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Social Media Commands Greater Role in Purchasing Decisions, ARF Study Finds

January 22, 2013

Advertising Research Foundation Study Reveals The “Always-on Shopper” Widens Its Social Media Network While Making Purchase Decisions

Study States That Consumers Are Shopping “Even When They Aren’t Aware Of It”

NEW YORK (Jan. 22, 2013) – With retail sales up 0.5 percent this past December, according to the Commerce Department, a new study from the Advertising Research Foundation suggests that much of the consumer spend was surely influenced by recommendations, conversations and product introductions facilitated via social media.

Given the proliferation of digital and social media, it didn’t take long for “likes” and tweets to affect dollars and cents for brands, as the ARF’s new study found that nearly one-third of shoppers said social media either introduced them to a brand/product they were previously unfamiliar with, or helped change their existing opinion of a brand during their buying decision process.

The study, “Digital & Social Media in the Purchase Decision Process,” found there is no single path to purchase for today’s consumer, and that social media plays an increasingly important role every step of the way, with 22 percent stating that social media was “important in my final purchase decision.” 

The ARF study combined surveys, web-listening and social media content analyses, and in-depth exploration through interviews, ethnography and online communities to listen to and learn from more than 2,000 shoppers.  The study’s main findings included the fact that the traditional linear path to purchase is giving way to a more winding journey and that today’s shopper is “always on” as a result of his or her constant interaction with brands.

“One of the most important insights we generated is that consumers today are always on—being exposed to brands, and even engaging with them, throughout the course of their normal activities,” said Todd Powers, executive vice president, primary research, the Advertising Research Foundation.  “This state of constant interaction with brands through digital and social media has come to challenge the purchase funnel, as we have traditionally understood it. This also challenges the notion that consumers are aware of the influences on their purchase decisions, and that they always make decisions consciously.

For more details on the role social media plays in today’s purchase decision process, go to

The five-month study by the ARF also included a number of outside researchers and sponsors, including GM, Google, Kraft, The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Motorola, Firefly/Millward Brown, comScore, Converseon, Communispace and the advertising agency Y&R.

In winding their way down the new normal of the purchase path, survey panel members indicated that they substantially widened their circle of “trusted” people online to help guide them in making a purchase for an automobile, smartphone or groceries (the three categories the tested during the study). 

As one would expect, social media plays an important role in the post-purchase process, according to the ARF.  The study found that consumers get most excited just after their final purchase, with “joy” being the predominant emotion expressed socially.

The report gauges emotion throughout the shopping process from survey participants’ comments on Facebook, Twitter, and other social and digital sources.  Positive and exuberant comments on social media sites and forums doubled in the post-purchase period from the pre-purchase period, according to the report.

Using Web-listening and qualitative research techniques, the ARF study distilled three key emotions that consumers experience in the shopping process. First, they feel imprisoned by the way they have to buy things now; specifically, the sheer amount of information that they have to deal with leads them into a state of analysis paralysis. Second, they feel that it’s difficult for them to navigate through all of the available information. And finally, shopping feels like a power struggle, because brands don’t give shoppers all the information they need to succeed.

“We tried to understand what consumers expect, and hope for, from the changes that digital and social media can make in their shopping experiences,” said Powers.  “At a broad level, they view these technologies as enabling desired feelings during shopping--wresting the power from the seller and claiming it for the consumer.”

Specifically, consumers first want to feel relaxed—shopping on their own terms when it comes to time and place. And they want to feel confident that they’re in control of the process, equipped with all the information they need to be the seller’s equal in the purchase process. But ultimately, the consumer wants to feel triumphant.   A function of this desire to feel triumphant is how shoppers share their purchase experiences on social networks, documenting their outcomes out of pride and joy in the accomplishment.

The report also finds that, abetted by the proliferation of social media, consumers are constantly “shopping” for things they need, even if it’s passively, despite the fact that they may not always be in active buying mode.

Key findings:

  • Social media is expanding the range of people we trust. It’s not just about family, friends, and colleagues now.  So not only do we go to Facebook or Google+ to connect with our friends, family, etc., and not just to ask for information, but we also go to forums, blogs, and myriad other social media sources to gather input for our purchase decisions. We essentially make our decisions regarding how, and whom, we trust in sophisticated ways. Brands enabling these trust networks will be less likely to be perceived as adversaries.
  • By looking at the online drivers of emotions, marketers can understand where products and marketing can be optimized in a potentially more enlightening way than just looking at things in terms of positive or negative.  So brands need to be pervasive and flexible and put great emphasis on customer relations.
  • The smartphone category, more so than autos and groceries, produces the least “joy” after purchase because of the technical frustrations inherent in the product.

About the ARF

Founded in 1936 by the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the ARF is dedicated to aggregating, creating and distributing research-based knowledge that will help members make better advertising decisions. ARF members include more than 400 advertisers, advertising agencies, associations, research firms, and media companies. The ARF is the only organization that brings all members of the industry to the same table for strategic collaboration. The ARF is celebrating its 76th year as the industry's authoritative source of advertising knowledge. The ARF is located at 432 Park Ave. South, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10016 and on the Web at

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