Facebook and Twitter icons influence online buying, says study

Facebook Twitter badgesOnline advertisers take heed: The mere presence of social media icons, such as Facebook and Twitter badges on websites, can subconsciously influence online spending — that according to a recent study conducted by the University of Miami School of Business.

Researchers tracked nearly 200 participants’ online shopping behaviors and determined how the presence of the ubiquitous Facebook “Like” or Twitter “Tweet” buttons influenced actual purchasing. What they found is intriguing: The existence of social media icons can either greatly persuade or greatly dissuade consumers from buying, depending on the specific product they’re considering. As Professor Claudia Townsend explains, the findings indicate that “social media icons on a web page where we shop appears to cause us to feel as if our purchases are being watched by our social networks, and we adjust our buying decisions accordingly.”

For instance, if a participant saw a Facebook “Like” button next to an item they might be embarrassed to be seen buying — a pair of Spanx, perhaps (the research specifically mentions these), there could be a 25 percent reduced chance of the consumer actually going ahead and making the purchase, compared to the same product on the same page, but without the social reference. Place a “Tweet” or “Like” button next to “sportswear or a desirable fragrance” and that same statistic reverses itself, with a 25 percent greater likelihood the product will be bought.

The researchers randomly assigned product pages to study participants — some products were of a distinctly private nature (acne medication for men, compression underwear for women), others included those items that you might not mind your friends knowing you bought. Equally random was whether or not the pages included social networking references.

What’s particularly striking is that the trend held even if participants had no recollection that there had even been social networking icons displayed, demonstrating the true subconscious power of those little badges. Researchers went on to claim that the symbols have “penetrated people’s unconscious processes and can influence decisions and behavior in ways that may bypass our awareness and ability to control.”

Online advertisers have long tried to increase the accuracy of online marketing by gleaning increasingly more personal information from Internet users; in turn, online advertising revenues were almost $8 billion in the last quarter of 2011. Google’s new privacy policy ostensibly serves this purpose by combining user data from all of Google’s wide-reaching web services. And President Obama’s recently announced “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” means to address consumer concerns over access to their browsing behavior by limiting what information advertisers can actually use. But what this study makes clear is that good old-fashioned peer-pressure may be just as important as targeted advertising in influencing consumer spending.

When it comes down to it, social networking for most users is a curated experience: We all try to show ourselves in the best possible light, and style our profiles according to our tastes, whatever they may be. As Nick Bergus found out when he unwittingly became the face of a 55-gallon drum of Passion Natural water-based lubricant via a Facebook “Sponsored Story,” this brave new world of social media advertising can have uniquely undesirable consequences. As this study points out, however, when most consumers are faced with the prospect of social networking embarrassment or prestige — even unconsciously — it can have a dramatic impact on how they shop online.

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