Alistair Rennie and Sian Davies have been analysing the "messy middle" of the consumer purchase journey since 2019. Their latest research shows how behavioural science can be used to increase the effectiveness of Search ads.
Consumers contend with a huge amount of choice and information as they navigate the complex online path to purchase. Our new research at Google has uncovered specific strategies for marketers to navigate this “messy middle” of the purchase journey and ensure your brand is in the right place with the right messaging for consideration and purchase.
We discovered how to help shoppers make purchasing decisions in our ‘Decoding Decisions’ research, and now we’ve applied these insights to Search ads. We ran 96,000 simulations with 12,000 shoppers across 12 products to understand what makes brands — and their ads — stand out on a Search results page.1
Be present where people are searching
The new research mirrored something we saw in our original findings: you can capture consumer preference just by showing up as people are searching. This might sound obvious, but to isolate the impact we simulated the search results when using identical ad copy for both the shopper’s favourite and their second favourite brand.
The effect is significant. For example, when shoppers in our study were searching for moisturisers, we introduced their second favourite brand into the Search results and it immediately captured 31% of ad clicks, despite ranking third on the page and appearing below their favourite brand.
Takeaway: You don't have to appear at the top of the page to be considered — just being present can make a difference.
Applying behavioural science principles to Search ads
In our research, shoppers were shown three different ads on a simulated Search page that looked just like one in the real world. It featured ads for their favourite and second favourite brands, alongside a fictional brand in the same product category.
We used the following five behavioural science principles to alter the ad copy, in an attempt to move consumer interest away from the favourite brand:
- Power of free: Free items, offers, and vouchers with a purchase can be a big motivator.
- Authority bias: When brands, products, and services are backed by experts and trusted sources, they stand out from the competition.
- Social proof: Reviews, recommendations, and highlighting a popular choice within a relevant reference group can be very persuasive.
- Framing: Changing the frame of reference can help people reconsider the value of a product or service. For example, framing can highlight benefits such as convenience or time-savings.
- Costly signalling: Demonstrating the premium nature of a product through premium associations, such as an ad during the Super Bowl.
One at a time, we altered the ad copy of the brands to test the effectiveness of the different principles (also known as biases). By doing so, we were able to shift preference away from the shopper’s favourite brand. Even though, in some instances, the shopper had never even heard of the brand as it was a fictional one.
Takeaway: When used intelligently and responsibly, behavioural science principles are powerful tools to win and defend consumer preference in the “messy middle”.
Supercharging ad copy with all biases
Applying one or more of these biases shifted brand preference, but the best results came when we ‘supercharged’ our second favourite and fictional brands with the most effective versions of each bias. Here’s an example:
Many marketers will be familiar with concepts such as social proof, but we also experimented with less well-known principles such as the pratfall effect. This is a “framing” bias, which suggests that admitting a flaw can humanise a brand and increase likability. In our interpretation of the principle, we deliberately highlight an apparent imperfection to help frame a benefit.
In the simulated ad copy we called the hotel rooms “cosy”, which is often used as a synonym for something that is on the small side. The ad emphasised the hotel’s value by highlighting that you’re likely not going to spend much time in the room anyway. The copy used an apparent imperfection — a small room — and framed it to sound like a benefit. You’ve probably seen this effect in real-life advertising as well. For instance, Guinness mentions that their drinks take a long time to pour to emphasise that they’re worth the wait.
While you can supercharge your ad copy with all behavioural science principles, the majority of the shift usually comes from a few of them. Automation can help you be creative with your ad copy while systematically testing which changes make the biggest impact for your brand and product.
Takeaway: Even if you’re not top of the Search results page — or no one has heard of your brand — you can close the gap between trigger and purchase by supercharging your ad copy.
What this means for established and challenger brands
For established brands the research shows the importance of protecting your brand investment in Search and being present. For challenger brands, it highlights that applying behavioural science principles to your Search ads can help level the playing field. Yes, there’s power attached to page rank, but you need to supercharge your ad copy if you really want to optimise the return on your investment.
Closing the gap between trigger and purchase is key, so whether your brand is well established, new to market, top of the page or not, take advantage of Search capabilities. Combining automated tools, such as Dynamic Search Ads, with behavioural science enables you to efficiently respond to the complexity within the consumer purchase journey. We couldn’t squeeze Ad extensions into our simulation, but these effects are likely to be amplified when site links, call outs, or snippets come into the picture.
And, finally, get testing. Everyone’s thinking about the enormous challenge of digital transformation, but think of this as the low-hanging fruit. Any brand can start to implement these changes today, but they’ll work best when they’re used creatively. Get your teams together, use the tools available, and start mixing behavioural science with creativity to drive results.