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School of Business Study Finds that Facebook and Twitter Symbols Subconsciously Influence Online Buying Decisions

March 01, 2012
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The display of a social media icon such as a Facebook “Like” button or a Twitter symbol on a shopping website increases the likelihood that consumers will buy some products, and reduces the likelihood that they will buy others.  That is a key finding of a study conducted by the School of Business, Empirica Research, and StyleCaster Media Group as part of the State of Style Report.

The study found that consumers who saw a social media icon near a product that might embarrass them were significantly less likely to buy that product than those who saw the same product without the icon. On the other hand, consumers who viewed products they would be proud to show off were significantly more likely to buy than those who saw the same product with no such icon.

“Our study finds that the mere presence of social media icons on a web page where we shop appears to cause us to feel as if our purchases are being watched by our social network, and we adjust our buying decisions accordingly,” said Claudia Townsend, an assistant professor of marketing at the School of Business, who conducted the research with Emperica’s David Neal. “Marketers should be aware that the placement of these symbols in their web design strategy could have a major impact on buying behavior.”

For this study, nearly 200 consumers explored products in an online shopping context – some were products people were happy to display in public (e.g., sportswear for women, a desirable fragrance for men) and others were products they might not want publically displayed (e.g., compression underwear for women, acne products for men).  Participants were randomly assigned to see product pages that either included small Facebook and Twitter icons or did not.  The researchers then measured the intended purchase behavior of the shoppers. 

Here are the key findings:

  • When the product was one for which public consumption is desirable (e.g., sportswear or a desirable fragrance) the presence of the Facebook and Twitter icons made people 25 percent more likely to purchase. But when the product was more private in nature (e.g., Spanx, Clearasil), the icons suppressed purchase intentions, also by 25 percent.
  • The impact on intended buying behavior emerged regardless of whether people had any memory of having seen the social media icons. This suggests that these symbols have penetrated people’s unconscious processes and can influence decisions and behavior in ways that may bypass our awareness and ability to control.
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