Offline Word of Mouth Influence Has More Power than Online

Posted by at 2:30 am on June 15, 2009

Online social media, whether it is social networking or web 2.0, rightly gets a lot of attention and is certainly compelling and becoming omnipresent. But does it leverage behavior or just act as a communication enabler?

Neutral, informal communication on behalf of a preferred brand or vendor can have significant, far-reaching impact. When it comes to making purchase decisions, consumers obtain information using a mixture of old media and new media and those that would constitute “push” (advertising and websites) and “pull” (information from neutral, informal communication).

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,355 U.S. adults surveyed online between March 9 and 16, 2009 by Harris Interactive.   The poll was done by Michael Lowenstein, Senior Vice President and Senior Consultant and the full results can be found at

The most frequently identified methods of gathering information were:

  • Using a company website (36%),
  • Face-to-face with a salesperson or other company representative (22%), and
  • Face-to-face with a person not associated with the company (21%).

Other frequently mentioned methods or sources were:

  • Advertising in print media (19%),
  • Independent websites that have reviews (19%),
  • Phone call to the company (16%), and
  • Public or private social networking sites (4%).

Differences in Age Groups

There were some notable information source differences between age groups. While in most respects 18-24 year olds were remarkably similar to older adults in terms of sources used for purchase decision making, they were also considerably more likely to use public online social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace (16%). These youngest adults were also significantly less likely to use online chat or email directly with companies (2%). Given the presumption that younger adults are considered to be text-crazed and less interested in face-to-face communication than older adults, one-third of 18-24 year olds (33%) said they obtain information through in-person communication with family members or friends compared to 21% of all adults who say the same thing.

Actions Taken as a Result of Brand Experience

Adults who had a memorable product purchase, use or service experience were asked if they had taken any type of downstream action and almost four in five said they had (79%). More than seven in ten who had taken an action (72%) said they had taken positive action with 57% communicating about their positive experience with others while 41% specifically recommended that someone make a purchase.

Additionally 41% of purchasers who took action said they communicated directly to the vendor or supplier. Of this group, 68% were looking for some type of issue resolution and over half (53%) reported they had their issue resolved in a positive manner while 13%, however, still had unresolved issues. Baby Boomers and Matures were more likely to communicate directly with vendors (48% and 57%) while Echo Boomers and Gen Xers are less likely to do so (28% and 35%).

There were definite differences in downstream communications depending on the industry where the product or service experience had occurred. Those who purchased in the automotive space were more likely to communicate with the vendor (43%) and have positive communication (46%). Those who purchased in the healthcare space and entertainment space were also more likely to have positive communications afterwards (45% and 43% respectively). When it comes to a positive recommendation, those who purchased technology products (44%) and entertainment products (42%) are more likely to do so. Also, in most industries, but especially automotive and healthcare services, there was greater downstream likelihood that consumers would be conveying positive messages than positively recommending.

Communications Used

Of those who had communicated to others after their purchase, almost three in five (59%) communicated to someone not directly associated with the company (that is not customer service or tech support). When asked what methods had been used for these communications, over three in five (63%) said face to face with a family member, business colleague or friend. Three in ten (30%) communicated via email while 15% via face-to-face with a retail or dealership salesperson, 12% used the website of the company and 11% communicated via text messaging. Less than one in ten used a public online social networking site, such as Facebook, for this communication (9%), an online message board, discussion forum, chat room, blog or wiki (8%), an independent website that has reviews (7%) or a private online social networking site (5%).

Downstream Behavior and Further Purchase Likelihood

Overall, two in five (40%) of those with a memorable purchase experience said they would definitely be more likely to purchase again based on their own experiences. Of those who had communicated about their positive product or service experience to others, over three-quarters (76%) said they were more likely to repurchase themselves with only 5% saying they would be less likely to purchase. Among those who had made a positive recommendation, 79% would be more likely to repurchase in the future, compared to only 6% who would be less likely.

Looking at those who had more negative experiences, just under half (46%) of those who had communicated about their negative experience would be less likely to purchase while about one-quarter (24%) would still be likely to repurchase. Among those who had recommended against purchasing the product, 63% would be less likely to repurchase compared to 24% would be more likely to repurchase.

The Takeaway

There are three key takeaways from this research:

  • Methods of obtaining information and post-experience communication is much more likely to occur through a mix of traditional and new-age consumer generated (social) media, both offline and online. Further, few are using social networking tools.
  • Communication to others about a product or service experience is more likely to occur than recommendation, and there is much variability by product/service category. Also, most post-experience communication takes place offline.
  • Data suggest, although not conclusive, that the action of offline and online methods of communicating directly to others about experiences -“ except for message boards, blogs, and wikis -“ equally impacts, or at least generally correlates with, customers’ own future purchase behavior. These findings also suggest that the act of communicating to others, positively or negatively, has the same impact on customers’ own behavior as the act of actually recommending.

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