As we’ve discussed previously, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) has just published a White Paper entitled ‘Digital & Social Media in the Purchase Decision Process.’  Converseon was a research partner on the project, together with comScore, Communispace, Firefly MB and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.  We caught up with Todd Powers, EVP, Research at the ARF to ask him a few questions about the project.

1)   Hi Todd.  Thanks for joining us today.  Please tell us a little about why the ARF thought this was an important area to tackle.

Great to chat with you, Jasper.  I’ll tell you that the project came out of early discussions I had with ARF members about the “things that were keeping them up at night.”  This would have been in 2011, and I heard three things consistently:  1) digital, 2) social media, and 3) cross-platform advertising.  Every member I talked to had at least one of these topics on their strategic imperatives list, and some companies had all three!

Now, since there had been so much recent press about the changing nature of the “path to purchase,” we decided that the project should investigate the ways that social media had influenced shopping activity.  And the foundation of that initial design included both an online panel study based on buyer-behavior methods, and a web-listening study based on techniques used to mine online conversations for insights about these issues.  Ultimately, we expanded the work to cover all of digital communications, and we added qualitative methods to the array of research tools we deployed, and this resulted in the multi-phase, multi-method project that the ARF and our key participating sponsors took on.

2)   What were the two or three most important questions you wanted to answer via the research?

I’d say that the questions fell into two basic and distinct camps.  First, we had all sorts of questions about how, when, where and why people were turning to digital resources in their quest to acquire merchandise.  So we decided to study product categories that differed in the amount of time and expense people normally dedicate to the effort.  We tested fast-moving consumer goods (Kraft wanted to study packaged meats and cookies) at one end, and automobiles (GM focused us on small cars) at the other.  Motorola, who studied smartphone purchases, fell somewhere in the middle.  And we spent considerable energy documenting the purchase journeys for these products, using all of the research methods I mentioned.  We asked consumers about their most recent purchases, so that the activities would be particularly salient.

The other camp of questions was really about pure discovery.  We were determined to enter the study without a lot of pre-conceived notions of how any of this worked.  Instead, we wanted to see what consumers might surprise us with.  And this is where our different research methods were so valuable.  We had researchers from our category sponsor companies that I just mentioned, who helped us craft the inquiries in their particular markets, and we had help from our digital sponsor (Google), and our strategic consultant (Y&R), who brought a strong cross-market perspective to the table.  When you mix this with the research expertise at our research partner firms, you have great potential for unearthing the kinds of discoveries we were hoping for.

3)   If you had to sum up the main finding (in, let’s say, 140 characters), what would you say?

I’d say, “Digital and social media have fundamentally changed the purchase process – our sources, our view of markets, our emotional response, everything.”

4)   How much of a challenge was it to analyze the findings across a variety of industries?

It was the only approach that made sense.  Despite the difficulties, this was the only way to make the process manageable for both the respondents and the research analysts.   Rather than ask people to comment on how they “typically” buy things, we had them focus on a recent experience with a specific product.  This ensured that we had qualified buyers, and that they were giving us first-hand insights into what they had done.  Our web-listening efforts were similarly focused, with keywords and brand names chosen to drive down into the product-relevant spaces on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums, and so on.

Then, our analysis allowed us to identify unique patterns for the diverse product sets, but also to combine the results, where appropriate, to show common tendencies.  From this, marketers who read the findings can make judgments about the degree to which results can be generalized to their own situations.  We expect that many of these marketers will want to execute studies of their own, confirming that the trends we have identified hold true in their particular product environments.

5)   We discussed in our previous blog post some of the emotion-centric findings in the research – as a hugely experienced researcher yourself, was there anything new to you here?

Absolutely!  In fact, almost everything we unearthed about the importance of emotions in the purchase journey was unanticipated.  Think about it.  We were studying how digital resources are changing purchase behavior.  And people go online to get the stuff they need to make an informed decision, right?  So we really thought that our study would simply confirm that digital and social media had solved the information crisis, and now the purchase process is quite straightforward.

But this was only part of the story.  Sure, people now have all sorts of information at their fingertips, but now, instead of needing more information, they need more help sifting through the mountain of data that confronts them.  They want trusted sources.  They want to feel confident in their choices.  They want to reduce risk, so that they are not anxious about spending hard-earned dollars.  And ultimately, they want to announce their victory, their successful conclusion of the shopping excursion.

The qualitative research and especially the web-listening effort, which documented the prevalent emotions in the various stages of the purchase process, were instrumental in revealing these emotional components.  In our research presentations, when we show our audiences the different emotional journey for smartphone purchases, compared to groceries and automobiles, that’s always a real eye-opener for people.

6)   What was the most surprising thing to you that came out of the research?

Oh please, Jasper.  You can’t possibly ask me to select just one.  There were so many surprises.

I was surprised to find that our sponsors, despite coming at this issue from very different market perspectives, shared many of the same marketing challenges.

I was surprised to discover that people think of the shopping process as starting when they begin their active quest, but that passive shopping has already established a view of the marketplace for them by that time.

I was surprised to find that people go to so many different places, both online and offline, during their purchase journey.

I was certainly surprised to find that oftentimes, emotions trump cognitions in determining winners and losers in the competitive marketplace.

I was particularly surprised to discover the importance of brands and brand-sponsored information in the path-to-purchase.

And small things, too.  I was surprised to find that people are much, much more likely to post things online after they have completed their purchases, and that they tend to be observers – some would say voyeurs – while they are seeking input.

It goes on and on.  The study was simply full interesting new learnings.  And there certainly remains much to be learned going forward.  I’d say we still have our work cut out for us.


Thanks for your time today Todd.  Really interesting responses!

ARF members can download the White Paper here.