The process of purchasing goods and services is always evolving—especially over the last 15 months during the COVID pandemic. One constant in a shopper’s journey is consumers seeking others’ opinions before making purchases. In the past, someone might pick up the phone and call a trusted relative or watch a live demo from a salesperson. Today, people go online to read user reviews, compare products, or find pricing. They ask questions on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook looking for input from both their friends and product experts. Buyers choosing to research and validate their purchases is a constant, but the methods they use to research and validate have shifted since the days of yore. Let’s do a quick examination of how the path to purchase has changed since the rise of social media.
Consumer Empowerment and a Balanced Picture
People feel more secure when they feel confident they have made a good decision. Self-directed research is one way in which they can do that. The internet has hugely empowered consumers to do that research.
Jamie’s Pre-Social Media Path to Purchase
Here is what the path to purchase was like for an average consumer (we’ll call them Jamie) before the internet:
- Jamie sees advertising or marketing for a product. For example, on the 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 tis quality, purchases the product (either in a store or through a catalog)
- Jamie uses the product, and whatever their 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 path to purchase 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: TV/Print/Radio advertisements and salespeople may not have presented a balanced picture.
Pat’s social-media influenced Path to Purchase
Here is a snapshot of the path to purchase for an average consumer (who we’ll call Pat) buying a lawnmower in the internet age:
- Pat reaches out to their friends on Facebook, asking for recommended shops or brands that their friends have liked
- While waiting for responses to come in, Pat turns to a search engine like Google. Maybe they type in “buying lawnmower online.” The search algorithm then presents Pat with links to Big Box stores, local lawncare shops, or perhaps Instagram or Twitter posts of influencers singing the praises of a particular store or brand
- In the meantime, Pat starts seeing ads for lawnmowers across the internet as they browse
- Not content to rely on fellow consumers, Pat also searches for agnostic or expert viewpoints and other relevant information on sites like Consumer Reports.
- Pat peruses stores’ websites to research what shipping times are, whether the mower they want is available in store, and whether or not there are any special deals or coupons available
- After Pat makes their purchase, they may leave feedback to highlight a particularly positive (or a particularly negative) experience. Maybe they leave a review on the site where they made their purchase, or perhaps they tweet about how happy they are, or post an image on Instagram
- If Pat expresses a particularly negative opinion, the store or brand has an opportunity to reach out to Pat and find a way to repair Pat’s opinion of them – maybe by offering a replacement or refund along with a sincere apology
- If Pat is satisfied with their experience, Pat may decide to keep up with the store or brand on social media or read blogs they contribute to. This gives the business(es) an opportunity to build loyalty with Pat along the rest of its consumers. It is an ongoing relationship, and the business has opportunities to reach a wider audience as Pat reshares or retweets posts that they found helpful
Thanks to the transparency of the internet, consumers have a lot of power and use it to ensure that 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 recommendations 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. Most businesses need 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 hem pause. On the other hand, rave reviews may prompt a consumer to spend even more money than they planned.
Psychologically, this all makes sense. Social proof makes us feel that the more minds involved, the more secure we feel about 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 alone cannot. For example: How long will the tent last? How sturdy is it? How well does it withstand extreme weather? Is it worth the money that might be spent? What potentially better alternatives exist? Has anyone used the tent 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 are initially able to a) establish credibility and b) build a relationship are those that will win the war of customer loyalty (having quality products notwithstanding). The importance of content marketing and engagement with consumers cannot 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 that 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 engaged, 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 retail 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 market through social media. Another way B2C (and in some cases, B2B) companies can connect with potential leads is to partner with influencers who are popular with the businesses’ ideal customer demographics. In fact, when influencer partnerships are created in a thoughtful manner, the ROI for businesses can be as high as the ROI that a business might get from other paid ads, organic searches, and other forms of marketing.
How Does Social Commerce Fit into Consumers’ Path to Purchase?
While you may be familiar with content marketing and how social media helps you reach and engage consumers in new ways, you may also have recently heard about social commerce. If you aren’t familiar with the term, social commerce is an outgrowth of e-commerce. Rather than seeing an online ad within an app like Instagram or Twitter and then leaving that app to visit a webpage or different shopping-focused app, consumers are encouraged to make their purchase right then and there within the app itself. You can read an excellent explanation of the topic on Vox.
Consumers are already accustomed to seeing highly targeted ads, whether inserted into their social media feeds as actual advertisements or perhaps being highlighted by an influencer they follow. I know I’ve been susceptible to persistent and well-targeted ads on more than one occasion, and the extra lack of friction by being able to make a purchase directly from a social media site like Instagram or TikTok does not bode well for my budget.
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 reach out to those businesses for more details. How have you seen the path to purchase change in your business? We’d love to have your feedback!