There's a tremendous amount of hyperbole surrounding the impact social media is having on purchase decisions.
The latest research from Keller Fay indicates that 88% of word-of-mouth happens offline, versus just 2% in social media, further trailing instant messaging/text (4%) and email (3%).
Speaking to many social media marketers you'd assume social media accounted for the lion's share of conversation.
However, I think it's still worth examining a little closer this offline versus online distinction.
Essentially, we're talking about the spoken versus the written word.
The fact that 12% of our conversations happen via the written word still strikes me as quite remarkable and pretty significant: especially when you consider the immediacy of the communication (in contrast to sending a letter) and how many additional people have the opportunity to read those conversations.
Broadly speaking, most of the verbal conversations we have are impermanent, undiscoverable and ephemeral.
In contrast, an increasing amount of our written communication is not only permanent, but easily discoverable. Its reach can often extend far beyond the person or persons we were initially addressing and remain detectable long after we commit it to text.
Within social, Twitter is a more ephemeral form of conversation: not only drowned in the billions of tweets on the platform, but rarely achieving any prominence on Google, leaving little digital trace.
This differs to many blogs, review sites and even forums which often feature prominently on any search for a brand or product. They also often appear at the very point of online purchase too, in contrast to the half-recalled conversations we had about those brands in the past.
The social path to purchase
At The Social Partners, we recently did some research into the level of conversation around a brand and discovered that, of those who had discussed it in the past week, nearly nine in 10 did so face-to-face, compared to 11% on Facebook and 2% on Twitter.
We also found that conversations on these social networks had a negligible impact on initial awareness and discovery.
At both these stages of the customer journey, and later on at the consideration stage, close ties such as friends and family were having much more of an impact.
However, at the final consideration stage, our research revealed that ratings and review sites were having a bigger (and largely negative) impact on potential customers.
Although their effect was more pronounced, social networks like Facebook and Twitter continued to have comparatively less impact.
In addition to highlighting the importance of understanding the impact of social beyond mentions, likes, follower counts, and even the sentiment and topics of discussion, this also underlines the importance of not grouping all online communication into social media.
We're rather wary of any catch-all statements to describe social media in general.
It's why, for example, we're sceptical of those widely circulated infographics about the best/worst times to post because different audiences use channels in different ways and have differing need states.
Our industry is full of snake oil salesmen trying to give one-size-fits-all answers which is why we believe in a considered, behaviourally driven approach that is rooted in a deep and insightful understanding of our clients and their customers.
This starts by understanding whether the different types of social media even have a role or relevancy, in addition to using our social path-to-purchase model to understand their impact (if any) on a brand's existing and potential consumers.