Lately, I’ve been reading a ton of articles that discuss how social media is impacting search. The most common question is whether social networking is changing the way people search for information online? Or more importantly, does the word of mouth (WOM) nature of social media pose a real threat to search in general?
This question is addressed at a high level by Chris Crumm on the WebPro News blog in an article titled: “Social Media will not Replace Search” however the article stops short of addressing the real value of social media for people searching for the right information.
Clearly, search engines dominate the quest for information landscape. Portals such as Yahoo!, MSN and AOL, and subject matter expert (SME) sites like CNET and Wikipedia, force the remainder of online channels (blogs, Wikipedia & social networks) into more of a relationship-type search category.
Although blogs and social media cover a little bit of the search destinations, the long tail value of the traffic generated from these channels should not be overlooked. A sufficient reason is the capital required entails only some blood, sweat and tears (yeah, tears..or trial and error) – in other words some quality time building relationships and a little elbow grease!
But what makes an even more compelling argument of the inherent value of relationship search is how social media and blogging plays into the typical buying cycle. An often overlooked element of effective online marketing (off line as well), the buying cycle defines the phases consumers go through leading up to the highly coveted conversion.
Whether you are asking visitors to buy your product, sign up for a newsletter or just hang out on your site, there are specific elements of the buying cycle that can be leveraged to facilitate driving your audience to your goal.
The buying cycle generally consists of 5 stages: Interest, Gathering, Research, Exclusion and Purchase. Consumers who are searching first express an interest in a given topic. From there, they begin to gather and research information. The next step is critical to the buying process and, ironically, lends itself well to social networking: the Exclusion phase.
This stage represents where people are learning what they don’t want and relationship channels offer tremendous opportunity through reviews and recommendations from friends who may already know about your products. Never underestimate the value here. Friends asking friends what they think is tantamount to developing a network of product evangelists who sell for you! For Free!
If you have done a good job developing relationships, shedding tons of blood sweat and hopefully less and less tears, social networking (and blogging) actually gets your company to the stage closest to the final purchase phase. Companies pay a lot of money on paid search and countless hours on SEO (both important) in order to lead consumers closer to the conversion phase. But very few ever really think about the opportunities social media creates – or at least, establish a firm justification for engaging in social media in the first place. This hopefully puts an exclamation point rather than a question mark on the oft heard challenge, “what’s the value of social media?”.
In my mind, there is no greater value in a business’ engagement in social media than this important, yet often overlooked, relationship to the consumer buying cycle.