Can social media influence purchasing decisions? Lots of time and money
has been invested in a clear bet that the answer is ‘yes‘.

Some cite anecdotal reports regarding commercial activity on sites like
Twitter, for instance, as evidence that popular social media services
are playing an increasingly important role in purchasing decisions. But
is social media the boon to the influence of purchasing decisions that
many believe it is?

A survey conducted by Knowledge Networks throws the consensus into question. It found that less than 5% of social media participants aged 13 to 54 “regularly turn to these sites for guidance on purchase decisions“.

The figures were under 4% for key verticals such as travel, shoes and clothing, restaurants, financial services and personal care products and cars and trucks.

Given how many social media services have been built around travel, for instance, and how companies like Ford are relying more heavily on the use of social media to launch new product, the question has to be asked: are brands wasting their time and money?

It’s a tough question to answer. It’s pretty well established that customer reviews, for instance, which fall under the purview of ‘social media‘, can have a real impact on sales.

But when it comes to pure-play social media outside of the ecommerce environment, Knowledge Network’s study is worth taking a hard look at for brands that are looking to Facebook, Twitter and similar services to drive sales.

AdWeek notes that:

The numbers are more robust when respondents apply the looser standard of whether they “sometimes” use social media for guidance on purchase decisions in these categories.

Only 16% of the respondents agreed that they’d be more likely to purchase a product or service from a brand advertising on social media websites, although 63% stated that advertising was a “fair price to pay” for the free use of those websites.

At the end of the day, the top priority for social media participants: “staying connected“.

Obviously there are intangible benefits to brand participation in the world of social media. I don’t think anyone doubts that brands can gain a lot from interacting more intimately with consumers. These interactions could conceivably impact brand perception and thus purchasing decisions, even if social media participants aren’t explicitly going to notice or admit to this.

But if Knowledge Network’s survey is to be believed, brands may need to rethink social media and their social media strategies. Turning social media into sales may be a much more difficult and indirect process than previously anticipated.

Photo credit: AMagill via Flickr.