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What’s so messy about the middle?
By
Luke Macfarlan
November 22, 2021

In the course of my weekly research into ecommerce customer behavior, I’ve recently come across multiple references to the concept of the “messy middle.” While familiar with the Google whitepaper published in July 2020, I had not read the paper in full — but I decided to pick it up over the weekend. It was definitely worth the read.

Why? Because the “messy middle” is ultimately about empowering the customer in order to be more successful.

We’re all familiar with the concept of funnels in marketing and ecommerce. What I didn’t realize is the idea of “funnels” has been around since William Townsend adapted the AIDA concept to describe customer behavior in 1924. 1924!

The core concept of funnels has been around for nearly one hundred years, a testimony to the power of this model. But a lot has changed in one hundred years, possibly the most significant being the increase of information available to customers. This increase of information availability creates a complicated and incredibly varied context to the customer journey.

AIDA — Alive and kicking since the 1880s

With this abundant access to information, customers today don’t actually fall neatly through funnels. A series of ever-tightening stages doesn’t capture the users who exit one stage and re-enter another. To conceptualize this differently, Google Authors define the messy middle of today’s customer journey as a cycle of exploration and evaluation — two very different types of activities:

“This equates to two different mental modes in the messy middle: exploration, an expansive activity, and evaluation, a reductive activity. Whatever a person is doing across a huge array of online sources such as search engines, social media, aggregators, and review websites, can be classified into one of these two mental modes.”
Google sure can make “messy” look clean.

Intuitively and experientially this makes sense, but we tend to contextualize this behavior in our familiar funnels. Time on page, bounce rate, add to cart, cart abandonment all imply the measurement of a customer within a stage or their conversion to the next. It makes sense. We have to measure against some baseline expectation of behavior, right?

Funnels are useful for planning marketing and ecommerce strategy, but their stages might be better described as “cohorts” of customers. That is to say, they are not very representative of “real” user journeys. This leaves the opportunity to better understand and model the customer journey for marketing and ecommerce development.

“…while the endless circulation of the exploration/evaluation loop might frustrate advertisers [or ecomm managers], it’s important to remember that it often delights consumers. The goal is not to stymie the customer or force them out of the activity they have chosen to pursue, but to provide them with everything they need to feel comfortable making a decision.”

The Authors’ non-linear model is more than thought-provoking. As a marketing or ecommerce manager, leaning into this view of customer behavior may require something uncomfortably new: a focus on empowering, equipping, and entrusting customers to chart their own unique journeys.

And yes, it may be messy — but it feels right.

About the Author

Luke Macfarlan has led product teams at Starbucks, T-Mobile, and the Departments of Defense & Homeland Security. Now, as Chief Product Officer at Skafos, Luke is helping Shopify merchants convert more traffic with interactive recommendations. Try our Shopify app with a 14-day free trial.