Decoding Decisions

The 'messy middle' of purchase behaviour. How people decide which products and brands to buy is fascinating, but complex.

Even in the offline world, consumers take a complicated path to the checkout which varies from category to category and individual to individual.

In providing a near-limitless supply of information and e-commerce options, digital has added many other layers of interaction to purchase behaviour.

A new report from Google’s consumer insights team, working with the Behavioural Architects company, calls the area between initial trigger and final purchase the “Messy Middle”.

Using literary reviews, shopping observation studies, search trend analyses and a large-scale experiment, the report analyses the cognitive biases that people use to deal with the scale and complexity of information and choice online.

These biases shape and influence people’s purchase behaviour. While many hundreds of these biases exist, the report prioritises six.

  1. Category heuristics: Short descriptions of key product specifications can simplify purchase decisions.
  2. Power of now: The longer you have to wait for a product, the weaker the proposition becomes.
  3. Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive.
  4. Scarcity bias: As stock or availability of a product decreases, the more desirable it becomes.
  5. Authority bias: Being swayed by an expert or trusted source.
  6. Power of free: A free gift with a purchase, even if unrelated, can be a powerful motivator.

The Google team that wrote the report – Alistair Rennie, Research Lead, Market Insights UK, Jonny Protheroe Head of Market Insights UK, Claire Charron, Product Manager, and Gerald Breatnach, Head of Strategic Insights UK – argue that, although this purchase behaviour appears convoluted, it is just normal shopping for people.

They offer advice for brands of all sizes, including:

  • Ensure brand presence so your product or service is strategically front of mind while customers explore.
  • Employ behavioural science principles intelligently and responsibly to make your proposition compelling as consumers evaluate their options.
  • Close the gap between trigger and purchase so existing and potential customers spend less time exposed to competitor brands.
  • Build flexible, empowered teams who can work cross-functionally to avoid traditional branding and performance silos that are likely to leave gaps in the messy middle.

You can read a longer piece or download the full report from the Think with Google site.

Last updated 29 March 2021