Recently, Embryo’s own, James Welch, the inspirational Chief Innovation Officer introduced me and many others within the Embryo team to Google’s Messy Middle. A notion that admittedly, I completely overlooked despite experiencing it often when it comes to making a decision as a consumer.
The phrase ‘messy middle’ is a term coined by Google and taken from a document collaboratively created by behavioural scientists and other extremely intelligent individuals from both within, and external to, Google. Entitled ‘Decoding Decisions – Making Sense of the Messy Middle’, and produced in 2020, the document studies purchasing behaviour on the web.
The term refers to a hugely significant part of a web user’s buying journey for everything that is sold via the web.
Most consumers, and in fact marketeers or businesses are very much aware of linear buying journeys that often look like the below:
Awareness> Interest> Consider> Purchase
However, in contrast to the above, the way that consumers shop online is getting increasingly messier by the day, due to the sheer amount of content produced in all sectors on a daily basis, but also the number of options available to consumers. Due to the sheer amount of content and information available to the consumer, the ‘interest’ and ‘consideration’ phases of the buyer journey shown in the example above, becomes very far from a linear experience.
The ‘consider’ phase becomes very messy because just one interesting item of content or an extra option available to the consumer has the possibility to change the direction of a person’s thought process. This option could be simply content that lists a feature that a new product has, compared to the product that was previously favoured. It could be that a website or product they were previously unaware of has the same product but for 25% less.
Every time a consumer is made aware of a new feature, every time a difference in price is shown to the customer – and more – this all adds to the ‘messy’ nature of the consumer’s journey online. So many choices.
Once I had learnt more about The Messy Middle, I was able to think back to my own consumer experiences and how I could apply a particular experience to the concept.
Consumer awareness and research triggers
Due to COVID-19 and the multiple lockdowns it birthed, occurring not only in the UK, but across the globe, many industries were affected, including the vehicular manufacturing industry. Car buyers grew increasingly impatient with delivery delays for new motors and were left paying more for some year-old used models than they would if they ordered one to come straight from the factory.
A never before seen spike in used values in recent months is the result of an ongoing computer chip shortage which has limited new vehicle production and significantly pushed back delivery schedules for some of the latest models.
The average price paid for second-hand cars is at a never-before-seen high, soaring by more than a fifth in September alone.
The nation’s largest used car sales platform, Auto Trader, back in October 2021, shared data that showed how the values of second-hand cars have grown for 18 consecutive months – essentially since the pandemic struck.
With the Covid-19 outbreak forcing car factories to close down for at least six weeks from March 2020 – and a subsequent shortage of computer chips ever since – order books are bursting at the seams and delivery schedules, in some cases, have extended to over 12 months.
The average value of a second-hand car listed on Auto Trader last month rose to £16,067, up from £13,829 in September 2020 – an increase of 21.4 per cent annually. And it means some used models are now selling for higher prices than they cost new.
It was only by chance that through my own inquisitiveness, I was able to find out that my car was worth a lot more than I had initially thought, after learning that at the end of my leasing contract with my car, I am automatically charged a large amount to keep the car. This was a shock to me, and I scrambled to find options. (I should have read the terms and conditions when I first received the car to be fair, but in my defence, I was overly excited). However – and this is where content had changed my intentions – I stumbled upon some information that stated that this was not my only option and I could part-exchange my vehicle at any time.
Upon learning this, I immediately began to weigh up the advantages of my current vehicle, against the disadvantages. Whilst I do thoroughly enjoy driving my current car, I unequivocally do not enjoy having to re-fuel the car multiple times a week due to its dwindling miles per gallon rate. This factor alone triggered my demand for a new vehicle, based on all that I had recently learnt. From here, I began to seriously consider both electric and hybrid vehicles going forward.
Exploring the results of my own interest
As a millennial, the internet is more or less my second home, which makes sense considering my role as Website Project Manager revolves around the web itself. That being said, I often partake in consumer research using the medium of the internet, however, I’m very much a visual learner, and as such, I began to watch car reviews on YouTube.
Currently, I drive a Renault Megane, and all I’ve ever known is French cars, having previously driven a Peugeot 208 – my first ever car. Due to this factor, and also due to the uncanny timing of the moment, my interest was first piqued by the new Renault Arkana and its sleek coupé SUV shaping. This option also happened to be a Hybrid car at that too – what a coincidence!
What I first believed to be a straightforward inquest into my potential future car, became much messier, as I delved deeper down the rabbit hole and continued my own research. Whilst reviews were mostly positive when I happened to visit a Renault showroom, not only was I taken aback by the price, (I’m not really sure what I expected when the car was new) but I also learnt that the aforementioned shortage of computer chips required for cars, was affecting the supply of new Arkana’s – and therefore, my demand waned as I learnt there was a 6-month waiting list. Due to the fact that the value in my car were I to trade it in, is dependent on the supply of computer chips, my search for a new vehicle was very much time-sensitive. I did not have 6-months to wait, as such, my interest moved on along with me.
My messy journey then took me back to the research stage, from social media keywords and price comparison on Auto Trader, to visiting showrooms and understanding the trends within the SUV market and eventually seeing all the cars I became interested in in-situ on the road. My interest constantly changed from Electric SUVs to Hybrid SUVs, and then eventually Petrol SUVs, and further broke down to Coupé SUVs, to Crossovers, and then to Large SUVs and eventually, I settled on a Small SUV. Whilst visiting showrooms, I was informed of the lack of infrastructure in the UK when it comes to electric vehicles. Whilst this wasn’t an online interaction itself, learning this further affected my exploration of the market, and lead to me extending my research, only to learn that technically, jumping on the electric market trend now would class me as being an early adopter, and as such, I’d be putting myself in a market that isn’t fully in place yet.
Evaluating my considerations
Just to make my journey that much messier, further research online lead to me understanding that petrol SUVs are now much more efficient than ever before – something that is an important factor in my search for a new car, and initially triggered the aforementioned search itself. Another important point that had to be factored into my search was ULEZ compliance and the carbon emissions my new potential car would emit – another potential cost. Out of the cars that I had highlighted and shortlisted, some had to be cut off, due to their carbon emissions, ultimately leading to a one step forward, two steps back feeling about my search.
As it stands currently, I can indeed see light at the end of the tunnel. It appears my journey through the messy middle is coming to a close, and through all of my extensive research, visualising myself in all of the vehicles I considered, comparing and forecasting monthly costs, I have finally narrowed down the choices to maybe one or two specific vehicles.
The next steps within this specific consumer journey involve taking the cars I have narrowed down on test drives. However, will this lead to further options and findings, further complicating my journey and taking me right back into the messy middle?
Speaking of, Google has produced a rather simple-yet-informative graphic that helps us to visualise a modern buyer journey:
The stages of the model are:
- Exposure – the car brands that I thought of immediately
- e.g. Renault, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Audi, Seat, BMW
- Exploration/Evaluation loop – the ‘messy middle’ itself:
- e.g. “Should I get a new car?”. “Should I get an Electric car? A hybrid?”. “I saw that car that I really liked when I saw online drive past me, do I really see myself in that?”. “How much CO2 does this vehicle emit?”. “Will I even be able to drive through London in this car?”. “Is this even an SUV, it looks like a large hatchback?!”.
- Experience – word of mouth and information passed on and past experiences of visiting various showrooms
- e.g. the salesman at Showroom A was a lot pushier than the salesman at Showroom B.
These stages above and those mentioned within the description of my messy middle experience can be used to explain how a vast number of buying journeys occur online – and how an infinite number of things can sway a consumer into making a particular decision one way or another. If one were to think of the “SUV looking like a large hatchback” being a feature equivalent to a vehicle looking worse, or much more efficient, in just one example of how to change a buyer’s mind. But what I have found through learning about the “messy middle” is that, if car dealerships (in this instance) want to be in with a shout of winning business from me, (or anyone in that matter) during the ‘Exploration-Evaluation loop’, they have to ultimately provide all the required information there and then – without holding back!
To change and influence a potential buyer’s mind, car dealers need to create content that appears to potential buyers such as myself during their ‘Exploration-Evaluation loop’ phase. In the example above, it is clear that I am in this loop for a reason. I was not 100% convinced of my choice – otherwise, I would have paid for it already. So by providing me with all the information, I would require, car dealerships would have their chance to persuade me to choose their own product.
Show up and summarise!
Google describes this concept as “Showing up”;
The power of showing up – how simply being present in moments of deliberation can be enough to win or retain consumer preference.
To a consumer who is very much content-focused and does a large amount of research when it comes to purchasing a product, this statement is heavily relatable, but on the other hand, when I screw my Project Management/Embryo head on, it rings true also. It shows that we provide all the required information to potential clients when it comes down to project proposals and we are transparent about what the client can expect to receive during the management of a website project. The strategies that we have created for clients over the years fits well with what Google has discovered. Embryo’s significant focus on customer service and strategies helps to provide content for myriad search phrases, helps our client sites to ‘show up’ as much as possible. Whilst there is much more science that goes into helping to persuade a client or a buyer to use the products/services of clients who work with us at Embryo, the hardest thing to do is to show up – and that’s what Embryo does very well indeed.
My own findings and also from my understanding of Google’s “messy middle” document, have helped me to find that any and all website owners, businesses, marketers, SEOs, or on-the-ball content producers showing ignorance towards the importance of the messy middle – is doomed to fail – or at least lose out on a myriad of potential buyers. As time goes on, if they fail to adapt and take advantage of this buying behaviour that consumers are displaying, they will essentially lose market share, customers, and recognition.
Those who took part in creating the Google document found that businesses/marketers could significantly improve the chances of changing a potential consumer’s mind to purchase a specific product, if the business had shown up alongside applying some useful behavioural science biases related to the product/services on offer.
The complete “Messy Middle” document can be read here.
Whilst my own messy middle experience is not yet complete, it is indeed drawing to a close, as I continually narrow down my options. I’m sure I’ll make it out of the maze that is the messy middle before too long.