Consumer Purchase Decisions: The “Messy Middle”

How do you make purchase decisions?

It may be similar to others, even if it’s not an identical process.

Surely, you’ll use the internet for research. You may look up articles, user reviews, product or service comparisons and visit brand websites. You may find useful info on shopping platforms and perhaps recommendations on social media.

And once you begin this process, you may start seeing ads following you around the internet that relate to your recent search history.

And let’s not forget about discussions you might have with friends, family, coworkers, etc., as well as telephone or text conversations with brand representatives.

The “Messy Middle” refers to all the various decision inputs and paths we take from the moment we consider a purchase decision to the final purchase itself.

Although the specific paths in the messy middle will vary for each person, the above video presentation from a Google researcher breaks all these possibilities down into two categories of decision-making: exploration and evaluation.

  1. Exploration represents an expansive activity of seeking more information.
  2. Evaluation represents a reductive activity of narrowing down potential choices.

These two modes of processing information are not linear. Consumers often go back and forth between both modes and may execute both modes simultaneously.


There are many ways we, as consumers, make purchase decisions. The above video focuses only on the following six factors that influence our choices.

  1. Category heuristics: The term heuristics means, “a way of solving problems by finding solutions based on your own experiences.” This represents how online consumers will find what they’re looking for on the internet. The process is facilitated by marketers using online descriptions of products or services that relate to consumer search habits. This boils down to the use of keywords that convey the features and benefits of the product or service which are most meaningful to searchers. As one type of example, if you sell red sneakers, and consumers are searching for red sneakers, but you have your sneakers described as scarlet shoes, fewer of those searchers may find their way to your product.

  2. Power of now: The speed of response to consumer needs informs consumer purchase decisions. Fast delivery influences purchase decisions, even when there’s no clear need for instant service. In other words, if there is any way you can speed up the way you can serve consumers, it should benefit your sales.

  3. Social proof: This may be old hat for many of us, but recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive. Wherever possible, add testimonials from satisfied customers.

  4. Scarcity bias: As one of the oldest purchase triggers we encounter, some of us may like to believe we aren’t influenced by this. But research confirms that as the availability of a product decreases, the more desirable the product becomes to buyers.

  5. Authority bias: Persuading consumers to buy your products can be bolstered by an expert or trusted source supporting your brand. This is another oldie but goodie in the marketing world. As one common example, to this day celebrity endorsements are still a workable way to boost sales. What’s newer in today’s connected world is the use of online “influencers” to recommend products. Your mileage may vary, but it’s worth testing.

  6. Power of free: As part of eCommerce best practices, the use of “free” is so ubiquitous that in some cases it’s become expected. As an example, for those of us over a certain age, “Free Shipping” used to be unique. Now, many consumers have grown to consider it a right. Regardless, a free gift with a purchase, even if unrelated, can be a powerful purchase motivator.

Again, these are not a representation of all purchase triggers, and not everyone will be influenced in the same way by the above points: but they are common. More importantly, these are points that we can control, as marketers.

The above video presents the results of experiments that statistically identify the weight these factors can exert on purchase decisions. Watch the video for the full report, but here are some practical takeaways.

The experiments showed that even the least effective (make-believe) brand, still won 28% of shopper preference from the established favorite when the marketing presentation amped up the decision triggers. In the most extreme case, a (fictional) car insurer won 87% share of consumer preference when reinforced with advantages across all six decision triggers.


  1. Ensure Brand Presence.
    The data supporting this point alone may be encouraging to those who feel balked when competing against formidable and well-entrenched brands. Yes, they have clear advantages, but the fact is, just showing up to the marketing party can be productive. New competitors routinely take business away from well-known brands, including from consumers who have built-in biases towards their first choice.

  2. Intelligently (and Responsibly) Leverage Purchase Triggers.
    Even the most experienced marketers can fall into a pattern of using what has worked well in the past, at the risk of excluding fundamental factors that may work well in the present. The above purchase triggers should be continually revisited with new marketing tests for your specific products and services as an ongoing process of marketing and advertising optimization.

  3. Respect the Messy Middle.
    Ask questions. Listen to your prospects and customers. Analyze any available data that pertains to how your specific customers make decisions. Use that information to better support those types of customer journeys. For example, are your customers commenting favorably on your product demonstration videos? Which of your videos are generating the most views? Which website articles generate the most readers? Why did customers or clients choose your product or service versus the competition? The point is to reinforce every opportunity at your disposal to help customers find and select your brand.

The advent of the internet and technology has opened up your products and services to a broader market than ever before. But of course, it has also opened up the same opportunities for your competitors. It’s easier than ever for consumers to find what they need and want to make purchases. It’s up to marketers to ensure their products and services are favorably considered by those same buyers.