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Google’s ‘Micro-Moments’ Obscures Rather than Clarifies Buying Behavior

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Google popularized the concept of the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) in 2011. The big idea was that there’s a “moment” when a consumer makes a buying decision and that moment can be won or lost by a brand or marketer.

In roughly 2015 Google superseded ZMOT with “micro-moments,” a similar but mobile-centric construct. The core idea is that the smartphone is now at the center of the purchase process and consumers will make spontaneous or immediate buying decisions that can be won or lost based on the usability of their mobile sites, apps, content and other assets. At the center of all of this is search, which is both a statement of empirical reality and a self-serving pitch to marketers.

I have long been bothered by the ZMOT and micro-moments formulations, especially the latter, which I believe incorrectly implies that consumers are capricious and susceptible to sudden influence. I think the concept typically obscures, rather than elucidates an increasingly complex and highly deliberative purchase path and doesn’t give consumers enough credit.

I will say that Google gets a lot right with these ideas and if you drill down into Google’s discussion of the data, the complexity of consumer behavior is more evident. But the micro-moments language and framing is not helpful in gaining a better understanding of what’s going on “on the ground.”

There are indeed spontaneous decisions being made based on information presented on smartphones (e.g., what movies are playing now and nearby?). But in general, any purchase that requires consideration is going to be researched, sometimes exhaustively, by consumers. Automotive is one of many examples, which include most product and service categories.

Poor mobile assets and experiences can compromise the chances of a particular dealer — or the failure to effectively get in front of ready-to-buy automotive shoppers can mean a lost opportunity. But chances are a consumer will have a short list of brands and models based on months of extensive research that relies upon myriad sources on the desktop and mobile, as well as offline test drives and dealer visits.

It’s true that fundamentally poor mobile experiences will reflect negatively on a brand, dealer or retailers and, in limited circumstances, may send a shopper to another source or competitor. But in most cases, again in the automotive example, a bad smartphone user experience is going to have no impact on my purchase decision.

Consumer behavior will also change by vertical or product category, with more or less research and spontaneity accordingly. As mentioned, I’ll do months of research to buy a car. I might do five or six minutes of research to find a cafe to meet a friend. How mobile plays in and influences these decisions varies. At the margins, an effective mobile experience may be able to steal me away if I haven’t already made up my mind.

A restaurant that allows me to pay with Apple Pay or Open Table may get my business over one that does not, other things being equal. The promotion of this information “in the moment” may sway me in isolated cases. However, I’m not going to decide against a great new restaurant I’ve heard about because it offers a poor mobile website. A mobile promotion for a deal may attract me if I’m open to persuasion, but the “mobile moment’s” influence is typically a minority use case.

What is indisputable is that consumers are using mobile devices all the time for research at the top and bottom of the funnel. Typically that doesn’t happen in isolation however, which is suggested by the micro-moments idea.

If I’m in an appliance store trying to decide between two stoves, I’m not going to make a “micro-moments” spontaneous decision. If I make a decision based on my experience in the store, it’s going to be a result of something I learned from a sales rep or from a price discount or seeing a previously unconsidered stove in the store. It may also be impacted by product reviews, which I access from my phone — but the latter isn’t about “micro-moments,” it’s about underlying product quality and long-term review trajectory.

As a general rule, I’m probably going to buy the stove that offers the most value, has the features I want and is the best reviewed. That is likely to be the expression of a weeks-long or months-long process involving multiple sources and media, including mobile.

If a particular stove maker has a poor mobile site that might frustrate me and diminish the company’s credibility but it’s not going to dissuade me from buying that appliance if I’ve previously determined it’s a good product in my price range. By the same token the best mobile or digital experience in the world won’t get me to buy an inferior or more expensive stove.

Consumers do their homework.

What marketers should understand is that they need to provide a great experience up and down the line, from their websites to their mobile apps and ads. Purchases, except in very limited circumstances, are rarely the product of spontaneous decision-making by consumers, and even more rarely based on mobile or digital assets alone.

Yes, mobile matters. And yes, bad mobile experiences will have a negative effect. And yes, there are opportunities in the moment to capture attention and influence purchases. But most purchases are not “moments,” they’re the result of a process that is more holistic and often very extended.

Most consumers are more deliberative, thoughtful and thorough than the “micro-moments” meme implies.

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