Ask a Researcher: How do we decode the messy middle of the consumer purchase journey?

Natalie Zmuda, Global Executive Editor, Think with Google
Alistair Rennie, Research Lead, Market Insights EMEA, Google
February 2021

Consumers today have a world of choice: search engines, social media, price comparison sites, aggregators, review sites, video sites, and more. This creates a messy middle between trigger and purchase for marketers to try to understand and untangle. In this episode of Ask a Researcher, Think with Google Global Executive Editor Natalie Zmuda talks to Alistair Rennie, a research lead on Google’s market insights team.

In an attempt to make this spaghetti-like mess a little easier to understand, his team conducted literary reviews, shopping observation studies, search trend analyses, and a large-scale experiment with real in-market shoppers simulating 310,000 purchase scenarios across multiple verticals. They applied behavioral science to demonstrate shifts in brand preference from a shopper’s favorite brand to their second favorite brand to even a fictional brand they had never heard of before. In this video, see what the team learned and what it means for marketers. And be sure to check out part two, where we’ll dive deeper on the principles of behavioral science.


Alistair Rennie: The status quo is the status quo for a reason, you know. It’s been tried;

it's been tested; it's been proven.

So if you’re going to challenge that, you know, you need to have a really good reason

and some pretty robust data to back it up.

Hi, I'm Natalie Zmuda, global executive editor with Think with Google.

Welcome to Ask a Researcher from home.

I'm here today with Alistair Rennie. He’s a market insights lead, based in EMEA.

Thanks Ali for joining us today.

Hi, Natalie.

Thanks very much for having me.

Natalie: Can you talk to me about what you call the messy middle?

Alistair: Okay, the messy middle.

So, today's consumer has a lot more information and choice.

So there are search engines, there's social media, price comparison sites, aggregators,

review sites, video sites, blogs sites.

Not even to mention the actual retailers themselves.

(That’s what we call the trigger.)

It happens between that and the purchase.

All of that choice and information.

When you put all that together, that’s what we call the messy middle.

And it was such a mess, in fact, that we decided we’d try and tidy it up and sort of reimagine

a model of what behavior looks like in that space.

Natalie: Tell me about that model.

Alistair: The model.

I'm glad you asked me that.

What we've done is we've taken this spaghetti-like mess, this messy middle, and we've codified

it into just two mental modes.

So whatever you're doing, be it looking at a search engine, you're on a review site,

you’re on a retailer site; you’re doing one of two things: You’re either exploring

or you’re evaluating.

When you are in exploration mode, and you’re adding brands and products to your consideration


Then when you go into the evaluation mindset, this is a reductive process and you start

to narrow down your choices again.

But here's the thing, because we have so much choice, we are encouraged to go back

into exploration mode.

You can see in our model, it creates this infinity loop.

Technically, there's no end to how many times you can go back and forward through this loop.

This distinction is really important, because there is, as well as being two distinct mental

modes, they have their own reward structures.

And actually they require a different set of marketing tactics to approach them effectively.

Natalie: And how CAN marketers be most effective?

Alistair: Okay.

So, there are three big takeaways for marketers, really.

The first of those is to ensure brand presence.

We've seen that just by showing up in the messy middle at the right time, this can really

have an impact on the outcome of the decision making process.

The second big takeaway is about the intelligent and the responsible use of the principles

of behavioral science.

It's the discoveries made in the messy middle that often determine the outcome, and small

changes can have a really, really big impact.

And the third and final takeaway for marketers is about closing the gap between the trigger

and the purchase.

And this might seem like a really obvious one, but it’s really important, is good


If the page loading speed is poor or the navigation isn’t intuitive, you’re you’re giving

the shopper every excuse to go and explore and evaluate somewhere else.

Natalie: Really interesting.

Ali, thank you so much for joining us today.

Alistair: My pleasure.

Thank you.

Natalie : And for more on the latest marketing insights

visit ThinkWithGoogle.com

Think with Google