Consumers Combine Search, Social Media For Purchasing Decisions

Nearly half of all consumers surveyed used a combination of search and social media sites before making a buying decision, GroupM Search and comScore report.

Consumers are using a combination of search engines and social media before making a purchasing decision, a new study by GroupM Search and comScore finds.

In fact, 58% of respondents first turned to search engines such as Google and Bing, while 24% visited company sites, and a mere 18% went to social media, according to a study called "The Virtuous Circle: the Role of Search and Social Media in the Purchase Pathway". During the purchase process, 48% of shoppers used a combination of search and social media, the study found.

Four in 10 of consumers who first turned to search are then motivated to use social media to aid in their decision-making, while 46% of those who used social media then added search tools to their research equipment, according to the report.

"Advertisers continue to make big bets in search and social media. The insights taken from this research help us go beyond just the consumer's initial click to better understanding their purchase," said Chris Copeland, CEO of GroupM, in a statement. "When looking at the role these two channels play in conversion, we see a virtuous circle of interaction between search and social. Consumers are giving clear signals and the opportunity is greater than ever for brand marketers to shape the journey to purchase as a result of these new findings."

Shoppers typically turn first to search because of the technology's ease-of-use, the quality and scale of available information, and because of ingrained habits, the research found. Search also is seen primarily as a tool for pricing throughout the entire buying cycle; consumers also turn to search for product research and to decide where to buy an item, the report said. About one-fourth -- or 26% -- solely use search at the start of their research and shopping process, while 45% said they used search throughout the procedure, the research found.

But those who first turn to social media sites such as Facebook generally seek referrals, according to the study.

Social media plays an important role in raising peoples' awareness of alternate options, with 28% saying sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter help them learn about new brands and products, the study found. These tools also help consumers eliminate brands and products from consideration, based on feedback from friends, the report said. After all, getting others' opinion was the primary reason 31% of respondents gave for using social media as part of their decision-making tool bag, according to the study.

Companies are investing in tools that enable them to monitor social media sites, both to respond to customers' questions and to react to negative feedback that has the potential to snowball if left unresolved. Skyrocketing adoption of social media coupled with consumers' demand for almost immediate responses has resulted in a market expected to surpass $1 billion for U.S. tools and tool deployment next year, according to Gartner. Developers are targeting both enterprises and SMBs with their products, and they are creating products in-house and acquiring competitors, such as Constant Contact's purchase earlier this month of Bantam Live for $15 million.

User reviews were the most valuable tool, garnering 30% of respondents' votes, followed by social networking sites, which was ranked most valuable by 17% of those surveyed. Video-sharing sites like YouTube received 14% of poll-takers votes, followed by Twitter, which got 9%. Nearly two-thirds -- 64% -- of shoppers said they were likely to "follow" a brand after making a purchase, a move that would make them feel more connected to the brand or company. Almost three-quarters of respondents use a company's Facebook brand page to follow a brand for future engagement, the study found.

"Consumers continue to struggle with added steps in the digital purchase pathway. The ability to sequence messaging and put up digital signposts as understood via this research is a potential breakthrough for many brands," Copeland said. "We now have an understanding of the virtuous circle that is happening between these two channels and the motivations for consumers throughout their path to purchase. The consumer environment has never been more prime with opportunities to utilize search and social to create connections that are meaningful not only to your brand, but also to your consumer."

Consumers' decision-making process can be lengthy and complex, the report determined. In the telecommunications, it can take 60 days to decide and buy, while it can take a shopper 57 days in the world of consumer electronics, GroupM found. There are 11 digital steps from start to finish, giving brands ample opportunity to interact with prospective customers, according to the firm.

The report built on a 2009 GroupM report about the relationships consumers built with brands using social media and search. In this year's study, GroupM partnered with client Dell and media planning and buying agencies, and worked with comScore to create measurable results of more than 1 million opt-in, passively tracked Internet users in the United States.

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