online retail, science of shopping, endless choices

The Messy Middle: working with your customer’s brain

August 2020

The science of shopping, the study of what drives people to buy something and why they choose one product over another, is much older, of course, than e-commerce. Before the advent of online retail, it was all about what made us want to enter a shop, which smells and sounds put us in the mood for buying, what kind of packaging we’re drawn to, and which brand names, logos and ads push our buttons.

When shopping online, consumers don’t have the physical spaces to entice or repel them, but they are bombarded with almost endless information and choice about brands and products. And while we can track and analyse what customers do online – how they interact with a brand, how they make the purchase – why they do it is not as understood.

We can track and analyse what customers do online. Why they do it is not as understood

Understanding the Messy Middle

Consumers have to navigate the myriad links, ads, aggregators, interest groups and reviews and sort through it all before they can work out what matters. It’s this process that Google researchers call the ‘messy middle’. It’s a space where customers are won or lost and, with the growth of e-commerce it’s becoming messier, so understanding it is crucial to brands. That’s where behavioural science can step in.

It’s a space where customers are won or lost, so understanding it is crucial to brands

Google consumer insights team partnered up with scientists from The Behavioural Architects to explore the drivers that lead people to make purchasing decisions. They applied search trend analysis, observational studies and a large-scale experiment involving real in-market shoppers and discovered that the process is far from linear.

When consumers are shopping online and sifting through information, they are in one of two mental ‘modes’: exploration or evaluation. In the exploration mode they are looking for information on a brand, category or product. In the evaluation mode they’re weighing up the options. They loop between these two modes repeatedly until they reach that moment of decision.

During this process, consumers use mental shortcuts, or cognitive biases, to help them decide whether or not to buy something. There are hundreds of these cognitive biases, but Google and the researchers narrowed these down to six.

We can track and analyse what customers do online. Why they do it is not as understood

Understanding the Messy Middle

Consumers have to navigate the myriad links, ads, aggregators, interest groups and reviews and sort through it all before they can work out what matters. It’s this process that Google researchers call the ‘messy middle’. It’s a space where customers are won or lost and, with the growth of e-commerce it’s becoming messier, so understanding it is crucial to brands. That’s where behavioural science can step in.

Consumers use mental shortcuts to help them decide whether or not to buy something

The six biases

1. Category heuristics – Heuristics are shortcuts, or rules of thumb, that help us to simplify our decision making. We look for short descriptions of key product specifications to speed up the process and reduce the effort required.

2. The power of now – We don’t like to wait for things. We’re hard-wired to want things straight away, which is why we like express delivery and instant downloads.

3. Social proof – When we’re uncertain of something, we look to other people and copy them, even if it’s subconscious. Word-of-mouth reviews and recommendations flourish on the internet, and we’re more likely to click on something with five stars than with one

4. Authority bias – We adjust our opinions to be in tune with those of experts, people we believe are an authority on the subject. We tend to use their view as a mental shortcut.

5. Scarcity bias – We see something that’s rare or in limited supply as more desirable.

6. Power of free – We find the price of zero irresistibly attractive, even if it’s irrational. We’ll choose something worth £10 if it’s offered for free over something worth £20 that’s offered for £3, despite the fact that the second offer is worth more.

The higher the number of biases applied, the more likely shoppers were to switch their preference

Making the most of the mess

Behavioural science, applied thoughtfully, can help brands to win customers by helping them do the mental work. The key is to make it feel natural – to work with in-built cognitive tendencies while they navigate the messy middle. This means:

Don’t leave gaps – build flexible, cross-functional teams. Make sure you show up – build brand presence so you’re front of the customer’s mind. Apply the science – use behavioural science principles carefully and responsibly. The need for speed – close the gap between the trigger and the purchase so customers spend less time exposed to competitors.

references: Think with Google