Making the Most of the Messy Middle of the Customer Journey

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By Eduardo Girón, Co-Founder and CEO of ad-machina, a Making Science company

The consumer journey is as complex as it’s ever been.  

It never was an easy equation for retailers to solve, to begin with. There are countless factors that come into play that affect the time between a customer deciding to buy something and when they actually make the purchase. Search engines, social media, comparison sites, forums, aggregators and retailers themselves are constantly seeking their attention at a premium.

This part of the journey, which I’ll refer to as the messy middle, can be exhausting for both consumers and retailers. It’s only getting more complicated as consumer behavior continues to shift day-by-day given the current global COVID-19 outlook.

So how can retailers and marketers navigate this messy middle? How do they simplify the process and stand out to consumers?

Defining the messy middle

A recent Google study points to a few key observations for marketers to better understand this stage of the consumer journey and adjust accordingly. It breaks down the messy middle into two stages: exploration mode and evaluation mode. As soon as a customer decides they want to make a purchase, they switch back and forth between the two stages.

In exploration mode, consumers expand their consideration set. They are constantly adding new products or services to their list of potential purchases, regardless of brand name, reputation, or offerings. 

Evaluation mode is when consumers start narrowing down their options. This is when they start taking into account factors such as brand history, identity, and customer reviews as they look to finalize their purchase decision. 

Brands must find a way to ensure their presence in this part of the journey while keeping these two sub-stages of the messy middle in mind. Consumer decisions are always made against a backdrop of exposure, which, unlike awareness, is always present and ever-changing. As long as you are striving to ensure your brand provides a positive user experience, this will feed into the exposure consumers face, and has the potential to influence subsequent customer journeys as they explore and evaluate.

Six Principles to Remember

There are six underlying principles that can have a significant impact on consumer behavior throughout their path to purchase. These six principles are vital for retailers to understand as they navigate the messy middle and look for the most effective ways to reach their customers.

  1. Category Heuristics. In an increasingly digital world with an excess of information for consumers to process, shortcuts are key. Find a way to describe your product with concise keywords and descriptions that will help customers quickly understand its benefits.
  2. Authority Bias. Customers naturally place an increased amount of importance on products and services they feel come from a place of authority. Do all you can to position your brand as a credible expert in your industry.
  3. Scarcity Bias. Consumers feel a sense of urgency when they realize there is only a limited amount of your products that are still available. This can motivate them to speed up their purchasing decisions before their options become even more limited.
  4. Power of Free. It’s not easy to analyze the value of the countless amount of products in the marketplace, but consumers instantly recognize the value of a free gift. Offer discounted services or an additional gift free of charge along with your premier products.
  5. Social Norms. If you see the majority of people around you using a certain product or service, you are much more likely to use the same one yourself. Focus your marketing efforts on starting a trend in your respective industry.
  6. Power of Now. Consumers are wired to live in the present. They want things that will benefit them in the immediate future more than in the long run. They also want to purchase something that will be made available to them as soon as possible.

The ability to control and maximize each of these six principles lies in the retailers’ hands. It’s up to them to successfully implement each of them into their marketing strategies to better impact their potential customers’ purchase decisions.

Closing the gap between the moment a consumer decides they want to purchase something and the point of purchase can be difficult, but it is possible. Retailers must understand where consumers are coming from and what impacts them most on their journeys if they truly want to help them navigate the messy middle as efficiently and effectively as possible.

But that’s not enough. Knowing exactly how and when consumers are going to act in the messy middle does retailers no good without the proper technology to reach and connect with them. If they want to conquer the messy middle, retailers must ensure they have what it takes to provide relevant and personalized advertising experiences and messaging in every channel along the way.

Eduardo Sarciat Girón is Co-Founder and CEO of ad-machina, a Making Science company. Prior to founding ad-machina, he worked as CMO at companies including Hundredrooms and Habitissimo in the travel, real estate, and technology industries.