The Messy Middle: Navigating Purchase Behavior Decision-Making
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The Messy Middle: Navigating Purchase Behavior & Decision Making

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The buying habits of consumers have always been messy, largely unknown, and variable. Human behavior is not linear and has digressed even more with the induction and proliferation of the internet. It’s estimated that consumers are bombarded with advertisements 5,000 – 10,000 times a day! How consumers categorize and respond to these triggers is what businesses trying to sell their wares need to know.

Behavioral psychology and purchasing decisions

The internet has shifted the importance of a product’s quality, as online shoppers can compare more than just price when doing their own “research.” The ability to compare varying components of different products means shoppers can more easily know which products are perceived as “better” than other similar products. This is why the word “best” is searched for and analyzed far more often than the word “cheap” online.

As the internet has allowed people to search for products based on subjective terms such as “cheap” and “best” a “messy middle” has risen. Companies are trying to decipher the messy middle in order to sell their products more easily and effectively. Recent research was done to bridge this messy gap in the middle of consumer spending habits and the conclusions drawn are both fascinating and important for marketing teams.

In short, people use far-reaching cognitive biases based on past information to come to their conclusions. This research concluded that there are two “mental modes” created when consumers are deciding whether to buy a product or pass on it. The two modes created are exploration, which is expansive, and evaluation, which is reductive. These modes are augmented and evaluated based on information about the competing products and brands available online.

the biases

Consumers are constantly looping through these two nodes until they’ve acquired enough information to make a purchasing decision that meets their needs. There are six main biases which heavily influence which product a consumer will choose to buy. These are:

  • Category Heuristics, which consists of descriptions of products and simplifies the purchasing decision.
  • Power of Now, which states that the longer a consumer must wait for a product, the less likely they are to buy it and the less enticing the sale becomes.
  • Social Proof, which are recommendations and reviews found online and provided by others who have already used the product.
  • Scarcity Bias, which states that the availability of a product is inversely related to its desirability. In other words, scarce products are desired more than those which are readily available.
  • Authority Bias, which is the power of a trusted or authoritative source to persuade buyers.
  • Power of Free, which states that a free gift of any sort, related or unrelated to the purchased product, is more likely to drive the sale of said product.

In the experiment a group of virtual shoppers were asked to pick their favorite brands for a given category. Next, biases were applied to other brands in order to see if shoppers would switch or augment their preferences based on the biases applied. Shoppers were also exposed to one fictional brand in each category which they had zero prior experience in using.

The results showed that when the products not previously chosen were “improved” by the biases, those products were more likely to be chosen as a favorite brand. The most extreme advantage was given to a fictional car insurer, which won 87% of consumer preference when improved by all six biases.

Overall, the experiment proved that behavioral principles derived from psychology are important and predictive when applied to consumer habits.

the takeaways

With the parameters and results of the experiment in mind, companies can take advantage of the research findings by ensuring their brand perception is improved by the applied biases. Effectively exploiting these biases can help consumers make a decision and, in effect, exit the loop of evaluation and exploration.

Our key takeaways to building a better brand include:

  • Keep your brand top of mind to consumers
  • Employ behavior science principles to evaluate consumer habits
  • Close the gap between trigger and purchase
  • Build flexible and empowered teams who can work cross-functionally and effectively deploy these strategies

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