Posted May 19, 2008 4:58 pm by with 9 comments

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The latest Pew Internet and American Life featured report (PDF) says that while Americans do product research online, the information they find doesn’t actually affect purchase decisions.


What Pew Internet and American Life meant to say was that while Americans do product research online in the specific areas of music, cell phones and real estate, they don’t like to think that the information they find online affects their purchase decisions.

Without that little qualifier, the stats are sobering:

  • 56% said that they used the Internet to “research” music before buying (specifically, one of six activities that Pew listed in the survey), but only 7% said that the Internet’s information was a major influence in their decision.
  • 39% researched cell phones online, but only 10% said that information was a major influence in their decision.
  • 49% researched real estate online, but only 11% said that information was a major influence in their decision.

But let’s look at this logically, shall we? This is like saying “56% of people paid for and read Consumer Reports, but only 7% actually paid attention to what they read” or “only 7% later recognized that Consumer Reports introduced them to new products, gave objective reviews of their features, warned of potential problems with the product or the company and gave recommendations.”

As you dig deeper into the study, you see the real statistics come out. 11% of the general population said the Internet was a major influence in their real estate purchase decision—but 23% of those who used the Internet for research on their real estate decision said it was a major influence. 10% of the general population said the Internet was a major influence in their cell phone purchase decision—but of those who actually used the Internet, 27% said it was a major influence.

Huh. People who don’t use the Internet aren’t influenced by it. Weird.

Also interesting: the survey found that, while few people go online to comment on the products after purchases, many music consumers (44%) actually go online to connect with the artist, review the music, share it or tell people about it after a purchase. I wonder how they’ll find out about that artist’s next single?

Oddly enough, I also thought that deciding where and what to buy was part of a “purchase decision.” Apparently, that’s not true, because of people doing research online:

  • 42% said it helped them find the cheapest price on music.
  • 37% said the Internet led them to buy more music than they otherwise might have
  • 41% said they spent less on cell phones.
  • 43% said online information led them to get a phone with more features than they otherwise would have
  • 29% said they found a better place to live.
  • 29% said the Internet helped them save money on their new housing.
  • 58% said the information they got online helped introduce them to their new community
  • 57% said it reduced the number of places they looked at.

Hm. Yeah, no influence there.

This is a survey, not an empirical experiment. This only shows us what people think they think, not necessarily what they’re actually thinking, reading, doing (and influenced by). Yes, 83% of people like to think that the radio, TV and movies help them discover new music, and 64% like to think it’s their friends.

But how many of those people received those messages via the Internet? How many of them hopped on to Google the lyrics or looked up the soundtrack listing on IMDb or Amazon? When is it “discovered”—when you first heard the notes and the words, or when you have enough information to actually go out and purchase that for yourself?

And what is with these product categories? You can’t even buy real estate online (at least, not easily…), and buying a cell phone online, with the proliferation of stores and the hope of getting a better service contract deal in person, really doesn’t happen that often anyway.

Music was the only category that actually made sense to include here, with services like iTunes et al. providing inexpensive and accessible music downloads—and still 78% purchased their music offline? Did they forget the 15 downloads they bought on iTunes while waiting for that CD to arrive from Amazon?

In reality, this ominous-sounding headline is most likely good news for the world of Internet marketing. After all, our influence is so subtle that after making a purchase, consumers don’t even realize we were involved. Now that’s powerful persuasion—marketing so subtle and so convincing that you purchase the product and forget the marketing.


  • Good angle! It reminds of those that say that companies are wasting millions on “branding.”

    “I drink Pepsi because it tastes good, not because of the TV ads.” Yeah, but how did you learn about Pepsi? When your parents poured your first cola, how were they influenced?

    We all like to think that we’re not influenced by marketing messages, but we are. And to prove it, I bet there will be a few people that dismiss this survey. Not because they made up their own mind to do so, but because, consciously or not, they were influenced by what Jordan thought of it. 😉

  • Jordan McCollum

    And I am such a strong brand, too 😉 .

  • LOL – companies–especially research companies–tremble at the sound of your name. 😉

  • Maui Mike

    LOL! Nice spin on the survey Jordan, and nice deconstruction, too. My reaction was almost the same “Yeaaahhh…. Sure.”

    I remember a good “advert suggestion” many years ago. The French were notorious for buying drab colored cars. Black, white, beige. But then Citroen started a cool TV ad campaign with only red cars. Red car sales went thru the roof! No matter what brand.

    Certainly those who bought red cars would say the color wasn’t a major factor in the decision. Riiight…. 😉

  • Brilliant journalism and totally entertaining look at the whole polling/survey style of “research”. Don’t get me wrong, they certainly have their place but when people are asked or volunteer information about themselves they get self/image conscious. Not the same as merely recording statistics. Then again, even THAT is simply what it is: statistics. The key is being able to think like Jordan and figure out what data MEANS in realistic terms.

    Thanks for a terrific article 🙂 helps sweep away the general ambiance of paranoia that seems to pervade blogs about internet entrepreneurship

    Wolf Nibori’s last blog post..Our Two Year Anniversary!

  • Randy

    You know what they say…

    “you can lead a horse to water… and it will drink as much as it wants.”

    People are sheep.

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  • I interpreted “purchase decision” as the research used it as “I was going to buy a cell phone anyway, and most likely this one, but I wanted to be sure it was ok first, so I looked online”

    Or… “I was going to buy a cell phone anyway, and I looked online for more info.”

    So if the “purchase decision” is the actual decision to purchase *something* then yah, that’s the person on their own based on what they want to do with other lifestyle factors involved. That is what drives them online.

    For example, people don’t usually research homes for sale unless they have made at least a non-committal decision to buy beforehand. Right?

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