I started to really think about the value of social media versus plain old television ads recently when I made a major, high-involvment purchase – I bought a car. I’m not a car expert, but I’m definitely someone who will do the research to make sure that what I’m getting is not only the best value, but is really right for me. The experience was interesting, and I wanted to share it with you, not as a road map for whether or not social media influence is real, but as a holistic case study in product decision making from one person.
My search, like many others, I’m sure, started with Google, but I didn’t just search “cars.” I had already narrowed down my search parameters to a certain type of car (5-door hatchback, because I’m just that badass) and a few brand options. The interesting thing looking back is where those brand options came from. Some came from friends (I have a few who swear by VW), some came from television ads (the Honda Fit commercial made it stick out) and some came from past experience (I’ve always been partial to Toyota). One even came from product placement. I can say with absolute assurance that the only reason we test-drove a Nissan Versa is because of its appearance on Heroes, and the fact that I wanted to yell “Blue Nissan Versa!” every time I got in.
After some preliminary research, my search moved into real life. We visited dealerships, looked at cars, test drove a few, and further refined our search. I called friends who were in the industry and asked their opinion, which I weighted much more heavily than that of my friends outisde the industry.
While I was narrowing down my choices, one of the most useful tools was one that I had come across on TechCrunch, called CarZen. It allowed me to compare dozens of cars, side by side and rate them based on what criteria were most important to me. It introduced me to a couple of new options, and helped to validate existing ones.
From there, I turned to Twitter, as I so often do, and asked the opinions of my social graph. The opinions from this group ranged from “You should get an Aston Martin!” (that would be lovely, thank you) to very practical advice on which cars to avoid and endorsements based on personal experience. All in all, I received about 40 responses, including one from Scott Monty of Ford, who told me about the Sync system, and predictibly, tried to convince me to buy a Ford. When I pushed back and said that I had concerns about quality, he pointed me to a few sites showing the reliability of the Focus over the past few years. In all honesty, it didn’t do much to convince me to buy a Ford, but it certainly improved my image of the quality of its vehicles.
In the end, I went with the Honda Fit. Not exactly a stunning conclusion, I know, but the interesting thing for me, looking back on it is what the influencing factors were. Social media informed me, but really did very little to influence me in the short term. It was invaluable for answering specific questions, but it was better at steering me away from choices than toward them. In this respect, social media was more of a long-term influencing factor. I would say that I’m now more open to Ford than I ever have been, which makes me think that every car company that wants to keep loyal customers should be doing exactly what Ford is in Scott Monty.
This exercise reminded me that influence comes from everywhere, but it surprised me to realize how much television influenced my purchase decision. The Fit “Cavernous” spot stood out in my mind because of its simple proposition that happened to coincide with my main priority for the car, and the execution that set itself apart from every other car-driving-down-a-winding-highway ad.
Did I buy a car because of a TV spot? No, but it was one of the many influencing factors on my road to purchase, and a good reminder that not all influence comes from the places we assume. Any decision, especially complex ones, come from a variety of sources – some online and some off, some we control and some that we don’t. As marketers, the important thing to remember is that rarely is influence a direct path, but rather a circuitous series of nodes, all making their way to an ultimate end. All we can do is make sure we’re on those nodes, informing and building loyalty.