Looking Inside Your Customer’s Mind


What happens between the purchase decision and the actual purchase is much more complex than previously thought. Welcome to the messy center.

Why do you choose to buy something? What drives you to go to a particular store and why do you choose this product over this one? The fascinating science of shopping – especially psychology – goes way beyond the beginnings of e-commerce.

In the old days of brick and mortar retailing, a tremendous amount of research was done to determine what led us to walk through the doors of a physical store.

It has been found that the type of music played in this store affects our buying habits, e.g. For example, the speed at which we shop, how much we spend, and how long we are willing to wait for payment. The same applies to the scents that waft through the air. We know which color of the packaging is more attractive and which advertisements, brand names and logos trigger our urge to indulge.

Of course, these physical spaces and triggers do not exist in online retail. Instead, e-commerce customers are flooded with information about brands and products, and the choice is huge.

Through digital wizardry, we can track and analyze every step the customer takes in shopping online – how they engage in marketing efforts, how they interact with a brand, what they say about it, and how and when they make the purchase. However, why they do all of these things is less known.

Enter the cognitive labyrinth

Google researchers identified a phenomenon they called the “messy middle”. This is where online consumers need to wade through a barrage of links, aggregators, ads, comparison sites, reviews, forums, and interest groups and understand all of the information. They go through a complicated mental process in which they sort everything according to what is important to them and what is not.

Somewhere in this chaotic middle, customers decide to buy – or not – and as the e-commerce space gets denser, this middle inevitably becomes even more chaotic. This is something brands have to deal with. And that with the help of behavioral research.

Scientists from The Behavioral Architects worked with the Google Consumer Insights team to investigate what influences purchase decisions. They analyzed search trends and conducted observational studies. They also conducted an extensive, in-depth experiment with actual online shoppers, simulating more than 300,000 scenarios across a range of categories including retail, travel, and utilities.

Your main discovery was that the decision-making process is anything but linear. In fact, they go around in circles during this process.

The researchers concluded that as they shop online and sift through any information thrown on them, they are either doing research or evaluating it. When they are in the exploration phase, they discover a brand, a product category or an article and look for relevant information. In the evaluation phase, they then evaluate all of this information and examine the options. They switch back and forth between these two mental modes until they have made their decision as to whether and what to buy.

During this process, consumers use mental shortcuts or cognitive biases to help them decide whether or not to buy something. There are hundreds of these cognitive biases, but in their experiment, Google and the behavioral researchers focused on six.

Six of the best: the cognitive prejudices

1. Heuristic category

A heuristic is a technique that we use to approach a mental problem. It doesn’t have to be ideal, but it serves our purpose. In other words, it’s an abbreviation that helps us make our decision-making easier. For example, apply a rule of thumb. When shopping online, we look for brief descriptions of key product features rather than comprehensive specifications in order to save time and effort.

2. The power of now

Nobody likes to be waited, and patience is especially scarce when we are in shopping mode. This is why perks like instant download and express shipping are so popular with online consumers.

3. Social proof

If we are not sure about something, we do not trust our own judgment. When many other people think a product or brand is great, it affects our perception – even if we are not aware of it. Real customer reviews and recommendations are easy to find online, and we’re much more likely to buy something when it’s thumbs up.

4. Authority bias

We are easily influenced by people who we perceive to be authorities on a subject. Your opinion is important. We take the expert’s view and use it as an abbreviation in forming our own.

5. Deficiency distortion

We tend to want what we can’t have. When we think something is hard to find or only available for a short time, we want it more.

6. Make you free

We find it impossible to resist something that doesn’t cost anything, even if it doesn’t make sense. For example, if something that normally costs £ 20 is offered for free, we will resort to what would normally cost £ 30 and ignore the fact that the second offer is a bigger saving.

In the experiment conducted by Google and The Behavioral Architects, the study subjects were asked to choose their favorite and second favorite brands. Then the researchers applied at least one of the prejudices mentioned above (e.g., limited-time offers or rave reviews) and asked the buyer if they still felt the same about their top two brands. They found that the more prejudice the researchers used, the more likely it was that the customer would change their mind.

How to Hug the Chaos

I may sound complicated and … chaotic. But identifying the “messy middle” is a gift to marketers. By understanding psychology and using science responsibly and unobtrusively, brands can attract customers. By working with the consumer as they navigate the messy center, offer them a helping hand.

In practice, this means that you appear at every point in this complex, non-linear customer journey. It means developing your brand presence. And it always means knowing that delays can cost you as a customer.

The less time a buyer spends in the space between the trigger and the purchase, the less likely they are to be lured away.