The customer journey is one that has intrigued marketers for centuries, with a variety of models that explain shopper behaviour emerging over the years. Most recently, Google introduced a new model that focuses on the psychology of consumer shopping decisions that occur in the middle of a customer journey — what they’ve named the “messy middle”. 

In their latest report, Decoding Decisions: Making Sense of the Messy Middle, Google applied behavioural science to define what they refer to as the “messy middle”—the space between awareness and purchase. Google states that shoppers oscillate between two mental modes: exploration and evaluation. When they do this, they rely on a variety of online resources to create their consideration set, form preference and solidify their decisions while moving fluidly between these two states as they continue to learn more about their options. Whether on a favourite blog, a social media site, a search engine, a review site, etc., Google states that consumers are either exploring or evaluating. 

Furthermore, Google demonstrated with this study that when advertisers play towards certain purchase-influencing biases by how they design their offers and ads, it creates a massive opportunity to win consumers. On the flip side, omitting important heuristics can equate to the loss of previously loyal customers. Google found that up to 87% of consumers will switch to a competitor’s brand at the sight of a single strong ad. There’s immense power in just showing up, says Google. “Simply being present in moments of deliberation can be enough to win or retain consumer preference.”

Affiliate publishers and partnerships are key in the messy middle

Marketers have long understood that being present in the customer journey allows brands to gain competitive advantage and retain existing customers. What this study uncovers is just how important being present is and provides more prescriptive decision-making heuristics that can be applied to make the most of the messy middle. 

Affiliates have long understood the importance of providing valuable, unique information to consumers to assist them in their purchase-making decisions. All six of the purchase biases that Google addresses in their study are represented in the affiliate ecosystem. Third party validation offered by many affiliates is a consumer bias that brands cannot meet on their own.

Google refers to this purchase bias as “Authority bias: Being swayed by an expert or trusted source”.

These findings reinforce the importance of a diverse marketing mix that allows you to reach more unique consumers while addressing the cognitive biases in a more complete way. In the affiliate channel, there are benefits to brands who work with as many publishers and publisher models as possible.

In our recent Affiliate Customer Journey study, CJ Affiliate looked at 143 million transactions over $18 billion in sales revenue across more than 3,000 advertisers and gleaned some telling insights that aligned with Google’s Messy Middle findings.

Network data showed that 83% of affiliate customer journeys involve only one publisher. This means publishers attract loyal and diverse audiences through a variety of customer-need driven models, which inform and provide consumers with confidence regarding their purchasing decisions. In the 17% of customer journeys where multiple publishers were present, brands saw up to 30% higher AOVs according to network averages. While most affiliate customer journeys involve a single publisher, multi-publisher journeys offer consumers differentiated, third-party validation which results in higher value purchases. Additionally, the data shows that all publishers models are both assisting and closing conversions with relative frequency. 

We’ve also observed that new publisher recruitment into affiliate programs is a primary factor in program growth. Across the CJ Affiliate network, over a time frame of 5 years, we see that 60% of program growth is fueled from ongoing recruitment.

Here are a few ways advertisers can learn from Google’s study and CJ’s Affiliate Customer Journey study to make the most of “messy middle” in affiliate:

  • Be present on all publisher sites—don’t allow customers to slip to their second-choice brand.
  • Take advantage of competitor targeting and pay to shout louder than your competitors.
  • Run placements to ensure you’re appearing when customers are considering competitors.
  • Leverage third parties to spread positive messaging about your brand’s price and quality.
  • Partner with publishers that can stop customers from leaving your site—and re-entering the “messy middle”. This includes cart abandonment, and toolbar publishers—anyone who makes it easy for consumers to get the information they need without leaving your site.

While the customer journey funnel has evolved quite a bit over the years, one thing is for sure, if you aren’t there to help meet consumers rapidly changing needs—another brand will. Add to this fact that the affiliate channel delivers 88% more revenue per shopper than other channels, that makes this pay-for-performance model a cost-effective and low-risk way for marketers to take full advantage of the messy middle.

Make sure to be present where it counts.