No one study can sum up the complexity of consumer behavior in the digital space. But a bird's eye view of various studies can reveal a pattern that says a lot about the roles of both consumers and marketers. Let's start with a few truths.
- Virtually every consumer is a comparison shopper. No one doubts that comparison shopping sites are highly visible online; NexTag alone pulls in almost 230 million unique visitors a year, and if you add up the combined traffic of top 10 comparison shopping sites, the sum is over a billion, according to Compete.com. Earlier this year, Alterian conducted a study of online purchase behavior in which they found that 95 percent of the online audience across the United States and United Kingdom uses price comparison sites, blogs, or other search related methods at least some of the time in making purchases online.
- Comparison shopping takes many forms, but usually begins with a search engine. Comparison sites typically are not the primary point of entry. According to PowerReviews, a user is more likely to kick off the comparison shopping process with a search engine than brand sites, retailers, and social media combined.
- The search continues, because search engines aren't the consumer's most trusted source of advice. Nielsen's Global Online Consumer Survey highlights the top three most trusted media channels among Internet users in North America: recommendations from people they know, consumer opinions, and editorial content. Notice that none of these trusted voices are coming from salespeople.
- Once business is transacted, the consumer is motivated to influence his or her peers. In a 2009 study, Ripple6 found that about 83 percent of online shoppers share information about their purchases with people they know. Nearly 75 percent of social media users share their recommendations online, and that's not only to spread good news. More than three-quarters of U.S. Internet users are compelled to tell their friends about a problem they experience with a product or service.
What Has the Research Told Us?
All the studies that contribute to this narrative were conducted under unique circumstances and subject to their own individual biases. Acting on the assumption, however, that each study's sample is sufficiently balanced to reflect the consuming population (at least in the United States), a path emerges -- we'll call it the Consumer Comparison Cycle:
Once the awareness of a particular need has arisen, there is little upside in further solicitation of consumers. Their desire to compare is driven by a need to position products and services side-by-side -- and once they begin pursuing alternatives, the need for trust drives a consumer away from search engines and toward other destinations.
At the time of validation, and ultimately transaction, consumers can be enticed by attractive promotions, but marketers must beware of two potential downfall of these tactics.
First, the promotions cut into the top line of profit potential.
Second, they require additional advertising expense to get the word out.
The result is an increase in marketing expenditure, at a time when the consumer's opinions are likely to be already formed. This is the basis for the ongoing battle between persuasion and confidence.
Finally, the consumer makes a purchase and broadcasts the experience, contributing to the initial awareness of other consumers.
As marketers, we need to continually remind ourselves of the value of service over solicitation. The search channel provides an ideal model for this philosophy. We can geotarget our ads and write ad copy which will attract a certain type of consumer, but ultimately it's hard to solicit outright in search: the entire search query process revolves around the consumer's proactive desire to be served.
As the research indicates, consumers begin the purchase process with search, but rarely do they end it with search -- and the pursuit of trust is the turning point in that evolution. We know all about the stigma of the pushy salesperson, and "trustworthy" generally isn't an adjective that comes to mind when describing one.
One of the pillars of good customer service is making the answers to consumers' question easy to find. Beyond conversion volumes and strong ROI, search marketing plays a pivotal role in ensuring good service throughout the Consumer Comparison Cycle. With steady commitment to service at all points of the cycle, we put ourselves in a position to leverage consumers' energies in search, social media, and other marketing channels -- and create a self-propelled machine for demand generation.