On February 16, I attended the Social Media Week forum, “Shopper Insights + Social Media” at the Advertising Research Foundation in New York. The panel represented online marketing vendors, major agencies and corporate marketers. They presented their findings on the impact social channels are having on consumer purchase decision. Here are three takeaways I’d like to share from that event.

Observations on Purchase Decision and the Influence of Social Media

First,  the panelists had volunteered some of their firms’ time and staff to the study. They backed their conclusions with explanations of their survey methods and statistical evidence. This forum was  informative, not promotional.

Second, a key topic was how social media has changed the way consumers reach decisions to buy. Marketers are used to observing the purchase decision funnel, that familiar path people follow on their way to purchase decision. Have the myriad touchpoints that people confront supplanted the  purchase decision funnel, or reduced its importance as a measure? Someone wondered if the A-I-D-A sequence that makes up the funnel no longer applies or has been altered by social connections (our own CEO, Ric Dragon, discussed the longevity of AIDA few months back in one of his blog posts). One panelist opined that maybe the path isn’t so simple. We just applied the concept to bring order to the chaotic events and interactions that affect purchase behavior. Now, the tracking tools we use for social media, while not perfect, are effective enough to show us that people are influenced by more diverse connections than we acknowledged.

Purchase Decision: We’re Always Shopping

Perhaps the most thought provoking insight was offered by Belle Frank, Executive Vice President, Brand Strategy & Research at Young & Rubicam. In response to concerns about validity of observed purchase behavior, she stated “We’re always shopping.”

That  point deserves more examination by itself, I think. Consider the cumulative impact all the conversations, activities, events and observations have on our thoughts and senses. By the time we make conscious decisions to start “shopping” for something, we’ve processed some impressions and have biases favoring some products or services over others. I’ve liked to think of myself as unaffected by these collisions with the world over the years, so Belle Frank’s comment was humbling.

Earlier this year I reported on a study that shows how social media metrics correlate with a marked increase in purchase intent, even a year after the engagement commenced. So if anything, I’d say that social media is the entryway into the A-I-D-A path, and part of Belle Frank’s “shopping” journey. Social platforms are in the mix, so brands have to be leaving impressions there, too. They’ve amplified the fact that humans are social animals.

I guess that’s why we call it social media marketing.