Editor’s note: Greg Gwiasda is vice president at market research firm Ipsos’ Behavioral Science Center, Cincinnati. Jeff Galak is associate professor, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University.

Market researchers and brands want to better understand the digital consumer experience. We are faced with a slew of new questions: How to optimize digital communications? How do we personalize our messages? How do we win omnichannel? We have generated a proliferation of new tools to answer these questions. Machine learning, biometrics, artificial intelligence, text analytics and passive measurement are now essential options for learning and testing. While we strive to identify and understand what is next, we often end up creating solutions that solve for what people are doing today. Or worse, what they were doing yesterday. How many brands are focused exclusively on their e-commerce strategy in 2019 when they want to focus on a larger omnichannel approach? And do we really know what we should be doing in 2021?

The above is not an indictment. In fact, the work that our industry has done is remarkable and should be lauded. The amount and pace of change has been truly revolutionary. Moreover, this revolution provides an opportunity to leverage behavioral science to accelerate the value of this shift. Behavioral science provides a framework to contextualize the in-depth understanding we have of our consumers. By mapping learnings onto a larger theory of human understanding, our research and strategies not only answer how consumers behave today but also provide a structure to be applied to future business challenges. 

We can see how this works by applying two behavioral science frameworks to a hypothetical purchase journey for sustainable laundry detergent. For simplicity, we will focus on three key touchpoints:

Let’s start by considering the traditional purchase in a brick-and-mortar setting an...