Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT): The Evolution of the Buying Decision

When we market, advertise and promote a brand we know that there are many different ‘touch-points’ we can focus on; those places and times when the consumer is in a position to be given some information or otherwise enticed. Traditionally the whole process has been seen as a linear funnel, boiling down to the 6 or 7 seconds it ultimately takes a consumer to make their final ‘to buy or not to buy’ decision (usually at the point-of-sale) and the management of their post-purchase feelings; but does this philosophy still hold true in the modern marketplace?

Google have, for some time now, been proponents of a slightly different way of thinking. They have built on existing philosophies (particularly those of Procter & Gamble researchers) to create a more accurate picture of the customer journey, from ‘brand unaware’ to paying customer. Here’s the story so far…

P&G | Stimulus, FMOT & SMOT

As you’re probably aware, Procter & Gamble are a multinational manufacturer of some of the most successful household name brands from the last quarter century; including Max Factor, Olay, Gillette, Venus, Head & Shoulders, Herbal Essences, Pantene, Wella, Tampax, Old Spice, Oral-B, Braun, Fixodent, Ambi Pur, Ariel, Bold, Daz, Duracell, Fairy Liquid, Febreze, Flash, Lenor, Iams, Pampers, Pepto-Bismol and Vicks. Oh, and they also sell make-up and fragrance ranges for the HUGO, BOSS, Dolce&Gabbana, Gucci, Lacoste, Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne brands too. All in all then, a lot of experience successfully selling branded products!

What you probably didn’t know about P&G is that they also basically sponsor the marketing industry: acting as a driving force for positive change, a champion for efficiency and above all else a well-spring of marketing advice and information that they package in reports, articles and white papers. Like Google, they are the sort of company who would rather lead by example and nurture business innovation rather than take an ‘eat my dust’ approach. And kudos for that!

A number of years ago, P&G carried out a study of behavioural trends in buyers as they went through purchasing decisions. In principle, they recognised that a customer making a decision to purchase goes through three main steps where marketers can influence them:

1. The Stimulus:

This is generally any advertising, word-of-mouth or brand presence that engages the customer. It’s the obvious stuff that you think of when someone mentions ‘marketing’. In the vast majority of instances your brand stimulus will be competing for attention, so if you want to engage people then the challenge here is finding the best way to cut through the noise.

2. The First Moment of Truth (FMOT):

This is when the customer—having seen all of your advertising, having seen your PR, having read about your products and your competitors, having subconsciously picked up on your subtle brand alignment and product placement—finally ends up looking at a shop shelf or a page in a website, clutching their cash and making the ultimate decision to buy your brand or another brand. Generally this whole process takes a relatively short amount of time; we’re usually talking minutes, or in many cases not much longer than the time it will take you to read this sentence. Even for bigger and more considered purchases, this final decision-making period is surprisingly short.

3. The Second Moment of Truth (SMOT):

This is the scariest part for many brand marketers. It’s the point at which the buyer gets the product home or reaches the end of their service period; when they have a sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. We’re all familiar with the dreaded ‘buyer’s remorse’ so we have all been aware of our feelings at SMOT before. It is seen by many as the hardest obstacle to surmount because, for the first time, the value interchange goes from promises and expectations to reality; so the ‘give and take’ involved truly equates for the first time. However, if SMOT goes smoothly and the lingering feelings are those of satisfaction, you could very well have a customer for life!

But can it really be that simple? Can it be that linear?

Google & The Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT)

Google recently published a very informative ‘ZMOT Handbook’ outlining their new take on P&G’s tried-and-tested methodology. It’s not just theory and ideas: It’s backed up by tons of real-life evidence and a huge amount of research into the ways people browse online and consume/create information.

Basically, ZMOT is the moment when consumers undertake all of their ‘last minute’ research; just before putting themselves in a position where they will make their ultimate FMOT choice (hence the name ‘Zero Moment’ because it happens in between Stimulus and FMOT; so it can be thought of as the moment just before the ‘first moment of truth’).

We’ve always known and suspected that ZMOT was happening and was becoming increasingly important. We just never had a name for it until now.

So what exactly is happening at ZMOT?

Let’s take the whole end-to-end process and integrate ZMOT into it:

Your consumers are being bombarded with advertisements, product promotions, PR pieces and other ‘Stimuli’ from you and your competitors. You know that, at some point, all of your efforts either will or won’t pay off and that will be decided at the FMOT.

But just before customers reach FMOT, you and I both know that they will become ‘sensitised’ to the market. They may make a few final Google searches, they may check competitor websites and daily deals websites for better value-for-money, they may ask friends and family for their opinions, they will probably take more notice of advertisements (online, on TV, on the radio or in print), they will probably look for online reviews and double check that they are making a fully informed decision, and they may even visit a brick-and-mortar store or two to get a feel for things even if they plan on buying online. They are second-guessing their own convictions and so are turning to the web and trusted peer communities for more education, support and advice.

Google’s ZMOT Handbook gives a fantastic example in the form of a story from their very own Todd Pollak (shown below):

So Todd had seen all the intended stimuli over his 35 years as a TV owner. He could have jumped straight to FMOT by going to a large online electronics retailer and then making his final decision based on his life experience… with the same brand he’d used for 35 years. However, he instead opted to hunt out more product information from sites he’d never visited before, educate himself further, find peer reviews and seek promotions before ever putting himself in the ‘buying mindset’. In this instance it all happened online, but his ZMOT could just as easily have taken him to offline information sources.

In his own words, the actual FMOT (where he added the TV to an online basket and paid for it) took, “less than five minutes”. By contrast, his ZMOT lasted 30 minutes. In actual fact, ZMOT can often last days, weeks or even months for more considered purchases such as houses,  boats, cars, tech, finance or any bargain-hunting endeavours (etc).

What are the important traits of ZMOT behaviour?

In terms of funneling consumers, there simply aren’t any behavioural traits that can be exploited across the board. Part of Google’s research outlined in the handbook followed the movements and actions of 3,000 shoppers making considered purchases as they went from place to place to seek information during ZMOT. Amazingly, all 3,000 took entirely unique paths!

The most common hub was online search which actually, quite surprisingly, came higher in frequency than asking family and friends for their advice and opinions. Apparently, while we trust our known peers, we are drawn to the sheer numbers of people leaving reviews on the web. So SEO is definitely a good place to start. But before you begin promoting your online presence, you need to have good reviews and the right brand to ensure ZMOT corroborates all of your previous stimuli and offers the consumer all of the information they seek.

Mobile usage, tablet usage and “dual screening” are all important and frequently used hubs too, so to capitalise at ZMOT you should  make sure that;

  1. Your website looks good and is user-friendly for mobile users, and
  2. Your timing for social media activity is tactically set to tie in with televised events (where relevant).

Nurture, Protect & Prepare

Honestly though, the part of Todd’s story that I find most interesting is the last paragraph where he states that the TV he chose was exactly what he had expected, “right down to its imperfections”. That means his SMOT went very much in favour of his chosen TV brand. He was not disappointed in any way; even by the parts of the product that may have ‘fallen short’ of perfection.

Perhaps then, ZMOT shouldn’t just be used as a method of pushing people further toward a sale. Rather, if managed properly, it can also be a means of delivering a better SMOT, which in turn helps with customer retention, which in turn creates another satisfied ‘super-customer’ who can bolster your brand/product/service to others as those people approach ZMOT at a later date.

ZMOT then, not FMOT, is the truly pivotal point at which past efforts come to fruition and the efficiency of future efforts is improved through the creation of self-propagating, corroborative word-of-mouth. As we have always said, educating consumers about the honest and true value in your products/services will get you much further than exaggerations and optimistically bold statements that are primed to disappoint.

So make sure your reviews are glowing but honest, make sure your customers know what to expect and never fail to compete in this competitive arena.

As Todd’s story highlighted, brand loyalty is coming under threat as the consumer’s capabilities at ZMOT become more advanced. As access to information becomes increasingly available, more and more customers are educating themselves; and they often trust their ZMOT findings above their emotional attachments to particular brands. I’d even go as far as to say that ‘Stimulus’ does nothing more nowadays than convincing a customer to start a ZMOT journey with your brand in mind.

Go on Google right now and make some searches with the words ‘reviews’, ‘promotions’, ‘offers’, ‘discounts’, ‘comparison’ or other ZMOT terms – can you easily find all the information your customers might need to see before buying your brand with confidence?

Posted by Paul

Paul is our Head of Marketing and strategy specialist. He has worked on award-winning campaigns for household-name brands, SMEs and public sector organisations since 2003.

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