B2B buying behavior and the messy middle of the buying journey

As B2B marketers, we often think that the buying journey of consumers is very different from the path that B2B buyers take. After all, B2B buying cycles tend to be long, more complex, and buying decisions tend to be taken by a group of people instead of a single individual. However, it turns out though that when it comes to the underlying psychology of decision-making, we can learn quite a bit from the consumer side.

Not so long ago, Google published an interesting whitepaper about the “messy middle” of the consumer buyer journey that provides good insights for B2B marketers. It’s the space between the moment a need is recognized (the trigger) and the final decision to buy. You could see it as the space between the early “Awareness” phase and the “Purchase” phase of the classic buyer journey models.

The research: looping between exploration and evaluation

The researchers set out to learn more about the decision making and purchasing behavior of buyers from the moment they are triggered to the moment that they make a purchase. Contrary to how buying journeys are often depicted, we know that it is not a linear process. There is a complicated web of touchpoints that differs from person to person.

Their research found that in this messy middle phase, buyers go through an extensive process of exploring and evaluating their options. During this process, where buyers look for information about a category’s products and brands, buyers loop between two mental modes: exploration, where they expand their options, and evaluation, where they narrow them down.

The messy middle
As buyers explore and evaluate their options in the “messy middle”, they use various cognitive biases and shortcuts to deal with the abundance of information and choice available to them.

The 6 key biases that influence decision making

bias category heuristics

Category Heuristics

Shortcuts or rules of thumb that aid us in making a quick and satisfactory decision within a given category.

bias power of now

Power of Now

The tendency to focus on today
rather than think about what tomorrow might bring. We discount the future in favour of today.

bias social proof

Social Proof

The tendency to follow the opinion, advice, and behaviour of others in one’s own decision-making.

bias scarcity bias

Scarcity Bias

Based on the economic principle that time-, quantity-, or access-limited resources are more desireable.

bias authority bias

Authority Bias

The tendency to attribute greater
accuracy and knowledge to the opinion of a perceived authority figure, unrelated to its content, and be more influenced by that opinion.

bias power of free

Power of Free

The tendency to overvalue free
products. It assumes that when a product becomes free, its intrinsic value for buyers increases.

The connection with B2B decision-making

Understanding the behavior in the messy middle is important as we see that the B2B buying process is becoming increasingly complex. There are more people involved in the process and most of the key discussions and interactions are taking place in Dark Funnel. We also see that the lines between B2B and B2C behaviors are blurring – after all, B2B buyers are almost like normal people and they, much like consumers, use various cognitive biases and shortcuts to navigate through a sea of information, opinions, and options before making a decision.

What the research shows is that during this messy middle phase, brand preferences are still up for grabs. Even if a buyer starts off favoring a particular brand, they are still susceptible to changing their mind while gathering information and comparing alternatives. And even though this presents marketers with both challenges and opportunities, it’s this phase where marketers can make their mark. At the end of this phase, 90% of the buyers will have formed a shortlist of brands to consider and will stick with that until the final purchase.

The takeaways for B2B marketing

So, what does this mean for B2B marketing? Here are some thoughts and considerations based on the research findings:

  1. Make sure your brand is showing up in the messy middleRemember that at any given time, only about 5% of your buyers are in-market, while 95% are out-of-market. Your focus should be on strengthening your brand’s position with that large group of out-of-market buyers. When that small percentage does enter the market, they often already have a short list of brands in mind. If you are the challenger brand, this is where you make your play.
  2. Use behavioral science to guide decisions: The study found that biases such as social proof, authority bias, scarcity, and category heuristics can alter choices. You can get a significant edge if you incorporate them into your marketing – where possible and appropriate. The research shows that the impact is comparable to significant price discounts.
  3. It’s not just providing content, it’s also the way you provide it: Think of your potential buyers as information foragers, constantly hunting for valuable insights to inform their decisions. The research shows that it’s not enough to simply create content, but you need to feed this foraging behavior by providing clear “scent trails” that lead buyers from one valuable piece of information to the next. As a marketer, focus on providing valuable content but then offer clear directions to the next relevant piece of information. It will help you stand out in the “messy middle” but also positions your brand as a valuable, trusted resource in your industry.
  4. Create a consistent brand experience: In the messy middle, every touchpoint matters. From your website to your emails, social media messages, and sales interactions, ensure a consistent experience that builds confidence and reduces friction. Marketers will have to work with other client facing teams to create a strong customer experience across the entire buyer journey, from initial awareness to post-purchase onboarding and adoption activities.
  5. Remove friction and barriers: you don’t want to have your (existing) buyers spend too much time exploring and evaluating their options and having them exposed to competing brands. This is the moment when challenger brands have a chance to convince your buyer to switch. Avoid inconsistent or unclear messaging and remove complications in the buying process.
  6. Balancing data, technology and the human element: As we use more data-driven personalization and AI in our marketing activities, let’s remember to embrace the human element. The messy middle show us clearly that emotion and intuition play important roles in the decision-making process, even in B2B.

The power of showing up and alignment with “How brands grow”

The research confirms the power of “showing up”: not just plastering your logo everywhere but providing real value to your potential buyer at every touchpoint, being there with the right, helpful content, at the right time, in the right format. By consistently showing up across these moments, you’re not just increasing your chances of being chosen, you’re building familiarity, trust, and credibility for your brand in your category. And in the long game of B2B relationships, that is what matters.

The emphasis on “showing up” aligns with Byron Sharp’s well-known work in his book “How Brands Grow”. Sharp’s research shows the importance of mental and physical availability – concepts that are similar to the findings from the ‘messy middle’ research. Just as Sharp highlights that brands grow by being easily noticed and easily bought by people, the messy middle research suggests that being present and easily accessible during key decision-making moments is crucial. From a B2B perspective, both perspectives show that consistent visibility and availability across various touchpoints are key to driving growth and preference.

So, ask yourself: Are you truly showing up for your potential buyers? Are you showing up not just when they’re ready to buy, but throughout their entire journey? In the messy middle of B2B decision-making, visibility isn’t just an advantage – it’s a necessity.

Closing Thoughts

While the mechanics of B2B purchasing are without a doubt more complex than your typical consumer buying decision, the impact of behavioral science on the decision making and purchasing behavior can’t be ignored. Whether someone is buying a solution for their company or looking for a new pair of shoes, emotions and mental shortcuts play a significant role. B2B brands that take these insights to heart and use them engage with the stakeholders in the buying centers will have an advantage in shaping buyer preferences and closing deals.

Interested in discussing how these strategic insights might reshape your B2B marketing approach? Let’s connect. I’m always eager to explore how the latest research can inform smarter, more effective strategies. Feel free to book some time on my calendar or drop me a note. Together, we can navigate the new realities of the messy middle and forge stronger connections with your B2B customers.

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