Poll: Social media doesn’t influence purchases. But is that the whole story?

Though a recent Gallup Poll might discourage social media and marketing pros, those stark numbers might not convey the big picture.

When you buy online, is it because of a tweet, a pin, or a Facebook update?

Maybe no; maybe yes.

Gallup recently shared the results of its new State of the American Consumer report, and it doesn’t look great for social media marketers. Most respondents said social media didn’t have any influence on purchase decisions.

Womp, womp…

The dismal results stand in stark contrast to the more than $5.1 billion companies have spent on social media advertising in 2013, an amount that continues to grow this year.

Don’t pack your bags yet, social media folks. There are things we can learn from it, even if the numbers don’t seem encouraging at first glance:

1. Numbers don’t lie, but they might not tell the right story.

This Gallup Poll was conducted using telephone and mail surveys and gathered responses from 18,525 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, all of whom speak English. What the polling methods don’t seem to take into account are the behaviors of digital natives or non-native English speakers.

According to The Washington Post
, a Nielsen study found that monthly voice minutes declined from 1,200 to 900 from 2008 to 2010, and text messages increased from an average of 600 messages a month to more than 1,400 messages a month. Likewise, Mashable reported Internet use in the U.K. at 82.5 percent, Australia at 80.1 percent, Germany at 79.1 percent, and Japan at 78.4 percent—all more than the U.S. Internet use percentage of 77.3.

It’s not that surprising that a random sample of individuals responding to phone and mail surveys aren’t highly influenced by social media. Are they using digital media to the same extent as those not sampled by the survey? Even if they are, what about all the other numbers out there in so many other studies regarding purchasing through social media networks, visual content, and other digital use?

Simply put, the numbers don’t lie—but they might not be telling the whole (or even the right) story.

2. Social media doesn’t influence people; people influence people.

Another piece of the Gallup Poll results highlights the importance of connections and influence. A whopping 94 percent of respondents use social media to connect with family and friends, and more than half use it to share what they know.

Wait a minute: Couldn’t “sharing what you know with others” include brand or product recommendations? One thing the survey doesn’t ask is how many people avoid a restaurant or don’t buy a product because of negative reviews. Gallup’s report also said, “While social media may have more influence than some Americans realize or will admit, these data show that relatively few consumers consciously take into account what they learn from social media when making purchases.”

People don’t consciously realize that social media influences purchases, because it doesn’t. People do.

Relationships, conversations, reviews, recommendations, and answered questions influence behaviors and purchasing decisions, but they’re all happening more quickly and more easily due to social media. Realizing that social media isn’t the magical sales pony but instead is simply the vehicle to these relationships makes campaigns that much more effective.

3. Social media isn’t a “one size fits all” approach.

Just as numbers can tell a different story depending on the study or the people surveyed, all social media platforms are not created equal. This is a lesson applicable to both platforms and profiles. For example, the strategic approach and ROI of Facebook are inherently different from that of Pinterest, and although there are general principles and rules of etiquette on social media, a “wash, rinse, repeat” approach will yield lackluster results at best.

Comparing a small mom-and-pop grocery store that’s just starting on social media against a national chain such as Whole Foods will also tank productivity and ROI on social media. What works for large brands will not always work for small concerns, and the things that build relationships and trust across industries will vary.

This Gallup Poll spurred articles such as this one in The Wall Street Journal and no doubt is causing some discomfort for PR and marketing professionals working in online branding. However, when understood in the proper context, the study underscores the need for relationships, influence, and proper branding strategies—now more than ever.


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