Like 'Em, Sure, But Would You Listen to Their Advice?

The online media world likes to get itself all wound up over big ideas, even when they are so vague it's kind of hard to imagine actual applications. "Social search" is one such nebulous concept: according to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook could supplant or at least complement Google's Web-based searches with its own search results drawing on the social networks surrounding each member. At a certain level, this sounds logical enough: if you are searching for, say, music or TV shows, it seems reasonable to assume you may share preferences with your immediate social circle. But this is only an assumption, begging the question: how often, and to what extent, do people in the same social network actually follow each other's tastes when trying new products or services?

I don't have the answer to this question (sorry) but I did find some interesting food for thought in the form of a new study from Apartments.com, which surveyed 850 visitors to its national website visitors to determine how active they were with social media, as well as how it affected their apartment search and where they ultimately chose to live.

Interestingly, the survey found that people tend not to turn to social media as a resource when looking for apartments. Specifically, while 71% of Apartments.com visitors surveyed said they used social media, just a quarter said they use it during their apartment search. Tellingly, among those who do use social media, the most "social" applications were the least popular: where 55% used social media to find photos and videos of apartments, just 21% used social media to share apartment information with friends or seek feedback.

While these survey results are interesting, I can think of a number of reasons they might not be representative of social media habits when it comes to brand and product choice in general. First of all, dwellings stand apart from pretty much every other consumer category, both in the size of the expenditure and the impact these choices have on everyday life; the only thing which comes close is automobile purchases. Considering the expense and importance of this particular choice, consumers may already have a clear idea of what they want, with little need to refer to their peers for more information.

On the other hand, there's no question that social networks display geographic sorting to varying degrees -- whether it be a group of young professionals all clustering in the same hip neighborhood, or a whole professional caste which tends to be bi-coastal. And these geographic factors tend to line up with many other kinds of consumer preference: just imagining the stereotypical Brooklyn hipster from Williamsburg invokes a whole array of choices spanning media, clothing, food, technology, and so on (and just because it's "stereotypical" doesn't mean it's not true -- quite the opposite, in fact).

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7 comments about "Like 'Em, Sure, But Would You Listen to Their Advice?".
  1. David Trahan from Mr Youth , December 7, 2010 at 11:14 p.m.

    Purchasing considerations for apartments are polar opposites of everyday products like food, clothing, personal care, etc. You can't compare the two in a discussion about the apotion of social search.
    Social search is best for low-involvement purcases. If I'm buying skinny jeans and see that 5 of my friends like a certain pair, there is value in that regardless of different tastes, because wer'ere all buying the same style jeans. If I was just thinking of buying any jeans, social search isn't as helpful, because I am searching too broadly. Social search is best for micro recommendations not macro. They help us decide, not research.

  2. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , December 8, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.

    Funny how often social media advocates fight against research. This makes complete sense. And I think it extends quite well to 90% of the products in our lives.

    Do my friends want to know my laundry detergent? My circular saw brand? My tires? My socks? The photo albums I bought? Most books? No in all cases.

    If we have 500 brands in our home, it's a tiny number that have any social media traction to help friends choose their brands.

  3. Claire Hunter-smith from Bloom Media , December 8, 2010 at 4:34 a.m.

    I think social comes into its own when people are looking for WHERE to buy whatever it is they are looking for from. Rather than seeking recommendations from friends re which apartment or which car, social media can act as a good vetting system where open questions like 'about to rent/ buy from such and such estate agent can lead to discovering information about friend's experiences with said estate agent. For high-involvement purchases like a car or an apartment this makes the most sense to me.

  4. David Trahan from Mr Youth , December 8, 2010 at 10:26 a.m.

    @Doug,

    Those are all brands that most people are not "liking" across social sites, so wouldn't be part of social search either. To your pinte RE: social advocates fighting research, often times social advocates who know what they're doing fight against irrelevant application of social data.

  5. Alex Klaff from Relevant Mediagroup , December 8, 2010 at 4:49 p.m.

    @ David

    Well said!

  6. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , December 8, 2010 at 5:38 p.m.

    @Claire - that's an excellent point. So, for example, in packaged goods social has proven to be a solid discount/coupon communication channel

    @David - We must hang in different circles. In the places I haunt, I'm not hearing much realism among social media advocates. What I hear all-too-often is that social is becoming everything for communication with consumers (like recent Guy Kawasaki recommendation that we replace websites with Facebook pages).

    But if social doesn't work for laundry soap communications, then it's just another medium that works sometimes and won't work at other times. THAT's the realism we hear far too little about.

    It's really a question of when & how social is a valuable media option. And studies like this one help us begin to wire in on social's strengths and limitations.

  7. David Trahan from Mr Youth , December 9, 2010 at 10:07 a.m.

    @Doug, very much agree that social works sometimes and doesn't work all the time. That's exactly the point I've been making.