Consumer Decision Making Process and Social MediaUltimately, consumers face decisions. Consumers are a bundle of needs and they have to determine which needs to satisfy and how to satisfy them. Enter, the consumer decision making process.

In marketing, we’re really good at consumer decision making that involves deciding which brand to buy – do I want Tropicana or Minute Maid orange juice today? What we really DON’T understand is how consumers decide to buy orange juice versus water or even a new pair of shoes. Our understanding breaks down really fast as the products under consideration get more diverse. Hence, we’re better able to understand how consumers decide between brands or related products that satisfy the same needs, in this case water, versus a totally different product that satisfies a totally different need — shoes.

As marketers, we REALLY need to understand the consumer decision making process as that’s our only hope if we want to influence those decisions.

Consumer decision making process

We know consumers go through 5 steps in the consumer decision process:

1. Need recognition – the awareness that there’s a gap between where we are and where we want to be. For instance, I’m hungry and I want to be full. There’s some crap out there about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but it falls apart really quickly. Let’s just leave it at saying that consumers are little need satisfiers and move on.

2. Information search – once we determine that we have a little need we want to go away, we look at alternatives to satisfy that need. If I’m hungry, I start looking for a restaurant or rummaging through my fridge looking for something that isn’t too green or smells so bad I don’t know whether it’ll satisfy my hunger or kill me.

For more complex, risky decisions, we likely ask for advice (enter social media) or do some research about available alternatives (enter inbound marketing). For simple decisions, we access whatever memories, stories, and product recommendations we’ve stored away in the grey matter holding our important data – our brains.

3. Evaluation – which is just a fancy word meaning we use something to help us rank the product alternatives that turn up in our search. We might use a simple heuristic like einy meiny miney moe (sp? — anyone know how this is supposed to be spelled) or some complex cognitive decision making process, such as ranking each alternative on important features and benefits of the product that turned up in our search.

4. Decision — Whatever evaluation tool we use, we come up with some type of decision – we’re going to buy Brand X.

Now, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes things interfere with our decisions — we don’t have the money, we can’t find our preferred brand in the store, we can’t get credit, or someone talks us out of it. In fact, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that there’s only a weak correlation between what we intend to do and actually accomplishing that purchase. It seems to me we should spend more time understanding why we’re so bad at actually following through on our purchase decisions, since marketers have spend a lot of effort (and money) getting us to that stage in the first place.

5. Post-purchase evaluation – but, we’re not done when we make our purchase, we still have to decide whether we like the product (satisfaction) and whether we like the process we used to make our decision.

Finally, we may have to overcome some cognitive dissonance, which is just a fancy word for being scared we made the wrong decision.

If you’re interested in learning more about the consumer decision making process, here’s a more in-depth analysis.

How social media impacts consumer decision making

Just a few years ago, advertising had a significant impact on the consumer decision making process. Sure, word of mouth had a bigger impact on consumer buying decisions, but pre-social networks, word of mouth just didn’t travel very far.

Now, social media gives word of mouth wings. The impact of social media on awareness, brand attitudes, and social norms is so strong we often refer to viral marketing or buzz marketing to reflect tactics designed to stimulate positive word of mouth.

In fact, check out this book on Word of Mouth Marketing from some really smart people:

Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking

So, how do you use social media to move folks through the consumer decision making process? Here are some ideas:

1. Need recognition – like I said early, we’re a bundle of needs. Social media shapes those needs. When you see pictures of Hawaii posted by a friend on your wall, you NEED Hawaii — in fact, I’m booking a trip there in May after seeing a friend’s honeymoon pics (Jen Consalvo and Frank Gruber from Tech Cocktail — check out their stuff. It’s great for tech startups and VCs).

Social networks also create norms. For instance, when I did a project for Disney, we found folks engaged in some friendly competition over who had visited Disney the most. This set the norm that it’s not only appropriate to visit the parks several times a year, but that somehow you’re odd if you don’t. That obviously increases revenue.

2. Information search – this is the most obvious impact on consumer buying decisions from social media. Folks ask friends for recommendation on social networks or consult social networks such as Yelp for evaluations before buying a product.

And friends offer unsolicited recommendation either directly, through their endorsement of the brand, or indirectly, by showing images of them with the brand or checking in at the location using apps like Foursquare.

4. Decision – yeah, I know I skipped 3. That’s because I’m not sure social media has a big impact on evaluations — the weighing of alternatives. But, heck. Maybe social networks impact evaluations by encouraging more emotional and less cognitive factors in the process.

Social media impacts consumers decisions because friends can help you find the brand you decided to buy, talk you out of it if they don’t agree, maybe even help find a way to pay for the item. Social media either helps overcome obstacles or puts more obstacles in the way of buyers who’ve decided on a purchase.

5. Post-purchase evaluations – social media has a big impact on cognitive dissonance. Let’s say you just bought a new car and a friend posts about a different new car they just bought and how wonderful it is. Cognitive dissonance.

Or, you just spent some money on a new dress and now your friends are talking about taking a ski trip next weekend, but you don’t have the money. Cognitive dissonance.

Or, you post an image of yourself in the new dress and everyone either tells you it’s ugly or ignores your post — because if you can’t say something nice, just don’t say anything.

How marketers can benefit from understanding the consumer decision making process

Duh. Isn’t it obvious.

Marketers need to understand the consumer decision making process in order to aid consumers in deciding to buy their brand — just one of the many reasons you should use a MARKETER to do your social media marketing NOT a journalist, an IT wiz (web design or business intelligence), or your cousin who has a great Facebook profile. You need to understand what’s going on in consumers’ heads to optimize your return.

Understanding the consumer decision making process and developing social media tactics to make sure your brand is making the cut at each stage in the process will propel your brand to the top.

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