futurelab default header

In the never-ending quest to understand how consumers make purchase decisions, and what influences their decisions….

No, wait. That’s not right. Let me start again.

In the never-ending quest to prove that My Preferred Channel is superior to Your Preferred Channel, and to convince marketers to reallocate their budgets away from Your Preferred Channel to My Preferred Channel (ah yes, that’s much better)…, a new study purports to measure US consumers’ “biggest purchase influencers.”

(Let’s ignore the fact that “biggest” is the wrong adjective to use here).

At the top of the list is “recommendations from friend/family/acquaintance,” followed by “television ads.” The third most-frequently cited source of influence–just a few percentage points behind TV ads–was “online review or recommendation from someone within your social media circle.”

According to the study’s authors:

“Social media’s impact on consumers’ buying decisions is profound. Online reviews or recommendations from someone within an individual’s social media circles are especially impactful, even when the reviewer has no relationship to the consumer.”

My take: We need to address a few issues before accepting this as gospel:

1. Degree of influence. Respondents were asked to what extent these sources of influence have on their buying decisions. Really? What does “high” and “medium” mean exactly? How does one determine the difference between “high” and “medium” influence? I’m guessing that “low”–and maybe even “no”– was on the list of prompts, as well. If so, why not include “low” in the calculation of influence? After all, if it had “some” influence, it should be included, no? If not, then why include “medium” influence in the rank ordering?

2. Extensibility across products. You’re not going to try to tell me that the “biggest” influencers are the same for all products and services, are you? So how can a researcher aggregate the sources of influence across products and services, and how can a consumer even answer the question in the first place?

3. Cross-impact of influencers. Nine of the 16 sources of influence that the study asked about were mentioned as a “high” or “medium” influencer by at least half of the respondents. Which means that for any one purchase decision that a consumer makes, a number of sources have an impact. Wouldn’t it be important to marketers to know which combination of influencers are most prevalent, and how these combinations play out?

4. Point of influence. At what point in the consumer’s decision making process does any one influencer (or combination of influencers) play a role? The study’s authors conclude that “social media’s impact on consumers’ buying decisions is profound,” but how can the researcher come to this conclusion without more knowledge of where in the decision process social media has an impact?

5. Comprehensiveness. The chart may show only the top 16 influencers from the study, but are there others? Who came up with this list? Could there be an important influencer missing? I don’t see “little voices in my head tell me what to buy” on the list, but hey, that could be an important influencer to your target market.

6. Nitpicks. How is “recommendations from friend/family/acquaintance” different from “online review or recommendation from someone within your social media circle”? Couldn’t a friend or acquaintance be part of someone’s social media circle? And did they really survey 14-year-olds? I have a daughter of about that age. I can’t imagine her answering this question about purchase influencers (I have a 19-year-old daughter, as well, whose responses to this question I’m not sure I’d trust, either, for that matter). Oh, and the 6% of people said billboards have a high impact on their purchase decisions–would love to meet those people.


Asserting that social media’s impact on consumers’ buying decision is “profound” appears to have been a foregone conclusion going into the study. Why not emphasize the impact of TV ads, which would seem to be the more non-intuitive finding? After all, isn’t it possible that recommendations from family/friends were the result of them being influenced by TV ads?

The shortcomings of this attempt to identify consumers’ purchase influencers starts with the imprecise focus on “decisions.” Exactly which decisions are we talking about?

On a regular basis, the most frequent decisions consumers make (I’m guessing here) are: 1) what to buy in the supermarket; 2) where to eat when they eat out; 3) which gas station to go to to fill up; 4) what entertainment venues (i.e., movies, etc.) to go to; and 5) what clothes to buy.

What to buy in the supermarket is actually a collection of a lot of other decisions, regarding which food and non-food items to buy, and which brands to select. It’s very hard to believe that many–if any–of those decisions are influenced by recommendations from family and friends, or social media.

Do people ask for and get recommendations for which gas station to go to? Doubt it. Is your decision to waste money at Starbucks every day the result of recommendations from family/friends, or the result of seeing TV commercials? NO!

The reality is that the vast majority of decisions we make on everyday basis is not influenced by any of the things listed in this study. The initial purchase decision for many repeat products and goods may have been, but if you’ve been eating the same brand of cereal for five years, don’t try to tell me you remember how you decided to try that cereal the first time.


Bottom line: The reality about consumers’ purchase influencers is that it’s not as simple as asking them to specify the “degree” to which something influences their purchase decisions.

Image via flickr

Original Post: