We have talked about the importance of understanding the customer’s journey, from their learning of your brand to making a purchase. But within this journey is also a critical period of time where potential buyers research and evaluate their choices, comparing your products to others.

In mid-2020, Google’s consumer insights team shared their latest research on the purchase journey and introduced the concept of the messy middle: the time between when a customer is triggered to buy your product and when they actually purchase it.

But what Google calls the messy middle is, simply, the consumer decision making process, and marketers have long understood the problem of reliably uncovering and tracking it.

Since how buyers make decisions is one of the hardest questions to answer, we want to share how a Customer Data Platform can help your online business unravel the mess of the consumer decision-making process.

The Infinite Loop of the Consumer Decision-Making Process

The messy middle is the period between being triggered by a product and purchasing it, where the consumer loops between exploration and evaluation until they feel determined and confident enough to complete the purchase.

Google's messy middle model

What makes the buyer decision process such a mess is that customer behavior can’t be easily understood during this time, and they might spend a long time circling back and forth in an infinite loop between exploration and evaluation before they decide to make a purchase.

The longer this process lasts, the less that’s known about them and the greater the risk that they will discover and choose a competitor over you.

With all the time a customer spends researching and evaluating across a range of online and offline channels, how do you confidently track and evaluate consumer behavior in relation to your business? And how do you know what will finally get them to decide on a purchase?

What to Do About the Messy Middle

Google’s advice, and the advice of any rational marketer, is to make sure that your brand has a strong presence so that you will appear in a positive light among different sources while the consumer evaluates their choices.

Brand Presence During the Consumer Decision-Making Process

The messy middle is just part of the process of online purchasing behavior. While there are ways to encourage customers out of the exploration-evaluation loop (which I touch on below), you will still have to have a strong presence in it.

Your product should be front of mind while your customer explores their options online.

This is where SEO plays a big part in your strategy because you want to show up on external sites across the internet; appear high in the search engine results page (SERP) for related search terms; and be associated with other trustworthy websites that vouch for you.

For example, if someone is looking for the best at home coffee makers, they will likely find a variety of comparison sites, guides and video reviews. You’ll want to appear in those spaces.

Use behavioral science principles to make your product more compelling to consumers: garner great reviews and improve social proofing by having a presence across platforms and appearing in the feeds of influencers and taste-makers.

Use Customer Journey Mapping

It is helpful, first and foremost, to create a customer journey map that demonstrates the thought-process and actions your different subsets of customers might take. Use this to create a list of opportunities to improve your presence at various customer touchpoints – whether it’s better reviews on social media, better listings in “best of” blogs, better social proofing from influential sources or a presence on other platforms like Pinterest or TikTok.

Keep in mind that while you’re working on all these sources, each of them may have their own ways to pull and store metrics. You want to be able to pool and combine all that information in a way that makes understanding consumer decision making less of a mess. This is one way in which CDPs can help.

Employ Cognitive Biases to Influence Purchasing Decisions

According to Think with Google’s research, there are six biases that influence purchase decisions that you can employ to drive people to make decisions faster.

  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.

The faster a customer makes a decision, the smaller the gap between trigger and purchase and the less likely it is that they will be exposed to your competitors.

CDPs Make Sense of the Consumer Decision-Making Process

You need to keep your teams and data out of silos because when data comes from all directions, output can go in all directions. You need one place to compile your data, where everyone in your enterprise can access the same information and collaborate on reports and profiles.

Customer Data Platforms aggregate all of your data channels into one platform, and future data sources can easily be added to your CDP. The seven processes CDPs use to organize and use data benefit your business at every level:

  1. Collect Data
  2. Unify Records
  3. Create Profiles
  4. Segment Audiences
  5. Provide Insights & Predictions
  6. Orchestrate Omnichannel Action
  7. Test & Measure Results

You should also have a flexible approach to marketing that can meet the demands of being present everywhere while consumers make decisions. This way there are no gaps where your customer may escape to be poached by a competitor.

As a marketer, an analyst or an executive, a CDP helps keep you flexible because you will have a better understanding of what is happening in the customer journey. You’ll be equipped to make more informed decisions as to where you can improve the customer experience and decide where your team needs to focus.

You can make data-driven decisions to make the messy middle less of a mess or, better yet, make it personal.

Use Personalization to Improve Exploration & Evaluation

When customers are stuck between exploration and evaluation, you can also use your Customer Data Platform to capture their interactions with your brand and personalize their experience with your website and marketing so that it more specifically talks to their needs and wants.

Data personalization is a skill but attempts have been made to quantify it. The level of personalization needs to be relevant and timely, the customer can’t have sacrificed too much data to receive that level of personalization, and your brand must be trusted with the data it collects.

McKinsey personalization value equation

Great personalization is rewarded with more efficient marketing efforts, growth in digital sales and a reduction of attrition. Improve the customer journey using the data you have to convince buyers while they evaluate products and brands.

For example, retarget advertising to your customers in the category they have been browsing on your website. Don’t just show one product but the spectrum you offer so their exploration and evaluation is spent comparing different products (and you offer both).

Take it a step further using customer profiles and audience segmentation your CDP provides to make your ad more relevant to its audience. Are you able to determine the psychological factors that might be influencing their decision? Can you offer a discount specific to their needs? Can you make a prediction as to what kind of influencers and digital personalities might have an effect on their decisions?

Winning over the messy middle and guiding the buyer decision process is an important part of maintaining your brand in a highly competitive digital environment. Personalization gives you a competitive advantage to truly dominate the competition and speak to your customers when they’re in the exploration and evaluation stages.

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