Posted May 26, 2009 1:42 pm by with 20 comments

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Contravening prevailing wisdom, the results of a new survey from Knowledge Networks show that social media does not, in fact, drive purchases. Fewer than 5% of consumers age 18-34 “regularly turn to these sites for guidance on purchase decisions” on various product categories.

Or, rather, a new survey from Knowledge Networks shows that very, very few people think that social media influences their purchase decisions. And this is a story we’ve heard before—a year ago, Pew Internet Life conducted a similar survey and concluded the same thing, even though their stats really only indicated that the Internet doesn’t influence people who don’t use it. And once again, at first glance, these numbers aren’t very encouraging:

  • 16% of the social-media users surveyed said they’re more inclined to buy brands that advertise on social sites
  • 4% of consumers age 18-34 “regularly turn to these sites for guidance on purchase decisions” in the “travel or travel services” and “banks or financial services” categories
  • 3% for “clothes or shoes,” “eating out or restaurants” and “personal care products”
  • 2% for “cell/mobile phones and services,” “cars or trucks” and “groceries or food”
  • 1% for “prescription or OTC drugs”
  • 24% sometimes turn to social media for guidance on “travel or travel services” purchases
  • 23% sometimes turn to social media for “clothes or shoes” guidance

It’s important to note that Knowledge Networks reserved the “social media” title for purebred-social heavyweights (and yes, for some of these sites, that’s tongue-in-cheek):

Knowledge Networks says that the survey listed the above sites specifically but also asked respondents to consider “social media features on other websites that are not primarily social media sites.” But really, after reading that list, would you think about wasn’t including consumer reviews on Amazon (they don’t mention books or music as product categories, either or asking for product/purchase advice on your own blog as “social media”? (Okay, not you, the Internet marketing professional, but the average lay person.)

Look: panning social media and its marketing effectiveness is the hip thing to do these days. But even surveys which seem as conclusive as this one don’t necessarily sound the death knell for SMM.

As I said after the Pew study last year:

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). . . .

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.

On the plus side, 63% said ads are “a fair price to pay” for being able to use social sites. Oh, and a month after that badly-reported Pew study, another study came out saying that “83% said that ‘online product evaluations and reviews had at least some level of influence on their purchasing decisions.'” So keep your eyes peeled for that kind of headline next month.

What do you think? Does social media really not influence purchase decisions—or do people just not think it does when asked on a survey?

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  • I don't really think the sites they considered as social media actually drive purchases. I bought a few things influenced by some sort of “social media”, but it was either review sites (yelp, amazon), blogs of people I respect or by way of links shared on Twitter.

    If you broaden the definition to encompass these things (media created by people with social actions attached to it) instead of focusing on social NETWORKS, then you might have a very different picture.

  • I've seen plenty of people on Facebook openly ask about making purchases of computers, wine and a number of other things. This survey must not have been worded right.

  • I think you've nailed it. The respondents simply don't think they're being influenced. Take TV ads, ask 100 people if they feel like their buying decisions are influenced by TV commercials and you'll likely see similar numbers. Now ask them “who can save you 15% or more on your car insurance?” and I bet they remember. 😉

    • Influenced by TV commercials, Andy, or TV networks. I think your analogy would be more solid if the comparison is Twitter and Facebook to NBC and FOX. Social media is the same as media, except one is social. Remove the social and Twitter is no different than NBC.

      • “16% of the social-media users surveyed said they’re more inclined to buy brands that advertise on social sites” – hence my ad analogy. 🙂

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  • I think they are not looking at the big picture to begin with. Social media marketing is a way of branding and giving your brand exposure through networks and not exactly a direct sell type of thing. Like trying to find the ROI on a SMM campaign I think it is also very hard to say if it did influence their purchase or not. I know every time I purchase something I look around the net on consumer review websites, etc to see if the product has any major problems or if there are things I overlooked. I usually base a large portion of my decision on the reviews which is a form of social media or internet interaction. I have ran campaigns for clients where they have seen a huge increase in sales, traffic, and general exposure for about a tenth of the price of traditional advertising.

  • Good post. I look forward to seeing the research that compares what people think they do with what they actually do. I notice the recent Forrester B2B research showed a similar disparity: two thirds said they used social media, but they said it had very little influence on buying decisions. Would love to see someone measure this gap.

  • Jordan, this was terrific! I'm so sick of “Surveys” developed for self surving purposes. It's obvious based on you analysis (and the sentiment of many) that this survey was somewhat out of touch. As an other example, they discuss the purchase of travel but did not ask about networks like Trip Advisor etc.

    It would really be nice to see an in depth report on the purchase impact of social media influence. How much money is being spent based on social media influence?

  • Interesting comments, Jordan. I happened to glance at the survey as posted by Knowledge Networks from the link you provided and a lot of the information is questionable. First, the survey covers such a broad demographic 18-54, not just 18-34 upon which much of the stats you provided are based. There could be a huge change in results from that range of a demographic. Also, even if the survey results were accurate for the entire demographic, social media is about communicating “with” an audience, not at an audience. It's not advertising as the survey suggests. Even if a majority are going to say that it doesn't influence their purchasing decisions, how do they validate when something is influencing them or not? Must the marketing piece have a call to action? What if the communication came from a person, not a corporate sponsor? Social media is word of mouth marketing, just via a non-traditional venue – the web. The stats on word of mouth marketing influencing purchasing behavior are astounding. Just because something is “advertised” on a social media site, doesn't make it social media. Social media is about the interaction and influence on those sites. The true measurement of social media driving purchases can be found in the analytics, not simply from surveys that treat social media as advertising via a social network. Radian6, Blog Council, WOMMA, and other organizations have great info on how social media drives sales and these findings are based on analytics, not random surveys. When businesses can see the difference between SMM and advertising, then they can more clearly define what to measure and in turn, drive more sales. Thoughts?

  • Interesting article on SMM driving sales; great comments!

  • Nice work Jordan. Appreciate the research you've put into it.

  • Yep and advertising doesn't really work either. The truth is many people, quite often are blissfully unaware of what influences them to purchase. Ask a series of diagnostic questions about behaviour related to gathering information to make decisions about purchases (note the question is about the the user being in control, rather than being influenced) and see what the survey results show!!

  • How do you ask questions about making travel or food decisions but not include social networks that are specific to those areas. Yelp and tripadvisor should be on the list at the least.

  • Hey Jordan.

    I think there's something to the idea that people don't always consciously correlate their experiences with online sites with “social media”. *We* define it that way (those of us involved in the space, that is), but your everyday person doesn't.

    For example, if my mom searches something online and comes across a review on Yelp or a blog post about it, she's not necessarily realizing that she's being influenced by “social media”. She doesn't label it that way. She's just doing research.

    And to your point, the list above is hardly exhaustive of the real breadth of social media, and aren't necessarily the sites where in-depth information might be found to actually drive a purchase decision.

    I'm always interested to see how these studies are framed. And I for one am still pretty bullish on the potential of social media to transform businesses. I see it every day. 🙂

    Amber Naslund
    Director of Community, Radian6

  • Justa Netuser

    You know, the wording on these survey questions, as well as the psychological framing of the subject before the question was asked, is hugely influential on the answers people give. I can certainly understand why <5% of those polled would answer “No” to “Do you regularly turn to these sites for guidance on purchase decisions?” What is 'regularly'? Do I consider them 'guidance'?

    I'd be quite interested in the percentage of the _same_ people answering yes to the question, “Have you found information or reviews from these sites useful or helpful as part of any of your purchase decisions in the last 12 months?”

    I think you'd find that people integrate the comments, feedback, reviews and opinions of their friends on social networks into their purchase choices more than this survey seems to present.

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