’ Research

Three Things Every Marketer Needs To Know From Google’s ‘Messy Middle’ Research
B&T Magazine
Edited by B&T Magazine

In this guest post, founder of Hardhat agency Dan Monheit (pictured) offers his outtakes on the three things every marketer needs to know from Google’s ‘Messy Middle’ research…

People can say whatever they want to say. Brands can promise whatever they want to promise. But when it’s all said and done, behaviour is the only thing that’s real. 

This belief is what’s driven me to spend more of the last decade thinking about, researching, experimenting, podcasting and presenting on human behaviour, than almost anything else. So when in April this year, Google invited me to help unpack their groundbreaking global research into how behavioural biases impact our purchase decisions, it was a pretty quick ‘yes’ from my end.  

The large scale scientific study delved deep into the “messy middle” – that elongated phase between initial inspiration and eventual purchase. The research covered a two-year-long study of over 250,000 online shopping journeys and draws on decades of behavioural science research before that.

Three key insights for marketers

Historically, there’s been a lot of deeply academic research into the field of behavioural economics. What I loved was that this study specifically set out to see how we can apply these findings outside the lab, and turn them into real-time commercial, competitive advantages. 

There was a lot to take in, but my three biggest takeaways were as follows:

1. You can’t win if you’re not there 

While this might sound obvious, the Google data demonstrated the tremendous importance of presence alone – essentially, just turning up. Researchers asked ‘in market’ shoppers for their first and second favourite brand across dozens of categories. They then ran purchasing simulation, where these shoppers were asked to choose between the two. 

Just having a choice between brands, saw more than 30% of shoppers deflect to their second favourite, which rationally, makes no sense at all. It’s like saying that your favourite ice-cream is chocolate, then being presented with chocolate and strawberry ice cream, and immediately choosing strawberry! 

The power of presence alone was enough for a competing brand to take a third of the favoured brand’s sales, proving the potency of unconscious factors over rational reasoning when it comes to decision-making.

2. We’re all emos

Google’s research also revealed a new consumer purchasing model, known as ‘The Messy Middle’. While the traditional ‘purchasing funnel’ was represented by a linear path, in which consumers move from awareness, through interest, desire and action, the new model highlights the distinct modes of ‘exploration’ and evaluation’, in which shoppers add and remove options along the way. 

Sometimes, shoppers get stuck in that infinite ‘exploration/evaluation’ loop, narrowing in on a decision, before zooming back out again with updated purchasing criteria or new priorities. It’s our job as marketers to nudge them out of this loop and towards a purchase, by triggering an emotion with something relevant and compelling. For example, showing shoppers that people like them have already bought the item, that there are only a few left in stock, or guaranteeing delivery by 9am the next day was often enough to disrupt the loop and make what is objectively the same product, suddenly more attractive. 

3. Marketing as alchemy 

Marketing has swung hard in the direction of data. Ask the algorithm and it will give you the answers! But research consistently demonstrated that consumers don’t act according to spreadsheets. Emotional triggers consistently and predictably drive more sales than rational arguments. 

Most interestingly, the research showed the compounding effect of layering different behavioural biases on top of each other. In categories as diverse as skincare and health insurance, turning up, then activating a range of biases including the authority bias, social proof and the power of now, was enough to deflect almost 80% of preference away from a ‘preferred’ brand and towards a second choice. In fact, in many categories, triggering these biases was enough to deflect half of all preference towards a competing brand that was completely made up. 

The magic here is being able to steal between 50% and 80% of a competitor’s sales with techniques that cost virtually nothing to activate. Whether it’s including reviews, highlighting faster shipping or informing people that there are limited items left in stock, activating biases is one of the quickest, easiest and cheapest ways to boost sales in a significant, meaningful way.

With so many of our purchases now moving online, brands have an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with behavioural economics and start enjoying the benefits it can bring in the short and long term.


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