Blog, Our Thinking

Decision-Making in the Time of Corona – ‘Decoding the Messy Middle’

Google’s Insights team identified and named it. And we agreed, ‘yep, we know that place’. StoryStream’s Cameron Franks expands on the theory of the messy middle, how that has been accentuated by the accelerated shifts to online buying and how Social Proof and Authority Bias (expert opinion) help consumers overcome information overload and commit to a purchase.

Last year, Google set out to decode how consumers decide what to buy. What they termed the ‘messy middle’ comprised the processes of ‘exploration’ and ‘evaluation’ that sit between the initial interest or intent to purchase, and the moment when a decision is made. In the online world, it’s where shoppers find themselves overwhelmed with messages, but unable to touch, feel, try on or try out a product, much less turn to a living, breathing sales assistant.

Source: Think with Google November 2020

Messy for consumers …

In the physical world, the ‘exploration and evaluation’ phase is more decisive, more definitive. When people go to the shops, they generally come back with bags. Online, they might be triggered to look at something over breakfast; explore the price, the competition and the options while sitting on the train; and make the purchase lying in bed later that night. Or not. Because the exploration and evaluation phase lacks the electronic equivalent of a polished sales assistant who brings three different sizes to the changing room, compliments you on how well the shirt suits you, and subtly persuades you to add a jumper while you’re at it.

Messy for marketers …

Equally – in our view – there’s a messy middle for marketers. In the case of brand guardians, it’s that space between traditional marketing and the newer, highly-fragmented landscape that encompasses everything from a simple social post through to an integrated multi-media campaign. We know marketers want to capitalise on everything that the digital age offers, but find it difficult to keep brand actions co-ordinated, meaningful and integrated – particularly when your most powerful messages are often in the hands of third parties.

It’s lockdown that has brought both of these areas into focus, but it’s important to remember that the pandemic has mostly just accelerated shopping trends – and the demands these trends have placed on sales and marketing teams – that were already underway.

Of course, people are looking forward to browsing through certain shops; to redeploying the senses of touch and smell when it comes to appraising and assessing purchases such as clothes, food, toiletries. But next-day delivery, simple return processes, 24/7 availability, and some lingering behaviours around distancing and virus transmission mean that this isn’t a temporary change in consumer behaviour or sales and marketing strategies. The middle is here to stay. Our challenge is to tidy it up.

How to unlock the mess

The key findings of their study showed that there were six key biases that could positively influence decision-making. Google released an update on this in November recommending that, in response to the impact of Coronavirus on patterns of consumer behaviour, brands should focus on two of the six in particular:

  1. Dialling up the Social Proof by encouraging and capitalizing on third party recommendations and reviews
  2. Emphasising the Authority Bias by surfacing credible and knowledgeable experts to guide purchase decisions


Source: Think with Google November 2020

And a neat time for StoryStream …

StoryStream helps brand marketers curate the best mix of owned and earned content to help guide consumers through the messy middle. One key feature is the ability to find, filter and obtain rights to UGC content – delivering Social Proof at scale. Another is a series of clever AI tools that make this process easier, as well as matching UGC images to product catalogues and displaying them on the relevant product pages.

Boden Social proof example

StoryStream also enables brands to showcase expert opinion and reviews as part of the Authority Bias influence. Our SEO-optimised Earned Media Module allows either link backs, or full article-publishing, and focuses on driving the next step to purchase once these expert views have been consumed.


Land Rover Authority Bias example

Our Storyboards of content – paid, earned or owned – enter the fray at the point at which the potential buyer’s own cognitive biases* are furiously competing. The point at which many abandon their ‘shopping baskets’ and catch up with their WhatsApp messages instead.

Helping to cut through this information overload and lead you out of the messy middle is StoryStream – serving up third-party endorsements that usher you in the right direction, make you feel reassured and confident in your decision, just when you were starting to feel a little bit lost. We help marketers deliver – in cognitive terms – the Social Proof, and the Authority Bias’ that tip explorers into buyers.

Time for a content spring clean?

If you’re a brand owner, online retailer or marketing department and need to tidy up that messy middle, contact the team, and we’ll talk about how StoryStream can help.

Wondering what we mean by … ?

#UGC or #UserGeneratedContent – images, social posts, reviews that consumers have created, talking about your product, sector or category

#Paid content – images, social posts, reviews that result from partnerships

#Earned content – usually media, press, influencer reviews that you have earned

#Owned content – content owned by a brand owner, often used by the retailer of that product

#Curated content – your selection from any or all of the above that you ‘curate’ to best reflect your product or brand

* Google identified six key cognitive biases that influence purchase decisions: Category Heuristics, Power of Now, Social Proof, Scarcity, Authority, the Power of Free.