The process of purchasing goods and services is always evolving. One thing that remains constant, however, is that many consumers seek others’ opinions before making purchases. Prior to the internet, someone might pick up the phone and call a trusted relative or watch a live demo from a salesperson. Today, people overwhelmingly go online to read user reviews, compare products, or find pricing. They also ask questions on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter looking for input from both their friends and merchants. While it is clear that people still seek to research and validate purchasing decisions, it is also clear that they are doing so in different ways than before the internet emerged. Let’s do a quick examination of how the purchase process has changed with social media in the mix.
Consumer Empowerment and a Balanced Picture
People like to know that they will make good decisions, and self-directed research is one way in which they can do that. In fact, the Internet has hugely empowered consumers. Here is what the purchase process was like for an average consumer (Jamie) before the internet:
- Jamie is exposed to advertising or marketing for a product. For example, via TV, radio or billboard advertisements, by word of mouth, salesperson demos, and/or walking into a store/window shopping.
- Jamie asks a few trusted people about their opinions of the product, and satisfied enough as to its quality, purchases the product (either in a store or through a catalog).
- Jamie uses the product, and whatever his or her experience, positive or negative, may tell a few people about it. If the experiences were positive, Jamie will probably consider the business again in the future.
The purchase process involved a handful of people joined together in a loose social network, and product and store choices were limited. Furthermore, much of the information the consumer had was tailored and shaped by the business marketing the product. For example, TV/Print/Radio advertisements and salespeople may not have presented a balanced picture [GASP!].
Now here is a snapshot of the purchase process for an average consumer (who we’ll call Pat) buying a lawnmower in the internet age:
- Pat sets out on a research mission by asking on Facebook for tips on buying lawnmowers online, which shops/stores are the best, and which match the budget and features desired.
- Pat then types phrases such as “buying lawnmower online” into Google and is presented page upon page of results curated from Google’s algorithm. Some are from big box stores, and many consumers are impressed with the informative, balanced, and even fun content the stores provide on their websites and blogs. Pat keeps these stores in mind as potential shopping places.
- Pat also explores sites such as Consumer Reports. Checking out online reviews of mower retailers while gathering data such as how well the mower cuts, how reliable the mower is, how good is the warranty, shipping times, and if there are any coupons/specials.
- Despite all of this research, a question or two still lingers. Pat tweets questions to the business (or businesses) on Twitter. If the business answers in the next 24 hours and is direct and polite in the answer, Pat is happy, and may finally go ahead and make a purchase. On the other hand, if the business does not answer the tweet or does not do so to Pat’s satisfaction, Pat explores other options.
- Pat makes a decision and a purchase, experience either positive or negative experiences (or both) with them. Pat writes reviews (some may be as simple as tweets). Sometimes the business even interacts with Pat via the review, leaving thanks, or asking for the chance to remedy a problem. (I personally had this experience with my vacuum sealer – when a phone call regarding a broken 6-week-out-of-warranty product failed to produce the desired results, I lambasted their service on their twitter account. As a result, I was contacted by a rep and I received my replacement vacuum sealer.)
- When given a positive experience, Pat may keep up with the business on social media and enjoys its blog posts – building loyalty among Pat and its customer base. As the business rolls out more products and specials, Pat may make more purchases from the business. It is an ongoing relationship, and the business gains an even wider audience when Pat reshares or retweets some of its posts.
Thanks to the transparency of the internet, consumers have a lot of power and use it to ensure they (and their Social networks) are treated fairly. In return, they are more inclined to help the businesses with whom they have good experiences.
The More Minds, the Better – Social Proof
There are a few key takeaways from observing the evolution of the purchase process. First is the importance of online reviews. For example, while numbers vary, some research indicates that as many as 90 percent of consumers check out online reviews, with 88 percent finding them as reliable as a recommendation from someone they know and trust.
That’s not all; most consumers do not check out a business until they read reviews of the business, and the business needs to have at least a four-star rating for many people to use it. Shoppers often read anywhere from two to 10 reviews before deciding to purchase products or services from a business, and negative reviews give them pause. On the other hand, rave reviews may prompt a consumer to spend even more money than he or she planned.
Psychologically, this all makes sense. Social proof makes us feel that the more minds involved, the more secure we feel about their purchasing decisions. For one thing, online reviews cover many scenarios and are posted by people hailing from all walks of life. So, if people want to purchase a camping tent, a host of reviews can answer many questions from personal experience that one person cannot. For example, how long will the tent last? How sturdy is it? How well does it withstand extreme weather? Is it the worth the money that might be spent? What potentially better alternatives exist? Has anyone used the tent at in the snow or in the wind?
By turning to the internet for reviews, consumers can hear from hundreds or thousands of other shoppers.
Engagement, Content Marketing, and Continued Relationships Matter
Building trust and credibility are critical in the decision making and customer loyalty process for attracting and maintaining consumers. Businesses who initially are able to 1) establish credibility and 2) build a relationship are those that will win the war of customer loyalty (having good products notwithstanding). The importance of content marketing and of businesses engaging with consumers can’t be overlooked. When consumers type in phrases such as “organic pet products NYC,” a business is more likely to rank higher in search results if it has relevant content matching that key phrase. Google has made it clear that they are interested in having only the most relevant websites appear first – and relevance is judged by how much you contribute to the web. This not only makes content marketing a critical component of business strategy, but it arguably makes a better experience for the consumer by giving them access to content that engages, educates, or entertains – all with the goal of converting that prospect into a customer.
B2C Businesses also need to be available on platforms such as Twitter and Yelp to retain consumers. As an example, Twitter statistics say that 50 percent of Twitter users have “visited or shopped at the websites of SMB [small businesses] they follow.” Once a business has a customer, it can help keep that customer loyal by providing quality content as well as marketing through social media.
The internet has made the world huge and balanced the playing field between businesses and consumers. Businesses need to be aware of the ways in which the purchase process has changed, and make it easier for consumers to find the information they want, post and read reviews, and to reach out to the businesses for more details. How have you seen the purchase process change in your business? We’d love to have your feedback!