Using Cognitive Bias to Win in the “Messy Middle”

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Using Cognitive Bias to Win in the “Messy Middle”

We have all been there, research complete and just about to click “Buy” and you ask yourself the question “Is this the right purchase for me?”  How do consumers decide what they want to buy and who they want to buy it from? How does your visitor know that your hotel is the right one for them? 

Before the internet, we shopped on actual streets with actual buildings, where we had less choice and less information to help steer our decision-making.

When people wanted to book a hotel, they had to telephone to make a reservation. It might have been a recommendation from a friend or they had stayed with that brand before.

There was no real option for in-depth research. The Bricks to Clicks era expanded over the years where hotels now have more bookings online than over the phone. In 2018 there were 148 million online travel bookings. 82% of these were made without any human interaction.

As the modern internet evolved, with better broadband and the proliferation of devices, so has choice including where to book and fundamentally, consumer behaviour has shifted with it.  

It’s No Longer a Linear Booking Path – Navigating the Messy Middle

The traditional sales funnel or buyer journey is comprised of four distinct stages:

 1. Awareness – where customers are searching for answers.

 2. Interest – initial information gathering stage.

 3. Decision – a decision is reached, and they prepare to book.

 4. Action – a booking is placed with the hotel.

Sounds like a simple 4 step process, right? Well, no, it might look like a simple linear path to purchase but it’s not. One thing is for sure, we need to scrap this dated purchasing funnel and map out the real user journey.

So how do we get to that point of clicking “Book Now”? The path to purchase is no longer linear and predictable. It’s messy, and solving this “messy middle” is key.



It starts with a trigger “Let’s book a hotel break” or an advertisement is seen online, and then the messy middle appears; a continuous loop between exploration and evaluation. Finally, the user exits the loop by making a buying decision and books a hotel. 

The trigger is a factor that prompts the desire to book, moving the potential visitor from a passive to an active state. Once they know that they want to book a hotel break, the user goes into a long cycle of exploration and evaluation of the various options that will eventually fulfill their needs.

What we need to understand as hoteliers and digital marketers is what influences people in the middle of the process – the exploration and evaluation phases – so they eventually get out of the loop in favour of your hotel.

Tapping into the Mindset of a Booker

As Google states: “The ‘messy middle’, a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts.” 

How can we tap into the mindset of a potential visitor to your hotel? There are so many touchpoints on the way to clicking the confirmation button so it is vital that your brand is at the front of their buying decision.

The Messy Middle is a complex place that can go round and round for some time. Our job is to close the gap from trigger to purchase or booking in the shortest or at least most expedient time frame possible. 

The Exploration phase (which is inherently expansive) is where the user opens up all options and Evaluation (inherently reductive) is where they narrow down options. More often than not, these phases are repeated several times and in different sessions before people exit the loop and make a decision. 

How can we influence the cognitive biases while people are in the exploration and evaluation phases of their decision making? The list is endless when it comes to biases that influence a visitor in their decision making process.

Here are 6 common ones:

1. Category heuristics – Shortcuts that help us make a decision – eg. head-to-head landing page on hotel A versus hotel B. The user then chooses one option 

2. Authority bias – An expert recommends something – eg a blogger or influencer suggests an award winning hotel

3. Social proof – Other people are doing it – eg 80% of people chose hotel x

4. Power of now – We are increasingly driven by the need for instant gratification. E.g. “Book now or miss this offer” or “Sale Ends Today”

5. Scarcity bias – As the availability of something declines, it becomes more desirable. Eg “Only three rooms left at this price”

6. Power of free – The power of free relies on the irrational excitement of getting something for nothing, on top of your booking. E.g, free spa treatment when 3rd night booked

People will visit many sites in this part of the process including actions such as searching generic phrases such as “luxury hotels in London” or “family hotels in New York.  

Other actions taken include:

>> Review data on Google and Tripadvisor

>> Research pricing options on Metasearch

>> Watching videos on YouTube

Your hotel official website will always come into these phases too. Amongst all of these touchpoints, it is vital for your brand to have a presence and offer compelling reasons to book direct.. 

You have to be present to stand a chance – see the data

In 2020 Google ran a series of tests to evaluate the impact of being present in the messy middle.  In this holiday category example below [Source] you can see that

>> When only one brand is present in the messy middle it gets 100% 

>> When a second brand is introduced it gets 34% of the volume just by being present

>> When the second brand is present AND uses the cognitive bias’ – the second brand can get 88% of the volume!

Source: Decoding decisions – Making sense of the messy middle

Across out 31 categories, when second-favorite brands were supercharged with all six cognitive biases, the results was a profound shift away from the favorite.

How your brand can succeed in the messy middle 

A guest journey begins by discovering your hotel on Google and metasearch engines, social media, paid ads or organically. Being visible on these channels is more important than ever.

Having a presence on Google Ads Search & Display, Video, Metasearch, Remarketing and Social Media is as important as ever. 

These Digital Marketing platforms represent the process, or ‘journey’ each one of your customers has gone through in order to make their booking, and just as each of these stages is distinct in its thought process for your potential customers, so your content must reflect this if you want to get the best results from your hotel’s sales funnel. 

>> Booking Engine Content

Your booking engine is where the main booking activity of your website takes place, so it makes sense to ensure the content is fully optimised, user-friendly and reliable enough to make your visitors comfortable and secure in making a booking on both mobile and desktop. 

>> Create An SEO-Friendly, Informative Website

The content of your website will benefit from a strong SEO strategy woven into your content to ensure it feels entirely natural and organic to visitors.

Informative and useful landing pages help you to dominate the hospitality industry.

You can simply demonstrate expertise within your niche, which in turn helps to build buyer confidence in your proposition and ultimately fuels more hotel bookings.

Avvio’s Summary: 

It is vital to understand the psychology behind buyer behavior and how to use it to reach the people looking for a solution to their problem.

>> Being present from the first moment of deliberation is table stakes for any brand hoping to emerge triumphant from the messy middle.

>> Intelligently employ behavioural science: Across ad messaging, your website content, remarketing strategies and beyond!

>> Close the gap between trigger and purchase: Ultimately we are trying to close the gap between trigger and purchase. So try to reduce the cognitive burden (the agony of making a choice) and make your product the obvious choice, everytime.

By |2021-04-08T10:28:05+01:00April 8th, 2021|Digital News|