May 18, 2008

The Internet and Consumer Choice

Conclusion

The role of online information in how people buy products is not always consistent with expectations. This concluding section discusses how online resources fit, or don’t fit, into people’s shopping patterns.

The internet plays a central role for enjoying music after purchase, but it plays a lesser role in the music people choose and how they consume it.

With the need to find out a lot about music before a purchase, it is not surprising that people use a range of sources for research. However, the internet is just one among several popular ways to learn of music, trailing by a wide margin hearing a song on the radio, on television, or in a movie, and also behind learning about music by word-of-mouth from family, friends, or co-workers. Even for music-buying adults under the age of 36, traditional means of finding out about music outpace online resources (by a 90% to 70% margin), although the internet clearly plays an important role.

Music buyers are active users of cyberspace after they have purchased music, with half of online music buyers having done something online to find out more about music they have bought. Given the communal nature of enjoying music, this post-purchase online engagement is to be expected. What is interesting, particularly for young adults, is the direct route people take to the artist. Some 45% of “under 36” adult music buyers say they have gone to the website of the artist after purchase, more than the share that read blogs about the artist (33%). In general, there are not large numbers of posting reviews of music or posting music to social networking sites, but these figures are somewhat larger for adult music buyers under the age of 36. Some 16% of “under 36” adult music buyers post their music to a social networking sites and 10% of this group post reviews or ratings of music they buy.

These young adult music buyers are also taking a direct online route to artists before buying music. Nearly half (46%) of music-buying internet users between the ages of 18 and 35 listen to free online samples of music and 41% go to the website of the artist, band, or record label. And one-third (31%) go to the MySpace profile of the artist, band, or record label.

Even though music buyers take advantage of direct online routes to artists, they consult other voices as well, such as friends and traditional media, and they report that non-online sources are more influential in their purchase decisions. This suggests that the traditional gatekeepers of the music-buying experience face stiff competition for the attention of customers. The complete unbundling of music buying is not happening, at least on a widespread basis, as 69% of young adult music-buyers say they buy most or all of their music on CDs, while 23% say their purchases are mostly or entirely digital downloads.

This is not to say that the internet is not disruptive to the music industry. In a business accustomed to selling its product in stores on compact disks, even 12% of all music buyers switching to mostly or entirely digital purchasing is a significant change.

Nonetheless, the persistence of offline means for learning about and discussing music is a surprising finding of this study. The relatively large impact of online resources post-purchase shows that the participatory internet plays a critical role in sharing the music experience.

Online information is influential for cell phone buyers as they do comparison shopping. In addition to consulting websites of vendors, they also go to stores and consult salespeople as they sort through options.

The cell phone largely conforms to expectations about how online information would influence buyers’ decisions. People take advantage of the internet to explore their options (39% do) and within this group, many report that something they found online influenced the choice they made.

At the same time, perhaps because a cell phone has a plethora of technical features, people are drawn to expertise associated with traditional gatekeepers. More people consult a salesperson (59%) or go to a cell phone store (46%) than use the internet (39%) when considering a cell phone purchase. Among those using the internet to gather information, three-quarters (76%) go to websites of cell phone manufacturers or phone companies. Even post-purchase activity has a traditional feel. Among those who need to troubleshoot a phone once they’ve bought it, most use the owner’s manual (68%). Just 11% of online users consult the internet to address the problem and 7% look for experiences of others that might be posted online.

Nonetheless, cell phone buyers carefully scrutinize their choice even as they rely on traditional sources of expertise. Some 59% of those who use the internet to get information use websites to compare features of cell phones and half read reviews of cell phones on websites or blogs.

On balance, cell phone buyers are satisfied with their devices. Three-quarters (78%) of cell buyers say they felt they had the right amount of information in considering their purchase and 87% are either somewhat or very satisfied with the cell phone they bought. Notably, there is not a lot of chatter online for cell phone users once they buy their device. Just 4% say they post a review about their phone and 7% look online for others’ experience with the phone.

In sum, getting expert advice before a cell phone purchase is a priority for consumers. Much of that advice comes from salespeople and websites of vendors. At the same time, cell phone buyers reach out to other sources for reviews and product comparisons.

Online information reduces search costs for people looking for a new place to live, but online resources supplement buyers’ toolkit. They don’t substitute for offline resources.

People looking for a new place to live – especially those moving to a new city – rely very much on the internet for their real estate searching, but not to the exclusion of other means. Although half of real estate searchers start out by using the internet to get information, roughly the same share uses the newspaper or real estate agents. For those moving to new cities, the internet is more heavily relied upon than it is for in-town movers, but so too is a real estate agent.

As expected, the internet helps with reducing search costs; some 57% of real estate searchers say online information reduced the number of homes they looked at during their quest for a new place to live.

Overall, the internet plays an important supplementary role in how people find a place to live. This comes across clearly when people are moving to a new city, when uncertainty is likely to be at its highest. People strongly rely on the internet for their search (60% do), but they also use real estate agents to guide them through the process (55% do). The internet is not replacing traditional means to find a place to live, just giving real estate searchers another tool.

After they move to their new place, the internet is not widely used as a means to get acquainted with a new place; just 13% of people who moved in the previous year joined a neighborhood listserv, posted comments about the neighborhood to a website, discussed their new place at an online community, or commented on those with whom they dealt in getting their new place to live.

For real estate, people do not use online resources to circumvent traditional means of finding a place to live, but they do use the internet to conduct their search more efficiently.