Written by Ken McVeagh
I’m sure you’d agree that 2020 has thrown us some serious curveballs. We may not have anticipated masks becoming a daily accessory, or working from the office to be an exception, no longer the norm. We may not have expected a shut-in summer, or back-to-school to really mean back-to-kitchen-stool. But there’s one thing we’ve had on the horizon for a while, though its early arrival still threw us for a loop. That thing is digital transformation—especially in retail. Thanks to the majority of us avoiding social contact, or just avoiding changing out of our sweats, we’ve been doing a ton of online shopping. In fact, ecommerce is on track to see five years’ worth of growth by the end of December. With this rapid uptrend, it’s increasingly more important for marketers to understand how consumers are making online (and offline) purchase decisions. Easier said than done, right?
The “typical consumer journey” is the little lie we tell ourselves
Thankfully, a collaborative study from Google and the behavioral-science experts at The Behavioural Architects sheds light on the consumer decision-making process, how it exists in ecommerce, and how it can be explained through cognitive science. Though the study focused on ecommerce, the findings are not limited to retail. What’s presented is a look at the latest version of general consumer behavior, whether they’re shopping for clothes, cars, computers or colleges. Understanding the way human behavior is shifting will help any company nourish relationships with its customers.
The “typical consumer journey” is the little lie we tell ourselves.
As marketers, we like to think we can perfectly plot the customer’s journey as a sequence of simple touchpoints, but the truth is that those touchpoints are more like an intertwined network, differing from consumer to consumer, and not all under our control.
What we need to focus on is how consumers’ reactions to touchpoints mix with everything else they know, think and feel to influence what they decide to buy
Online shoppers make several visits to a dozen digital storefronts, forums, comment sections, social media and back again, before making a purchase. With access to an endless variety of products, offers and services, how are consumers not perpetually overwhelmed? How do they so easily navigate through it all to come out the other end with a purchase? Sure, purchase behavior might not be a complete mystery, but the wealth of choice is undeniable, and many avenues can lead to the same sale.
What we need to focus on is how consumers’ reactions to touchpoints mix with everything else they know, think and feel to influence what they decide to buy. In the words of the great Ursula K. Le Guin, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”
Consumers keep things simple (in a secretly complex way)
Luckily for us, the researchers at Google and The Behavioural Architects set out to understand this complicated journey. They studied shopping behavior across over 310,000 simulated purchase scenarios in over 30 categories. From this extensive data, a new consumer decision-making model took shape. At the center of the model lives the ”messy middle,” where bountiful information is multiplied by a plethora of choices. While this messy middle appears to be a hodgepodge of influences, rationalizations, emotions and biases, what emerges is a sense of clarity consisting of two vastly different—but equally important—mental states: exploration, where information is gathered, and evaluation, where that gathered information leads to a clear decision.
Through continual back and forth between exploration and evaluation, shoppers rapidly weigh details, eliminate options, broaden consideration and work toward the final choice
Consumers are able to let these two mental states work in harmony. Through continual back and forth between exploration and evaluation, shoppers rapidly weigh details, eliminate options, broaden consideration and work toward the final choice. By identifying individual shopper activities as either explorations or evaluations, the researchers were able to illustrate the purchase journey—messy middle and all—as a simple and easy-to-read diagram:
Here we see the journey move from an initial trigger through exploration and evaluation, until the consumer is ready to make the purchase. The whole journey is encapsulated in a realm of exposure, where consumers are influenced by brand experience, marketing communications and category associations, all through the lens of their unique worldview. This new model may look suspiciously like the McKinsey Active Evaluation Model we’ve trusted for over a decade, and that’s kind of by design. This model doesn’t discount what McKinsey developed; rather, it adds another layer of reality by teasing out an important truth: The middle is much more than just one round of evaluation.
Here comes the juicy bit
The study also found that while shoppers navigate the messy middle, they fall back on cognitive biases. These biases aren’t new; some are so not-new that they’re base instincts evolved over millennia to help us navigate the dangers of the world, though they still remain flexible enough to help us choose which nonstick cooking pan would be the best for us. The biases can also just as often be based on rationality as they can on deep emotion. That being the case, leading with emotion is still a no-brainer, and, as Malcolm Gladwell so aptly put it, “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”
When applied strategically, these six biases can act as powerful motivators for consumers
But a few common biases were found to be the most influential when faced with a purchase decision:
- Category heuristics: Attachment to clear evaluation criteria or specifications that help simplify purchase decisions within a category. Think RTBs in a value proposition.
- Power of now: Everything today is on demand. For some, the longer they have to wait, the less likely they’ll want to.
- Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others tend to be persuasive and are generally considered trustworthy.
- Scarcity bias: Good-old supply and demand. If availability appears low, the more desirable it becomes. Exclusivity plays into this very well, too.
- Authority bias: Beyond customer or user reviews, this leans on expertise to make a sound argument for which product is best.
- Power of free: BOGO, three for two, or even a completely unrelated free gift could be enough to sway a decision.
To identify these biases, shoppers were asked to choose their first and second favorite brands from a short list, then biases were applied to see if people switched their preferences. The experiment revealed that when applied strategically, these six biases can act as powerful motivators for consumers, and help brands better contend in the arena of the messy middle.
Now, some may be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but my brand is the number-one brand. No one’s taking my customers.” To them, I’d say, “The truth is that the messy middle is akin to a battle royale: a last-brand-standing contest, with no holds barred.” We know because the study discovered that even a fake brand, supercharged with all six influential cognitive biases, was able to unseat longtime fan favorites easily.
How can we apply these learnings?
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it’s likely you’ve made an online purchase within the past couple of weeks. As you know, despite the fact that the middle is messy to us as marketers, it’s “just shopping” to us as consumers. With this in mind, paying attention to your own exploration and evaluation methods might help you find the right way to tap into these biases for the brands you work with. No matter the industry, these six little steps can help get you most of the way there:
- Show up: Pretty straightforward. Make sure your brand is present. Obviously, being within the “exposure” sphere is the most important part of being considered, so an awareness play aimed at your target audience is your best friend here.
- Use cognitive bias to your advantage: Try out the biases above in a thoughtful and responsible way to meet shoppers with a more potent offering. This will imbue your brand’s awareness with relevance and saliency. But be sure you have the shopper’s best interests in mind because, as you know, once you lose a customer’s trust, it’s hard to get back.
- Carve out a more direct path: Reduce as much of the messy middle as possible. Limit customers’ exposure to competitors and hone customer experience so that there are no barriers when they go to buy, and none to stop them from coming back for repeat purchases.
- Cover your bases: Develop your comms touchpoints across all channels to work together to stop customers from slipping through the cracks.
One size doesn’t fit all: Exploration and evaluation are distinctly different activities, so tackle them with their own messages or even their own tactics. Use whatever data you have available to identify shoppers as either in exploration or evaluation mode and deliver to them the most relevant information for that moment.
- Always be improving: Measure, optimize, rinse and repeat to find the right way to empower your brand with the aforementioned biases. Remember, the middle is messy, so don’t expect to get it perfect on the first try. Reaching that summit will take time, courage and perseverance. (I believe in you!)
With this new model in mind, think about the way customers meet your brand out in the wild. Set aside some time to role-play as a customer, and go shopping for your brand’s own product or service. Simulate the cycle of exploration and evaluation to get a feel for where touchpoints fall short, or messaging lacks luster. Then optimize for biases, and test, optimize and test again! The messy middle might feel daunting, but, with these powerful behavioral cues at your disposal, you’ll be better prepared to make your brand a disruptor, or meet challenger brands head-on, by showing up with the right offer at the right moment to win over the consumer.
For more detail on this study, download the full report from Think with Google.