Product Research Through Social Networks

I was looking for 2008 professional conferences recently. Disappointed in the search results, I turned to my social network for recommendations, something I’ve seen my Facebook friends do through “My Questions” in the past. That’s when it occurred to me: Whether you research through your social channels or a search engine may depend on the number of friends you have. If you’ve got lots of friends, your preference for where you get information is probably biased toward your social connections. If you’re lonely, you probably use search.

I know, I laughed too when I first wrote this. It doesn’t mean we’re social losers if we use Google. Rather, it’s that our social networks, and the information present in those real or virtual connections, is becoming part of our purchase-related activity. The social Web is just starting to deliver on its central promise to the mainstream to harness the collective consciousness and make it relevant to everyday transactions. As social friction drops, more helpful information surfaces.

Think about it for a minute: If you have a friend whom you trust and who has the answer to your question, why use a search engine? This is where the social Web is heading. It’s a perfect example of why it’s gaining acceptance rapidly, especially among millennials predisposed to communicate electronically, and why its evolution is a fundamentally good thing for marketers.

As social media continues to develop, how you’re connected to others clearly plays a role in how you consume advertising and marketing content. Imagine that your best friend is a nationally ranked wakeboarder and that you’re interested in learning more about wakeboarding. Your friend knows you and agrees that you’d enjoy it. She herself was a rookie once, too. Are you going to (a) search online for “wakeboards” and wade through information with which you have little or no experiential context or (b) ping your friend and ask her to recommend a good starting package? As social networks expand and as platforms like OpenSocial and tools like Minggl move mainstream, more of us will have real domain experts within our networks as well as a deep bench of casual participants in nearly any interest, avocation, or profession we can name.

In other words, we’re becoming more able to quickly and easily ask our network rather than search the Internet.

To be sure, search is a fundamentally important tool: Just as search readily finds abstract content in a distributed network like the Web, it can also find domain experts within your personal network. But when it comes to advertising, this doesn’t hold. Search is by and large powered (and certainly monetized) by the confluence of two things: an individual’s desire for information about a topic and the notion that if you are searching for “A” you might also be interested in “B.” Search currently performs two functions from the individual’s perspective. It helps her find information in support of an informed choice, and it helps identify the sources where she might make the actual purchase. The value to marketers is in both the active consideration phase, where the purchase options are being set and validated, and the presentation of sources for the actual purchase.

Marketing in a social context is strongest in the consideration phase, so it can deeply influence an impending purchase. Because word of mouth is so important, the domain experts who generate it are among the most influential nodes within your network. Doubly valuable is a domain expert within your network who also knows you.

Of course, knowing someone and being connected are two different things. Go back a few years and ask Tila Tequila to name her million or so MySpace “friends.” My guess is she’d name Bob, Sally, Larry, Denise, and then like my son, whose eyes are often too big for his stomach, would start slowing down. Contemporary networks, those employing reputation, identity, and trust, are increasingly likely to produce connections that reflect shared, personal knowledge from both parties about each other. These are the connections that are most useful when you need advice.

Choosing the right product often has as much to do with how you’ll use it as it does with the manufacturer’s reputation. Search can only leverage half the available information; it doesn’t know you (yet). And as a novice you’re probably not the best judge of which brand or model is right for you. This isn’t a knock. It comes with being a novice and is something unscrupulous salespeople and sites use against newcomers.

By comparison, if you’re connected to a domain expert who knows you (or can sort this out by tapping into your network) and has some social capital (define) in the game, you can count on much better guidance in your quest for the right choice. From a marketer’s perspective, this is solid gold. This kind of guidance, combined with your own preferences, desired spending range, and similar factors, is far more likely to result in a high degree of purchase satisfaction. This in turn drives favorable WOM for the product purchased. It’s a wonderful cycle.

As a savvy e-marketer, how do you use this? First, take the time to participate in and explore social networks that are relevant to your customer base. Social sites in a focused category like Wakesites are building in manufacturer profiles for exactly this reason. Next, understand how network applications like ProductPulse are being used and how you can leverage them. Finally, take note of your own behavior. I’ve always been amazed by how many media professionals I know use a DVR at home.

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