How Google’s ‘messy middle’ research should inform your digital marketing strategy in 2021

Google’s specialist research team has coined a new phrase to describe the period between consumer awareness and purchase. This ‘messy middle’ impacts every one of your customer journeys, so how should your digital marketing adapt?

By Alec Harden-Henry, Commercial Director, Influence Network.

“The way people make decisions is messy — and it’s only getting messier.”

Google’s Think With Google platform publishes research from the search behemoth’s dedicated insight team and their latest findings speak to a phenomenon we’ve all seen happening over the last decade.

Customer journeys were once easy to understand. Consumers would walk into a physical location, review their options and make a purchase. They fit neatly into a traditional funnel model and, perhaps, during the early stages of ecommerce, the same structure still existed.

Now though, as Google says, the decisions and considerations that lead to a purchase are messy and very much non-linear. Consumers might look for multiple pieces of information, from multiple sources, before they commit to purchasing a product they originally became aware of some months ago.

This is the ‘messy middle’, as Google’s team calls it.

It’s a potentially infinite loop that takes place between a consumer becoming aware of a product or service and the point at which they make a purchase.

During their time in the messy middle, consumers engage in ‘exploration’ and ‘evaluation’, seeking input points that will push them into a purchase, or reinforce their current state of being.

It’s not too grand of a statement to suggest that a large part of the job of your digital marketing in 2021 is to get customers out of the messy middle and into a purchase.

As Google’s research says, the messy middle is “a complex space between triggers and purchase, where customers are won and lost”.

So, if you want to ‘win’ more than you ‘lose’, just how do you get potential customers through the messy middle?

Cognitive biases

Google’s research into this looked at the cognitive biases that we all carry and which contribute to action being taken in the messy middle. Using a range of experiments they were able to prove the purchasing factors that contribute to the journey becoming linear again. Using ‘behavioural science principles’ is a big part of the research’s recommendations for marketers in 2021.


Recommendations and reviews from others are seen as ‘proof’ that the product or service is good. They reinforce a belief that was probably seeded when the product was first seen by the potential customer. Most of the time we have no way of testing whatever it is we’re considering buying, so we look for the next best thing. Others who have already done so and can report positive results.


The bias of proof is accentuated if the person providing the proof is seen to be in a position of authority or trust. Collective consumer reviews (‘5 stars from 264 reviewers’) have power, but it seems we’re more swayed by people who are or seem to be qualified to comment on the product or service.

Information and reassurance

The common theme running through the above two factors and all of the cognitive biases Google looked at is information and reassurance, which can be looked on as the key ingredients for getting buyers through the messy middle.

Trying to force people into an exit of their evaluation process is likely to lead to unintended negative consequences. The messy middle is, after all, simply normal shopping to most consumers. Instead of trying overt hard selling tactics, Google’s evidence points to this information and reassurance approach, with consumers gently guided to the correct end outcome.

Closing the gap between trigger and purchase

The temptation with the concept of the messy middle is to leave consumers to fend for themselves and find their own answers. But taking that approach risks losing them.

Whilst in the messy middle evaluating your product or service consumers may also simultaneously be looking at your competitors. When they have enough information they’ll decide on a purchase, but that might not be for what you sell. Whilst your competitor makes it out of the messy middle and into a purchase, you could be lost to that endless loop, now constantly being assessed against something the consumer has already purchased, used and practically evaluated for themselves.

Using tactics that get people through the messy middle quickly should therefore be a huge point of focus for digital marketing in 2021. The aim isn’t only to educate clients through their purchasing journey but also to keep their valuable income out of the hands of your competitors.

And if you’re wondering where the relevance is for influencer marketing in all of this, well that is a huge area of interest for me, you can find my latest musings on Influencers and your marketing funnel here.

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