Google Takes a Fresh Look at the Buying Process

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 Marketers have been striving to understand how people make buying decisions for decades. In fact, the earliest formal description of the buying process – Elmo Lewis’ famous AIDA model – is now more than 100 years old. The effort to decode how people make buying decisions – and to identify what can influence those decisions – has been the marketing equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail or the search for El Dorado.

A paper recently published by Google provides several fresh insights on this vital topic. Decoding Decisions:  Making Sense of the Messy Middle is based on an extensive research project conducted by Google in association with The Behavioural Architects, a research and consulting firm that focuses on the application of behavioral science to marketing.

The objective of Google’s research was to answer what is probably the most important and most perplexing question in marketing:  How to people decide what they want to buy and who they want to buy it from? Much of the recent research about the “buyer’s journey” has focused on the actions people take along the path to purchase and on what sources of information and communication channels they rely on. In contrast, the Google research focuses on the mental processes that people use when faced with a purchase decision.

Based on this research, Google and The Behavioural Architects created a new model of the buying process and identified several mental shortcuts (heuristics) that people use to help them make buying decisions. While this research focuses on consumer buying decisions, the buying process model works equally well for many B2B buying decisions, and some of the heuristics also apply to B2B.

I’ll describe Google’s model of the buying process in this post, and I’ll discuss the heuristics in a future post.

The Google Buying Process Model

The diagram below shows the buying process model that emerged from the research by Google and The Behavioural Architects. This research involved the observation of 310,000 simulated purchase scenarios across 31 product categories. Individuals participating in the study were asked to research a product they were actually in the market for. All the product research was performed online.


The study revealed that between the event or events that trigger a buying process and an actual purchase, there is what Google calls the “messy middle.” The researchers concluded that there are no “typical” purchase journeys, but they also found that most people do engage in two distinct mental processes that are key to understanding what happens in the messy middle.

  • Exploration – This is an expansive group of activities during which people explore their options, learn about products or services, brands, and companies, and expand their consideration sets.
  • Evaluation – This is an inherently reductive group of activities during which people evaluate their options and narrow down their choices.

What makes the middle “messy” is that many people tend to jump back and forth between these two types of activities multiple times during the buying process, particularly when the potential purchase involves a complex or high consideration product or service. Google represents this back and forth movement as an endless loop in its buying process model.

This behavior creates a significant challenge for marketers because these two types of activities are cognitively different and therefore require different marketing tactics and different types of messaging and content. It can be difficult for marketers to discern whether a particular person is in exploration or evaluation mode, but if they send the wrong message at the wrong time, the prospective buyer may well eliminate their product or service from consideration.

Google also argues that buyers’ activities in the messy middle take place against a backdrop of the buyer’s awareness of (and perceptions about) products or services, brands, and companies in a given category. These perceptions are often driven by advertising, but they can also be influenced by stories in the media, information provided by family, friends, and associates, and what buyers have read or heard online.

Google calls this phenomenon “exposure,” and they contend it is not a stage or step in the buying process, but rather “. . . an always-on, constantly changing backdrop that remains present throughout the duration of the decision-making process.”

As I noted earlier, the research by Google and The Behavioural Architects focused on how consumers make buying decisions, but the buying process model also applies to B2B buying decisions. If anything the middle is even messier in B2B because many B2B buying decisions involve multiple people who are moving between exploration and evaluation at different times and speeds.

In my next post, I discuss what Google and The Behavioural Architects discovered about the role of heuristics in buying decisions.

Source of images:  Google

1 COMMENT

  1. David, interest article. I remember Google ‘micro moments’ from a few years back that also dealt with the ‘messy middle’ (love that term and plan on using it!). While nominal or low involvement purchases likely follow this path (say Friday night shopping on Amazon for a new widget) more involved purchase decisions (e.g., a car, a college, a spouse…will strike the last one) are likely to be more deliberate…albeit it still a bit messy. Also there will be individual differences. I don’t waste much time comparing and contrasting stuff…but i know others who spend weeks agonizing after fairly simple purchases. Anyway FWIW. Look forward to your next article.

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