Molly Maybe, the ‘messy middle’ and how influencers can drive purchasing behaviour

We are all ‘Molly Maybes’, stuck in a potentially infinite loop of non-decision making.

There is a story on my daughter’s bookshelf called ‘Molly Maybe and the Monster Mission’.

If you have children of a certain age then you might have read it yourself but if not, luckily, the plot can be easily summarised.

Molly has a secret trap door in her treehouse, which leads to the monster-inhabited world of Undermunder. When something unexpected occurs in her world, Molly Maybe jumps into the Mundervator and travels through a series of complicated pipes, in the gap in between worlds, to reach Undermunder and solve the mystery.

It’s riveting reading, as you can tell, particularly if you are six.

Molly Maybe and the complicated travelling pipes are what I tend to find myself thinking about whenever the ‘messy middle’ is discussed.

The ‘messy middle’ is a Google concept to explain what happens between our interest being triggered in something and the point at which we decide to make a purchase.

At the point our interest is triggered we are all ‘Molly Maybes’; perhaps we’ll make a purchase or perhaps we’ll stay in the mess of pipes in between being a non-customer and reaching customer status.

Whilst it would have been more fun if Google had called this stage the Mundervator, they actually describe it as the messy middle: ‘twin modes of exploration and evaluation, [with people] repeating the cycle as many times as they need to make a purchase decision’.

Or, described another way, an endless mess of pipes.

Unsurprisingly, the messy middle has proved a compelling topic for agencies we talk to. Getting as many Molly Maybes out of the messy middle and into a purchase is, after all, the job of marketing.

So, armed with Google’s messy middle and a Molly Maybe metaphor I’ll stretch as far as possible, how exactly can agencies get people through the complicated exploration and evaluation stages and out into a decision?

Non-linear client journeys

The third sentence in Google’s research declares that “we know that what happens between trigger and purchase decision-making is not linear”.

Yet linear perfectly describes many existing sales and marketing processes and models.

I like linear things because they are neat and proceed in a logical fashion but behavioural science tells us that humans – indecisive Molly Maybes in our case – are not always neat and logical.

The exploration and evaluation that goes on in the messy middle isn’t always a case of going from point A to point B. Instead it could be point A, followed by a complete stall in the process, followed by a fruitless evaluation, back into exploration and point A.

Or, a messy loop of decision-making pipes.

Google suggests that it’s folly to try to extricate Molly from this loop. In time, when she has enough information, Molly will do it herself, based on her access to information about what you offer and her assessment of that information.

Put simply, your goal is to “provide [consumers] with the information and reassurance they need to make a decision”.

Thankfully, we also know a bit about the inbuilt decision making process that we all go through when it comes to making a purchase.

Influencers and cognitive biases

Google’s research focused on six cognitive biases out of many hundreds that exist in how we think and influence how we behave.

Authority bias, for example, is the influence on our decisions from someone we trust or perceive to be in a position of expertise.

And here’s where influencers come in.

We know many nano, micro and mid-tier influencers are seen as trusted peers by their followers when it comes to the niche on which they focus. In some cases mid-tier, macro and super influencers have grown their audiences precisely because of this trust in their expertise.

Influencers then can trigger the authority bias and they also have the opportunity to do so.

Whilst we’re in the messy middle, our very non-linear journey, we’re not circling round the messy pipes in isolation waiting for our brain to make a decision. We’re at work and relaxing at home and commuting. We’re on our phones, computers and tablets and, overwhelmingly recently, we’re on social media.

Even Molly Maybe, whilst travelling in the Mundervator, is on a device… albeit one that allows her dog to talk to her… obviously.

So our Molly Maybes are exposed to influencers and influencers can act on at least one of the pre-existing cognitive biases that get Mollys out of the messy middle. And that’s not all.

Here are another four of the cognitive biases Google’s messy middle research focused on.

Power of now: products that are instantly available can force action.

Social proof: “recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive”.

Scarcity bias: Something that’s apparently hard to get can be more desirable.

Power of free: Free gifts can be powerful motivating forces.

All of these things, to one extent or another, are well suited to influencers and the way brands and agencies work with them.

Influencing Molly

With everything Google’s research has taught us about purchasing decisions there are two clear questions for agencies to ask when thinking about our metaphorical consumer Molly:

How can I get Molly the information she needs whilst she’s in the messy middle, so that she has everything she needs to make a decision?

How can I trigger as many of Molly’s cognitive biases as possible with that information, so that her decision is favourable to our brand’s products or services?

Influencers present a good answer to both of those questions.

Molly likely has exposure to influencers on a daily basis and when she is exposed to them it is in a way and through a medium which is likely to trigger several biases that ultimately lead to favourable purchasing decisions.

Molly Maybe, the children’s story character, is on a Monster Mission to Undermunder. Our own Molly Maybes are scrolling through social media on the tube.

Influencers, deployed in the messy middle, might not be much use solving monster mysteries, but they are good at resolving purchasing decisions. The results therefore, for agencies who deploy them correctly, can be significant.

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