One of the occupational hazards of so much blogging on such a cutting edge area as e-business is that we are often commenting on developments that there isn’t yet any market data (read ‘hard evidence’) on.
So swift is the adoption and so low the barriers to entry that a new development is being tried and tested by businesses before you can say ‘Mark Zuckerberg’.
And this is before there is much in the way of research statistics and data.
So it was in the absence of such hard data that some time back (mid last year in fact) I flagged the notion of Facebook being the new Yellow Pages.
Not so much because of its clever advertising product, but because consumers were turning to their Friends via social networks to garner their opinions on all kinds of products and services.
Instead of relying on the advertisers own claims about their product and service, social networkers were getting real life testimonials and opinions from the people they trusted most, their Friends.
Little did I realise that only 18 months later, this cheeky claim was on the cusp of being the reality.
Now for the evidence
Because just last week in industry bible eMarketer, the results of reputable Forrester Consulting’s survey into online brand research reported that social networks were about to overtake search engines as sources social network users turn to when researching brands.
Whilst search engines were still the overall preferred research tool with 40% of respondents using it, social networks were nipping at its heels at 37%.
So within just a few short years, social networking has come out of the blue to challenge the product research mainstay, search engines, as the ‘go to’ technology for finding out more about a product or service you are considering purchasing – at least to social networkers, which constitute a fairly hefty proportion of the population (more than 60% at last count – more if you include YouTube users).
This represents not just a change in preferred provider, but a fundamental change in purchase behaviour.
From ‘find a provider’ to ‘iPhone your Friends’
Instead of relying on what have been predominantly advertiser-driven media to research products and services, now they could turn to their Friends in numbers not previously possible.
And all the research I’ve seen says that consumers trust their friends a lot more than advertisers.
That’s all well and good, but what has that got to do with your small business?
The answer is ‘more than you can imagine’.
Spawning positive word of mouse
With consumers turning to their Friends for advice on the best product or service to use, businesses of all shapes and sizes need to work extra hard to ensure they deliver and ideally over-deliver to ensure that this burgeoning ‘word of mouse’ promotion goes their way instead of their competitors’.
Only those that meet and exceed customer expectations can expect to take advantage of this free and increasingly valuable promotion.
What it also means is that once again, the power has moved decisively back into the hands (or fingers) of consumers.
Quality the new currency
Because if we are turning to our Friends for recommendations of the best products and services to buy, traditional advertising – either mass branding or the more ‘directional’ (directory) Google and Yellow Pages is going to have less impact than it once did.
Whilst companies could buy up as much TV, radio, directory and search engine space as they could to influence your purchase decision in the past, no amount of advertising expenditure is going to alter the views of your besties when it comes to recommending a product or service.
Instead, it is only those that provide genuine quality in the provision of the product or service that its customers will willingly promote, particularly when your Friendship, or at least your reputation, is essentially at stake.
And for those of us without access to huge advertising budgets, it gives us a small opportunity to be promoted on our merits rather than the depth of our pockets.
Not that advertising is going away quickly or quietly. But they may have to work that little bit harder to persuade us to consider them above those our Friends have suggested.
In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs.