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How to Influence the “Messy Middle” of the Buyer Journey

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It’s about time we redefine the classic marketing funnel. It describes the user journey as a rather linear path, while the reality is a lot more messy, complex, and unpredictable.

Let’s scrap the dated marketing funnel and try to map out the real user journey.

It starts with a trigger, and then it goes into an almost infinite loop between exploration and evaluation – over and over again. And finally, the user exits the loop by making a decision or a purchase.

What we need to understand as marketers is what influences and biases affect people in the middle of the process – the exploration and evaluation phases – so they eventually get out of the loop in our favor. Let’s dive a bit deeper into this.

Redefining the Customer Journey: From Linear to Non-Linear

The buyer journey has been described as a straight path from awareness to consideration to action. This concept does not apply too well to the digital world that we’re living in – not anymore.

The way people make decisions is not linear in nature. They don’t move in a predictable way from the so-called top of the funnel – awareness stage – down to the middle of the funnel, consideration, to the bottom of the funnel, where they take action.

Instead, this journey that the consumer goes on begins with a trigger of some sort. The trigger is a factor that prompts the desire to purchase, moving the potential customer from a passive to an active state.

What is it that triggers someone to go find information on something they need? Usually, it’s a problem they need to solve. Their first touchpoint with your brand is the result of this effort – searching online for a solution.

Instead of obediently following the path from awareness to consideration, and then to action, the user goes into a long cycle of exploration and evaluation of the various options that could solve his problem.

This exploration and evaluation process is worth exploring in more detail, as most of our work as marketers should be focused on it.

The “Messy Middle” Loop of the Buyer Journey

As Google puts it: “The ‘messy middle’ (is) a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts.”

In the center of the decision-making process lies the Messy Middle – a complex space between triggers and purchase, where customers are won and lost.

Once a prospect enters this part of the marketing funnel, it could go round and round for quite a while. This infinite loop entails two processes:

  • Exploration
  • Evaluation
  • Repeat Exploration
  • Repeat Evaluation

The exploration process in the “Messy Middle”  is an expansive activity, where people search for and discover more options. The evaluation process is a reductive activity – they compare top options and narrow down their list.

More often than not, these processes are repeated multiple times and in different sessions before people exit the loop and make a decision.

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Influencing the “Messy Middle”: Cognitive Biases

As digital marketers, we need to pay attention to all the influences and biases that are affecting people while they’re in the exploration and evaluation loops – the “Messy Middle” of decision making.

The better we understand what influences their decisions, the faster we can help them exit the loop – and win them as customers.

Economic Psychology and Behavioral Economics have been working out some of these answers for years and have identified hundreds of cognitive biases.

These biases function as shortcuts in decision-making. They are, in a way, an “error” in our thinking process that occurs when we are processing and interpreting information. These biases traditionally take place when people have limited available information or some limitations in processing this information, i.e., lack of time.

Take a minute to examine some of the most potent cognitive biases and see how we can apply them in the “Messy Middle”.

6 Cognitive Biases to Nudge the Buyer Journey Forward

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While there are hundreds of biases that may influence the decision-making process, here are the 6 most common ones:

  1. Category heuristics
  2. Power of now
  3. Social proof
  4. Scarcity bias
  5. Authority bias
  6. Power of free

Category Heuristics and How to Apply It

Category heuristics refers to mental shortcuts that allow people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. In a way, these are rule-of-thumb strategies that shorten decision-making time. Heuristics reduce the cognitive effort by examining fewer pieces of information and relying on easy-to-access data – very much like quick mental references for everyday experiences and decisions.

To show how Category heuristics can function as a bias, consider someone searching online for a mobile phone. Instead of going through all the different models and brands’ specifications, that person might just look for phones with great cameras and compare the top 3 competitors for that factor.

Short descriptions of key product specifications can significantly simplify purchase decisions. In marketing, we could leverage this bias by creating head-to-head comparison landing pages to help users quickly find how one offer differs from another.

The Power of Now Bias and How to Use It

The longer you have to wait for a product, the weaker this offer’s appeal becomes. Instant gratification is simply a must – show users just how quickly they can access your product.

You can leverage the power of now on your website and ad campaigns, regardless of your niche. It doesn’t have to be about fast shipping or 24-hour delivery only. You could showcase how fast one can get the solution and start using it to solve their problem.

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How to Leverage Social Proof

Recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive – we all tend to copy other people’s behavior in situations of uncertainty. For digital marketers, social proof equals word-of-mouth reviews and recommendations.

Make the most of your customer reviews by adding them to your homepage or to your landing page. Include data from third-party review sites, video testimonials, or quotes from previous clients to truly leverage social proof on your product pages and landing pages.

Add ratings for products, when possible – the user’s attention would be subconsciously drawn to options with five-star ratings that appear to be the popular choice.

Case studies and client testimonials are another way to use social proof in marketing your brand.

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Using the Scarcity Bias

Rare or limited resources are always more desirable – the fear of missing out has always been a powerful motivator.

Various scarcity limitations could apply to your offers. One of the most commonly used ones is the limited time offer, i.e. this product is available at this price only for a limited period. In its essence, the limited time offers create a deadline that makes people act. Think Black Friday campaigns – all of them play on the scarcity bias using such offers.

Another type of scarcity bias is related to quantity limitations. We place a higher value on scarce objects, as people associate the availability of a product with its quality.  Rarity triggers a reaction to maintain our access to the resource.

We’ve all seen this bias used on product pages – last in stock, only three left, etc. Amazon.com is a master of the art of scarcity biases.

Booking.com does a great job of applying this bias to trigger purchase decisions. Pop-up notes show users messages such as “Booked 3 times,” “In high demand – only 4 rooms left on our site!” and “5 people are looking right now.”

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Other marketing applications of the scarcity bias are purchase countdowns, sale price countdowns, seasonal offers, low stock notices, limited edition items, and many more. As stock or availability of a product decreases, the more desirable it becomes, so marketers often lean into this factor to influence the buyer journey in their favor.

How to Use Authority Bias

We tend to align our opinions and actions to match those we consider an authority on a subject. The Authority bias is just that – being swayed by an expert or trusted source.

Brands too can use authority views to trigger a mental shortcut. One way to do this is by showcasing awards, media coverage, and other brand hallmarks.

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You could also weigh in on authority bias by showing recognizable client logos on your website and landing pages – if they trusted you for their business, this can’t be a bad choice, right.

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Power of Free

There is something special about the price of zero. A free gift with a purchase can be a powerful trigger. The power of free relies on the irrational excitement of getting something for nothing, on top of your order.

This is one of the longest exploited biases, and we’ve all seen multiple examples of it at work.

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It’s worth noting that it doesn’t have to be giving something for free – you can trigger this bias with free gifts, free shipping offers, or a free sample, trial period, or demo.

Close the Gap Between Trigger and Purchase

It helps to understand the psychology behind users’ behavior and how to use it to reach the people looking for a solution to their problem.

By mapping the true buyer journey and accounting for the “Messy Middle”, we can shorten the cycle of exploration and evaluation. When we test and put the different biases to work, we can understand how to get people from that loop down to the actual purchase decision.

This way, we can try to close the gap between trigger and purchase, so your existing and potential customers spend less time exposed to competitor brands.

Now that you know how biases work head on to our next read: How to create great website Call-to-actions.