Decoding The New Path to Purchase: The Messy Middle

messy middle
Paul Hunter
by: Paul Hunter
Back in 2011, Google published an eBook directed at digital marketers called the ‘Zero Moment of Truth’, as an attempt to describe the point at which consumers online become aware of a product and then make the decision to buy. 

As consumer behaviours online drastically evolved, eCommerce journeys have had to catch up, causing marketers to review this rather linear theory and re-coin it to something that more accurately describes the rather erratic patterns people use when buying online. 

We explore the new ‘Messy Middle’ and why consumer behaviours have changed so drastically over the last 10 years when it comes to purchasing online.

Exploring The Messy Middle

There was a time when shopping online was rather simple for both consumers and brands. Consumers knew what they wanted so they searched for it or visited their favourite brands website and purchased. There were a few different choices but ultimately, consumers behaved in similar ways, making a more predictable journey online.

Fast-forward to 2021, consumers have almost unlimited choices when it comes to shopping online. The marketplace is crowded with brands shouting for consumer attention across almost every digital touchpoint they interact with everyday- a far cry from the more limited choices 10 years ago. With more choice comes a decrease in brand loyalty, something that was always very prominent when there were only high street shops to browse in. According to data from The Drum, 30% of consumers move away from their favourite brands when they spot a better option. 

So, if there’s less brand loyalty and much more choice for consumers, that ‘Zero moment of truth’ as first described by Google, becomes diluted entirely. Google has since updated their guide to consumer behaviours online to ‘The Messy Middle’; a much more accurate way to describe the unpredictable and ad hoc way consumers interact with products before purchasing.

Purchase journeys have taken on a ‘messy’ and unpredictable life of its own making digital marketing jobs a lot tricker as consumer purchase patterns lose their predictability, but why have these journeys changed so dramatically?

The Messy Middle basically refers to the ‘exploration’ bit all consumers do between the ‘trigger’ and ‘purchase’ in their journey. Consumers are doing far more research on products and brands than ever before and this is partly down to having access to the information instantly. This has then had a knock-on effect to the purchase journey for all brands online, as consumers continue to research and review before clicking ‘buy now’ on their baskets.

Why Purchase Journeys Have Changed

With almost unlimited options and digital touchpoints for consumers to interact with brands, Google has reviewed their original theory of the purchase journey, recognising the huge transformation the internet has had on consumer buying habits. Added to this increase in readily available information, in 2020 consumers were made to shop almost exclusively online as countries globally enforced various lockdowns, shutting physical shops. 

This has no doubt exacerbated an already growing trend in online shopping as well as changing other consumer behaviours online, which is something we’ve previously covered before- but how did it affect purchase journeys?

Purchase journeys have simply evolved to reflect consumer demand and the 24/7 use of the internet. Forbes Magazine has gone a step further and suggested there’s no more ‘occasional’ buying intent from consumers anymore, only an ‘always-on’ state of shopping. This is enhanced by the shift in purchase journeys from the traditional ‘shopping cart’ page to swipe-up affiliate links on social media sites and one-click purchase journeys as we browse.

If physical purchase journeys have changed, has search intent changed too? How have the words consumers use to search for products changed? Unfortunately, the answers aren’t as easy to find as consumers are increasingly difficult to accurately ‘track’ online.

What we do know about purchase behaviour is:

  • Consumer behaviours between trigger and purchase decision-making isn’t straight-forward 
  • There’s a complicated web of touchpoints that differs from person to person
  • Consumers have consistently used search terms like ‘cheapest’ ‘deals’ ‘free’ and ‘discount’

What we don’t know:

  • ‘Best’ is harder to attribute to consumers looking for better deals when shopping 
  • What actually drives shoppers to ultimately make the choices they do is still a missing data point
  • How consumers process all of the information they see before reaching the purchase decision

Whilst brands may not be able to decipher every trigger their audiences come in contact with, there are a few things brands can do to make sure they’re being heard above the noise online- particularly in industries like beauty and wellbeing.

Beauty Brand Marketing And Converting Consumers

As a beauty marketing agency, we’re always looking at ways for the brands we work with to stand out in an ever-growing industry so it makes sense to tackle the ‘Messy Middle’ from a beauty industry perspective. 

Google’s own research recommends some rather broad tips, so we’ve tailored ours to fit beauty and skincare brands as it’s a rapidly evolving industry all thanks to social media platforms!

  1. Social media presence is key as consumers are actively influenced by their peers, followers and friends on social media. Think TikTok trends and Instagram live. The days of reading traditional reviews have long gone- it’s all about the comments and product reviews using influencers. People are consuming a lot of information from their social feeds so make sure your brand is actively involved.
  1. Consumers want incentives as we’ve previously touched on, the trends for terms like ‘discount codes’ and ‘free’ are continuing to increase so offering added benefits like free delivery or free samples when people purchase certain products is going to raise interest.
  1. Keeping descriptions short is key to capturing the shrinking attention spans of consumers who are being constantly bombarded as they browse. People want to understand the key benefits like the ingredients or USP of a product instantly before anything else. If it’s that your products are vegan or sustainable- mention it first. Likewise, use key terms like ‘Vitamin C’ or ‘Retinol’ as these are products people are actively interested in
  1. Influencer marketing is something to seriously consider. Consumers are looking for someone they trust or are influenced by to share what products they’re currently using or loving. Beauty and skincare brands need to consider influencer marketing as a key part of their strategy 

It might be a busier place than ever before but brands can use key elements to their advantage such as a drastically wider audience, decreasing brand loyalty in more established brands and offering competitive perks to new or existing customers.

Our conclusion:

  • Over the last 10 years, the internet has evolved exponentially. Consumers are exposed to so much information online that brands literally compete for our attention every time we open an app or browser, making consumer behaviour much harder to track or even understand.
  • Beauty brands can still make significant impressions on consumers who are constantly searching for ‘trending’ beauty products, by positioning their brand on platforms consumers are searching on. Social media is a key part of any digital marketing strategy for 2021
  • Going the extra ‘mile’ and offering discounts or free delivery perks are an expected part of a consumer journey and could be the deciding factor in someone converting now. 
  • Brand loyalty isn’t as powerful in 2021 compared to competitive pricing and other perks so newer brands have the same opportunities to convert as the more well-established names in the beauty and skincare industry
  • Keeping everything short and sweet is another key to success when it comes to product descriptions. Consumers are looking for buzzwords- particularly in the beauty and skincare industry.
  • As online behaviours continue to evolve and change, brands need to be flexible with their approach and adopt their strategies to consumer expectations- not try to force audiences into their journeys

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