Meet Jill, a 25-year-old urbanite who is above average in her social media consumption (the average person spends roughly two hours a day cruising through their friends’ feeds — Jill spends about five to six hours a day).

But a few weeks ago, Jill needed new shoes. “I had a beach wedding to attend, followed by a music festival, and I wanted something that could work for both,” she says.

Here’s where Jill blushes: “Well, I guess I didn’t really need new shoes — I have a bunch.” So, why the newfound want?

“I just kept seeing these really cute sandals on Instagram — it seemed like all of the fashion influencers I follow on social had them.” she tells us. “More than that, I kept seeing friends and friends of friends with them. So eventually, I clicked on the photo to see what brand was tagged and then followed it.”

A week later, Jill had a pair of new sandals.

How did that happen? Is social media really that effective at driving consumer behavior, and, if so, why?

word-of-mouth marketing

Social media is a magnifying glass for word-of-mouth marketing

To answer the first question: yes, all of those overhead food photos and selfies are extremely effective at driving consumer behavior. More importantly, social media has become the newest form of product reviews. When someone, whether it is an average Joe customer or a high-profile influencer, posts about your business on social media, the impact can be immediate and far reaching.

That’s the takeaway from our recent study in which we surveyed more than 3,000 people about their interactions with online shopping, visual content, and social media platforms. Customer content shared on social media is playing a more important role in shaping shopper decisions. Like our friend Jill, 57% of respondents say they bought a product they first heard about on social media.

By itself, this isn’t exactly a revelation. It’s 2017 and surprise: people spend a lot of time online, and, oh yeah, social media is kind of a big deal. Brands and retailers have long known the power of word-of-mouth marketing — in fact, a study from AdWeek found that 92% of people say word-of-mouth marketing is crucial in purchasing decisions.

The critical point here is scale: In the physical world, it’s hard to tell 1,000 people about how great a product is, but on social media, it’s much easier. We found that daily social media users spend $400 more per month on average than non-daily users. In short, if word-of-mouth marketing is like a fire spreading from customer to customer, social media is the lighter fluid.

What’s more, real customers can play a more valuable role in fanning this flame than hired influencers or celebrities. Our research showed that:

  • 56% of respondents said they trust their peers more than brands when it comes to making buying decisions
  • 65% of consumers trust a brand more if it links to social media posts from real customers
  • 66% of consumers are more likely to purchase a product if the website has social media posts with pictures and videos from real customers

In short, it’s pretty clear that social media can inform — and drive — buying decisions. And when companies engage with and capitalize on social media posts from their customers, they can speed up the process.

The psychology behind “Instagram made me do it”

But survey results aside, what’s the science behind this phenomenon? What is happening in our brains when we see a cool, new product or an aesthetically pleasing restaurant on social media?

It turns out, there are two key cognitive behavioral explanations that help uncover why social media-based word of mouth works: the frequency illusion and the mere-exposure effect.

Let’s start with the frequency illusion, which is sometimes called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. If you’ve ever bought a car only to suddenly realize everyone seems to have the same car you have, you’ve experienced the frequency illusion.

A few things happen here: First, you get excited about either getting — or learning — something new. Then, at the subconscious level, your brain starts searching for that thing in other places. And generally, once you start looking for something, you find it.

“To make it all the more powerful, confirmation bias occurs after seeing it even once or twice,” says. “In other words, you start agreeing with yourself that, yup, you’re definitely seeing it more.”

Next, comes the mere-exposure effect. First devised by the social psychologist Robert Zajonc in the 1960s, the mere-exposure effect explains how repeated exposure to a person, product, brand, place, or just about anything else makes people associate the thing in question with positive feelings.

This is the key idea behind pretty much any awareness campaign — repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds positive feelings.

It’s also a key idea behind incorporating customer-generated social media content into product and category pages. Instead of seeing several curated pictures of the product, a potential customer sees a bunch of photos of the products used by different, real people in different ways. Again, repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds positive feelings.

Remember Jill? Remember how she saw those new sandals on social media and then kept seeing them?

The first part of that story was the frequency illusion. By seeing something once, Jill was more likely to notice it again, in this case, in social posts from influencers and friends. The second part was the mere-exposure effect: After seeing the same pair again and again, Jill developed positive feelings about those shoes. Taken together, you get Jill buying the sandals.

The biggest takeaway from this armchair psychology, anecdotal evidence, and our own research: Visual consumer-generated content is just as important as offline word of mouth at driving consumer confidence. And as social media and visual shopping explodes — and as the social shopper continues to spend more — customer-generated visual content is poised to surpass word of mouth. (Again, think of scale: Can you yell at more people about your favorite restaurant or tell more people about it online?)

For more research about how social media and visual consumer-generated content intersect with online shopping, download our latest e-book: Content Strategy for the Visual Consumer.

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