The phrase “messy middle” became popular thanks to research conducted by Google on purchasing behaviors in the digital marketing and e-commerce sectors, and in particular, on how consumers search and compare information and make decisions online. While we can credit Google with systematizing the concept in a number of publications, the messy middle has evolved through the collaborative efforts of researchers, practitioners, and organizations who are interested in understanding and optimizing the customer’s journey.
Beyond its theoretical aspects, which are certainly relevant, the messy middle is a concrete reality experienced daily by consumers and therefore, we need to approach it in a practical way so that it can be observed, investigated, understood, and used by companies. As we shall see, during this phase, brands and marketers must provide tailored information and support, approach customers with engaging content, address their specific needs and concerns, and build trust through social proof and personalized communications.
Understanding the messy middle: a definition
In a marketing context, the expression “messy middle” refers to the intermediate stage in a customer’s decision-making journey, the stage when a customer has already acquired an awareness about a brand or product (trigger) but the final purchase decision has not yet been reached (purchase).
The “messy middle,” which can go on for a long time, coincides with the period of evaluation when customers explore options, seek information, and compare products or services. It’s “messy” because as customers consider each of their options, numerous factors come into play that may either confirm their choices or raise doubts or questions. Customers move through the channels available to them through a multitude of information, confronting not only an increasing amount of data but also their own emotional reactions. This clutter, which can often seem hopelessly chaotic, affects both the decision-making process and the marketing strategies of companies.
Birth and evolution of the messy middle
The concept of the “messy middle” that has become popular in recent years was born when behavioral science principles were applied to the purchasing decision-making process.
In July 2020, after reviewing a large sample of industry studies and analyzing major search trends and a significant number of purchase time series, Google reported the results of this large-scale experiment. The goal was to understand how consumers make their decisions in an online environment full of choices and marked by unlimited information. Google discovered that people prioritize and deal with the complexity of decision making using cognitive biases that are encoded deep in their psychology. The decision-making model that emerged placed the messy middle at the center: this is the virtual place where customers are won and lost. Here, people search for information about products and brands through a wide range of online sources, such as search engines, social media, aggregators, and review websites, and then evaluate all the options by resorting to two different mental modes: exploration, an expansive activity, and evaluation, a reductive activity. In both cases, people repeat the entire cycle as many times as they deem necessary.
In 2023, Google updated its perspective.
In times of economic uncertainty, marketers find themselves working under the pressures of ever-tightening budget limits and must demonstrate that their initiatives improve ROI and contribute to profitable growth. In this context, having a better understanding of how people make decisions can provide a competitive advantage. A new generation of tools and solutions, a growing number of which are based on artificial intelligence (AI), promise to anticipate the needs of individual consumers, connecting new customers with relevant content, across all channels, and in real time, better than ever before .
Following its previous report, Google issued a new report that once again focuses on the space between trigger and purchase, offering many confirmations and some new insights:
- Brand continues to be one of the strongest heuristics, one that can greatly influence a consumer’s choice. We are creatures of habit: once a brand demonstrates a high degree of trustworthiness, we continue to choose it. As we become familiar with a brand, the way we interact with it can evolve and become more sophisticated.
- Trust is the decisive element in getting out of the messy middle and finally proceeding to purchase. The levels of trust required to take this step vary widely throughout the experience and by category and perceived satisfaction (both in intensity and duration).
- Information needs and psychological barriers are typical for different product categories, but the most prevalent ones can be mapped by referring to the two modes (exploration and evaluation) of the messy middle model.
- Optimizing website resources for different information needs and applying some behavioral science principles can increase buyer confidence in the purchase path.
By investing in anticipating consumer information needs, enhancing behavioral research results, choosing the right channels to distribute proprietary content, and increasing presence in stores (the places where consumers make purchases), marketers can improve ROI. To contribute meaningfully to the growth of the entire enterprise, they must keep an eye on the most promising trends and adopt tools that enable them to respond in real time to widespread and often unpredictable needs.
Marketing for the messy middle
Messy middle marketing encompasses methodologies, techniques, and tools for engaging, persuading, guiding, and encouraging customers to purchase by answering as many of their questions and addressing their concerns as possible. The term “messy” refers to the complexity, ambiguity, and lack of linearity that often characterizes this stage of the buyer’s journey. While the messy middle is a potentially ungovernable stage, it is also a space of opportunity where companies can influence consumer choices like never before by offering relevant advice, demonstrating the value of products or services, and facilitating a smooth transition from consideration to conversion. Marketing that recognizes the complexities and uncertainties of the messy middle and implements dedicated strategies enables a brand to maximize its ability to persuade and retain its customers.
How marketers can succeed in the messy middle
While the chaos of the messy middle is a multifaceted challenge for marketers and companies, for consumers it is just normal shopping. Therefore, the goal cannot be to force people out of the cycle shown in Google’s model, but to provide them with the information and reassurance they need to make informed decisions.
- Ensure the brand presence so that the product or service is strategically in the foreground when customers decide to explore it. Marketers must connect with consumers wherever they are. And while there is no doubt that it’s difficult to always be able to meet a customer’s information needs in the messy middle, a new generation of tools, including artificial intelligence applications, is now available that will more easily enable companies to connect customers with relevant ads, across all channels, in real time.
- Employ behavioral science principles intelligently and responsibly to make the proposition compelling as consumers evaluate their options.
- Bridge the gap between decision-making activation (trigger) and purchase so that existing and potential customers are exposed to competing brands for less time. At each touch point, marketers must deploy their creativity to deliver content and messages that grab the attention of target customers and resolve their concerns.
- Integrate behavioral science into versatile campaigns, personalizing them through the use of artificial intelligence applications.
- Build flexible and empowered teams that can work cross functionally, avoiding traditional information silos.
Marketers can use theoretical reflection on the messy middle as a basis for developing a toolkit and best practices by which they can responsibly harness typically human resources such as creativity and intuition to create compelling propositions and improve the effectiveness of their content.
Best practices for turning the chaos of the messy middle into wealth
In general, the messy middle should be conceived as a continuous branding activity that accompanies the entire customer journey with varying intensity. Research on the messy middle highlights the centrality of consumers in the brand communication system: after you capture their attention, the goal is then to build relationships that are as balanced and open as possible. How? Through a concerted series of actions.
- Knowledge. In the case of an intermediate decision-making phase marked by often unpredictable behavior such as the messy middle, understanding the chaos-carrying elements is essential for implementing effective marketing initiatives.
- Engagement. To engage customers and build trust and credibility around the brand, marketers should first provide dedicated informational content (product comparisons, reviews, practice guides, testimonials, social proof), employing all useful resources to assist customers in their decision-making process.
- Personalization. Personalized marketing is particularly suited to the messy middle: tailoring content and offers to customers’ specific needs and preferences can motivate and guide them toward a purchase decision.
- Retargeting. Using retargeting and remarketing strategies allows you to stay in touch with customers who have shown interest in a product or service.
- Customer support. Providing excellent support by answering frequently asked questions in real time can build trust and help customers make informed decisions.
- Optimization. It’s equally important to optimize conversions and make it as easy as possible for customers to make a purchase, for example, by implementing solutions to simplify the payment process and quickly resolving any concerns or objections.
- Consolidation campaigns. Consolidation campaigns focused on email marketing and drip campaigns that provide relevant content and offers over time can be effective in cultivating leads in cluttered settings.
- Data analysis. Constant, targeted data analysis serves to understand which tactics are working and which are not, making it possible to extract the insights you need to make timely changes to marketing strategies that are not producing the expected results.
- Segmentation. Finally, careful and up-to-date customer segmentation allows you to tailor your offers and marketing to different target audiences. Understanding the specific needs and pain points of different customer groups can help address their concerns, even in difficult situations.
In summary, from a marketing perspective, the messy middle is a critical stage where potential customers actively consider their options before making a choice and a stage that can be both complex and rich in opportunities to develop profitable interactions. Effective marketing strategies should focus on targeted distribution of information, building trust, and directing customers toward the final purchase.
Something is still missing from the previous list: arguably the most powerful tool marketers can use to govern and enhance the chaos of the messy middle: we’re talking about video communication.
Video communication in the messy middle: the possibility of emotional connection
Among the tactics and tools that perform best in the “messy middle,” video communication deserves a separate discussion.
- The visual and auditory engagement of video allows you to establish contact at the very moment when customers are considering their options.
- Videos allow you to tell brand stories in an engaging way, making it possible to create emotional connections that foster a feeling of trust, one that you can maintain over time.
- By explaining how products and services work clearly, videos help customers make informed decisions.
- Video communication keeps the brand message consistent and can be used to provide real-time customer support. It is convenient, accessible, and immediate.
- By personalizing your video messages you can meet the specific needs of your customers, while interactive content engages customers in decision making. It’s undeniable: personalized videos enable a superior customer experience because they deliver content that is relevant to specific interests and needs, and make customers feel heard, understood, and valued. They succeed better than other formats in capturing the viewer’s attention and keeping them engaged, have the potential to generate higher conversion rates, and can increase the likelihood that viewers will follow up on calls to action (whether for making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, or requesting more information).
For all these reasons, video communication, which offers not only a tremendous informational contribution but also the opportunity for personal and emotional connection, is absolutely crucial in marketing to the messy middle: excellent for influencing customer decisions, building trust, and promoting brand loyalty.
In the dynamic landscape of modern marketing, it’s crucial to master methodologies for the “messy middle.” Bringing value to the possibilities in this middle phase of the customer journey—a phase that is characterized by complexity and ambiguity—requires tailored strategies and tools. Engaging customers with personalized content, meeting their needs, and providing timely and decisive assistance are all good tactics for a hands-on approach that not only influences purchasing decisions, but more importantly builds trust and fosters lasting customer loyalty.