How share of search and the “Messy Middle” are inextricably linked

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I’ve been spending all my free time this week parsing the two new pieces of research that have been circulating in the marketing community. One is this short article on “share of search” which Contagious published citing Les Binet, and the other is the much heftier and longer study on the Messy Middle by Google itself.

My plan is to come back with a close reading of the big one by Google, but meanwhile, I thought it interesting that these two pieces were being discussed at the same time because, in my opinion, they are inextricably linked.

But first, let me say this: if you’ve worked in marketing or performance marketing or digital marketing, none of this information will be new to you. If you’ve ever spent days building connection plans for a car brand, you will know that decision to buy a car is never as straightforward as “I saw the TV ad” and then I walked into a dealership and there IS and always has been a “messy middle”.

[Somewhat unrelated: I actually posed this very question on LinkedIn to Jenni Romaniuk, a professor at the EBIMS, as a reply to her post that PODs were not really something brands needed to trigger a sale. The post is below and the salient (he he) point that everyone needed clarification on was that with enough distinctiveness, brands could bypass the need for differentiation.

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Lots of people associate differentiation with rational benefits, so there were a lot of questions about the need for rational differentiation when distinctiveness was all it appeared to take. I had a similar concern, so I asked if she could see a situation where her example (KFC vs GYG) would apply to buying a car. She responded that probably buying a car would not happen in the same way BUT a visit to the dealership would.

Now again, if you’ve built connection plans all your career, you will know that a visit to the dealership is just a “moment” in a wider plan and is part of the “research” stage where people navigate multiple information and experiences in order to get to the moment of purchase. It’s part of the “messy middle” and therefore very much linked to the need to differentiate, as well as be distinctive.]

Now, if we all agree, as some of us have long known, that there is a messy middle and in there it’s where information about your points of difference forms the battleground of persuasion, I would argue that that is also where the conversation about share of search becomes relevant. How? Well, you can only have a share of search where there is a messy middle because there are categories in which search for decision is necessary and categories in which it is not.

This, BTW, might easily explain why Les Binet is being cautious with his prediction that share of search might replace share of voice as an indicator for market share. Categories with a BIG “messy middle” of decision making (cars, electronics, devices, houses, furniture) will trigger large shares of search per brand and comparing across brands may give people an indication of how much their brand is likely to figure among the final list of contenders for a purchase. Conversely, categories with a SMALL “messy middle” (FMCG, fashion, jewellery, etc) might find themselves with not enough searches to substantiate a clear prediction. I think there may be ways to extrapolate and account for the lack of searches even in small messy middle categories but it’s probably not going to be easy.

Interestingly, the share of search conversation can be extrapolated to something even bigger which is growth and innovation. If you work with search, you will know that branded searches are a small percentage of overall category search. What’s interesting to me is not only how branded share of search can be an indicator of market share but also how to mine the unbranded share in a specific category to open up untapped market segments. That can be an indicator of future market share easily.

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