Recent reports by Pew Research Center and Nielsen provide a deepening picture of the evolving digital consumer and their behaviors online.  By now most businesses understand the importance of social media as a branding and marketing tool.  Less clear up until now, has been the importance of social media as a search platform and pathway to purchase.  We talked briefly about this growing trend in a previous post – since then, social media has grown from a leading content gateway to a burgeoning search platform, and is likely to gain more traction in 2012 as mobile, location-based commerce becomes more viable.  This much is clear in 2011: digital consumers increasingly navigate both their online and offline shopping activities through social media.

Nielsen found that 60% of consumers who research products online learned about a specific brand or retailer through social networking sites, and 53% of active adult online social network users follow a brand.  The consumer practices of finding, researching, and vetting brands are accelerating within social media platforms – not to mention the consumer practices which these platforms made popular: expressing brand loyalty or dissatisfaction.  Platforms coming out on top for brand research and vetting are consumer review sites like Yelp and Amazon reviews, where Nielsen found that overall, consumer-generated reviews and product ratings are the most preferred sources of product information among social media users, and 3 out of 5 create their own reviews of products and services.

Among those who share their brand experiences through social media, at least 41% say they do so to receive a discount, 58% say they write product reviews to protect others from bad experiences, and nearly 1 in 4 say they share their negative experiences to “punish companies.” Likewise, 61% of social media users say they share their brand experiences to give “recognition for a job well done,” and these users are more likely to trust the recommendations of their friends and family most.  These findings provide key insights into social media’s growing command on brand visibility, but also its equity in brand ambassadors – the types of customers who tend to provide the most value to companies.

In the mobile realm, search based activities have already moved toward social-search based apps, with Yelp and Foursquare leading the way in how mobile consumers locate businesses offline and on-the-go.  Partnerships between social media platforms and retailers, such as Facebook’s recently announced partnerships with eBay and WalMart, promise to make direct pathways to purchase through social media platforms more common, and new technologies in mobile payments promise to kick social-mobile-purchasing into high gear.

Even with the growth and penetration of social media as a search platform, traditional search and email remain the two top online activities that are nearly universal among adult internet users, with 92% of online adults using them.  This statistic probably won’t change anytime soon – but the classic dichotomy of quantity versus quality will likely play a more distinguished role in search marketing strategies as user search behaviors continue to evolve on social platforms.

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