How search is changing online shopping behavior
The traditional way of converting prospects into customers is dead and buried. Social media and search are changing everything and the change is now making itself felt in the online purchase decision-making process.

Here’s any kind of purchase decision-making worked in the past: Stimulus, Shelf, Experience. Stimulus was, usually, advertising on TV, newspapers or radio, though it could also have been personal recommendation or even word-of-mouth publicity. The need for that stimulus was what spawned the global, multi-billion dollar advertising industry and it is what, in the past, made brands immediately reach for advertising the moment their sales hit a slump.

In the marketing world there is accumulated data which shows that without stimulus a product does not fare well in terms of sales. This data created a well-worn path to marketing which goes something like this: concept-implementation-realisation-advertising. The three stages prior to advertising is where a product goes from an idea to something concrete you can use and then hits the market in terms of various publicity channels which create a stimulus.

Shelf, was the moment the consumer encountered that product on the shelf. This is what marketers have called the first moment of truth. If their efforts at advertising and marketing have been enough, then, when a consumer encounters a product on the shelf he should naturally reach for it. In order to make this happen a massive amount of work had to be done in terms of publicity and advertising (creating a buzz and working for brand recognition) and the packaging and presentation had to be just right.

The importance of that first moment of truth which in the marketing industry is called fMOT, was so important that global giant Procter & Gamble actually had an fMOT Director responsible for it, overseeing the way its hundreds of products and dozens of brands, performed, at that stage. If, they were not delivering it was the fMOT Director who, presumably, would push for changes and fresh efforts in that direction.

If, however, the publicity, advertising and packaging worked like clockwork and a product was successfully positioned in the market so that it gained the physical presence it needed on shelves, then it would lead to high conversion rates at the fMOT point and provide a brand with sales. That would still not be enough to get a company out of hot water though.

Experience, refers to what marketers and companies know is the second moment of truth (unsurprisingly called sMOT). That’s when a consumer, having been alerted by the publicity and swayed by the placement of a product and its packaging, now takes it home and tries it. If the experience they have is bad, at that stage, then it’s game over. They are unlikely to make a repeat purchase or even trust that brand very much again in the near future, which means that a company would find itself spending more and more money on advertising for fewer and fewer returns and lower and lower profits.

The importance of the sMOT is why companies always invest a lot of money in on-going product development and refinements and why products, to begin with, have to have a minimum, acceptable standard before they reach the marketplace.

How Search is Changing All That

We know from experience that going digital does not change anything, it simply streamlines part of the process and potentially adds an extra step or two. No amount of online advertising would help make up for a bad product or a product which cannot be found, for instance. So, if fMOT and sMOT still stand true what is really different?

Zero Moment of Truth for online marketersGoing digital makes things different not just because it allows us to create an additional point of contact when it comes to sales and advertising but because it changes the way consumers look for things. Today, the moment the stimulus is met (which is now as likely to be online as it is offline), consumers reach for search introducing an additional step which Google’s marketing teams call the zero moment of truth or zMOT (pronounced zee-MOT). This is where a consumer, having come across a product, then uses search to find out specifications, points of sale and reviews about it.

This additional step in the purchase decision-making process has deep ramifications. It introduces, for instance, latency in large ticket buys such as computers, cars and even tablets. This is where consumers will do a search, find out results and then not make a purchase until a month or even more later. It also has the ability to negate the fMOT and sMOT if the consumer discovers in search negative publicity, difficulties in buying the product or specifications which do not fulfil the requirements he has.

With almost seven out of ten purchasing decisions starting with search the importance of being able to be found online becomes obvious. More than that, the need for SEO becomes a necessity rather than a luxury and the starting point of any stimulus.

Where Social Media Comes In

Search, on its own, these days, is no longer enough. Search queries need to now not just deliver a product’s name and specifications and a website where it can be bought from, they also need to deliver reviews, recommendations and information which allows the potential buyer to do all the research necessary and make up their mind, based on what they find.

This is where social media marketing is crucial and where search plays a pivotal role. Doing search for Tablet, for instance, I was not just looking where it could be bought from, but also for the reviews of experts like CNET and then the experiences of those who had bought it. For that I read what was being said in Facebook about it, I checked to see the rating given on Amazon by those who had already bought it and I checked the feedback left on CNET from existing users. Even when the feedback was negative it became invaluable to me as it allowed me to decide what I was willing to compromise in performance, in return for a better price, or what would work great for me given the use I would put that Tablet to, for instance.

Social media marketing has now become a necessary addition to SEO, increasing the reach of a product and leading to a much deeper understanding of what it offers to a potential buyer. Traditionally, companies and brands, used to send out a message. Now they have to have a conversation explaining better their products and the use they can be put in, and that conversation, though private in online forums like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, is actually public in terms of search, which means that by answering the questions which a potential customer has, they go a long way towards answering the questions of hundreds more.

The impact of search and social media upon consumers at the zero Moment of Truth (zMOT) point is cest illustrated by the video below:


Search is at the Heart of Everything

This new, conversation, which brands have with their potential buyers is what is giving such importance to the zMOT. Like in my case, I weighed the marketing messages (they make every Tablet sound perfect), understood some technical specifications which I did not completely know before, listened to what the evidence of others said and weighed it against my own needs and likely use and reached a decision without a single salesman even coming near me to convince me.

Similar stories and experiences to mine are emerging from across other sectors of the industry, particularly in such salesmen-intensive areas such as selling cars, which used to require a forecourt visit, spending time with the salesman and trying to divorce the emotional responses his sales pitch delivered from the horse-trading involved in the exercise. Today, most car buyers can find out all they need about a car through search, read social media responses from existing car owners, find out all about the negatives and positives of buying a particular model and discover both the list price and what the car can actually sell for, before they even set foot in a car dealership.

Search has created the zero moment of truth with the potential to significantly shorten the cycle leading to the first and second moments of truth and significantly reduce the effort required to make a sale.

Here is What You Need to Do

Right now very few companies of any size manage to use social media marketing properly (and many have not even started) and even fewer understand the convergence between social media and search. If you want to take advantage of the trend and position what you do in a way which delivers solid results for your company this is what you need to do:

1. Make SEO part of your company’s DNA: It’s not enough to optimize part of your website or your products or your social media presence. You really need to have optimization as a standard stage of your everyday work. This means that it should be the responsibility of more than one person and everyone in your company should understand what it is they need to do.

2. Employ social media as a stimulus platform: Use social media to inexpensively help  your company and brand become known. This means establishing a presence on social media platforms.

3. Make social media marketing part of your company’s work: Again, social media marketing cannot be the responsibility of just one person. They are never enough. It has to be the work of everybody which means that everyone needs to understand what it is they must do and why. This requires that you make social media marketing training part of your internal processes.

4. Create a conversation: Stop thinking about social media marketing as a new format of the traditional broadcast platform and see it for what it is, a stage whereupon you get the chance to foster lasting, relationships with your customers.

The traditional world of business we know is changing. Well-known brands  are struggling to get anywhere in the new economy precisely because they are not getting what it is they must do in order to talk to their customers. A number of global brands, in 2011, suffered humiliating PR disasters because they failed to understand how to use social media.

The picture which is emerging is that transparency in communications with potential customers, responsiveness and the personal touch always win over corporate slickness. You have been warned.

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