This article is based on the Google research here

What Is a Buyer's Journey?

Since the beginning of time, or the beginning of sales and marketing, people have been trying to understand why people buy.  The first model to be defined was the Elmo Lewis’ famous AIDA model – is now more than 100 years old.  If you are looking for a history of sales methodologies then read Graham Hawkins first book "Sales Transformation: Is now critical for IT vendors" which is a good reference.

Why is looking at the buyer's journey important?

As Google say "If we don’t update our thinking about consumer behaviour to account for this huge expansion in choice and attendant complexity, we’ll be trying to account for 21st century behaviour with 20th century models."

What's Different About This Research?

The objective of Google’s research was to answer what is probably the most important and most perplexing question in marketing:  How to people decide what they want to buy and who they want to buy it from? 

Much of the recent research about the “buyer’s journey” has focused on the actions people take along the path to purchase and on what sources of information and communication channels they rely on. You may have undertaken yourself a "customer journey mapping exercise".

In contrast, the Google research focuses on the mental processes that people use when faced with a purchase decision.  

To Quote Google "As the internet has grown, it has transformed from a tool for comparing prices to a tool for comparing everything"

The Messy Middle

The study (non gated access to .pdf here) revealed that between the event or events that trigger a buying process and an actual purchase, there is what Google calls the “messy middle.” 

Google classifies that buyers are looking at search engines, review sites, video sharing sites, portals, social media, comparison sites, forums, interest groups /clubs, retailer sites, aggregators, blogging sites, voucher /coupon sites, branded sites, publishers, noticeboards.  I remember when I purchased my last car, I pretty much looked at all of these areas to find that "nugget" of information that would help me decide or eliminate part of the short list.  It will be the same for your clients.

Now I realise for your brand or product not of all of these apply.  The point is that a person does not "just" come to your website, thinks your product looks great and buys.  It is far more complicated than that.  Sales and Marketers in B2B and B2C must start thinking that "shoppers are browsing an infinite high street".

Google go on to say "Having arrived at these sites, of which there are multiple to choose from, many of the shoppers spent significant amounts of time navigating back and forth, switching between sites across multiple browser tabs and apps. In fact, in some of the sessions we observed, the product under consideration actually changed mid-search, as a new option became preferred."  Surley, none of this is a surprise because we all do this, but do we have this mindset when it comes to people buying the product we sell?

Why Social Media Is So Important

Research, this shows that this quarter (July to October 2020) the numbers of people on social media are up, in fact they have “surged” past the 4 Billion mark, the number is now 4.14 Billion people, which equates to 53% of the world's population.

Simon Kemp the author of this research, says that this now means that "2/3 of the eligible world wide audiences (the working population) now use social media every month."

Thanks to the Simon Kemp data, we know that buyers are on social media and to quote Google, Buyers are "moving effortlessly between vendors until something catches our eye. If we like what we see on closer inspection, we can check out immediately, but if not it hardly matters – there are plenty of other stores to visit on internet street."  The same is true for social media and the amazing choice of people to approach and buy from.  Or not buy from, as the case maybe. 

The Buyers Thought Process

Let me take you through Google's findings.

Whatever a person is doing, across a huge array of online sources, such as search engines, social media, aggregators, and review websites, can be classified into one of these two mental modes to understanding what happens in the messy middle.

Exploration This is an expansive group of activities during which people explore their options, learn about products or services, brands, and companies, and expand their consideration sets.

Evaluation  This is an inherently reductive group of activities during which people evaluate their options and narrow down their choices.

People loop through these twin modes of exploration and evaluation, repeating the cycle as many times as they need to make a purchase decision, particularly when the potential purchase involves a complex or high consideration product or service. Google represents this back and forth movement as an endless loop in its buying process model.

Google say "The ‘messy middle’, a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts"

The Messy Middle Challenge

This behavior creates a significant challenge for marketers because these two types of activities are cognitively different and therefore require different marketing tactics and different types of messaging and content. It can be difficult for marketers to discern whether a particular person is in exploration or evaluation mode, but if they send the wrong message at the wrong time, the prospective buyer may well eliminate their product or service from consideration.

Google also argues that buyers’ activities in the messy middle take place against a backdrop of the buyer’s awareness of (and perceptions about) products or services, brands, and companies in a given category. These perceptions are often driven by information provided by family, friends, and associates, and what buyers have read or heard online.  Online being a "catch all" term for websites, social media etc.

Google calls this phenomenon “exposure,” and they contend it is not a stage or step in the buying process, but rather “. . . an always-on, constantly changing backdrop that remains present throughout the duration of the decision-making process.”

How Sales and Marketers Succeed in the Messy Middle

Although the messy middle might seem a complicated place, it’s important to remember that to consumers it just feels like normal shopping. The goal isn’t to force people to exit the loop shown in the model, but to provide them with the information and reassurance they need to make a decision.

Ensure brand presence so your product or service is strategically front of mind while your customers explore.  Remember that people hate interruptions and they are not interested in a "buy my product, because it's great", everybody says this.  A brand just cannot be in all the places a buyer is by paid media. This is where you need to be in the earned media business and empowering your salespeople to be active on social media so you buyers "bump" into them.  Better still, as Google say this is the "infinite high street", empower your employees to be on social.  Inspiring and educating.

As the report states "Any gaps in your media plan could see you locked out of the loop as consumers begin exploring their options"

Employ behavioural science principles intelligently and responsibly to make your proposition compelling as consumers evaluate their options.  Let's not forget that "people buy people".  Brands go down a path of "buy my product because it's great" where as we can see that buyers are making their own evaluations.  The best (and cheapest) why to meet this criteria is to empower your employees on social and get them to co-create content.  Your employees are those closest to understanding the buyers needs and your team will instinctively know what to create and when.

Close the gap between trigger and purchase so your existing and potential customers spend less time exposed to competitor brands.  Your competition is only one click away, if we take Linkedin as an example.  Your employees should have compelling (to the buyer, not the seller) profiles that offer insight and educate.  While this demonstrates you are expects and can help the buyer, to put it bluntly, it stops the buyer seeking alternatives.

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.  While it is "obvious" to put salespeople on social, a business should look at getting as much coverage of their employees and their networks as they can.  Here is an example.  I'm currently reading "think like a monk" by Jay Shetty, I know Jay from his days at Accenture.  Jay was "low down" in Accenture, (before he was famous) but got a meeting with a senior contact in an account that Accenture had been trying to get into for years.  How?  Jay had spotted that the contact was into meditation and a meditation guru was in town and suggested they go together.

My point being, that you will have all types of people across your business all with different skills, experiences and network. You as a business should be tapping into this and using your team(s) to allow you to get clarity in the "messy middle".