There was a time we lived without a widespread information infrastructure, one where you couldn’t gain instant access to required information even if you tried. No internet providers, search engines, or publicly published reviews.
In those years, brands were somewhat in full control of how they wanted their stories to be told. They owned it. Today, with thousands of internet providers worldwide, almost 200 search engines, and other customer information sources, that control is thinned. Customers have access to information and feedback from friends, families, even competitors, on what they have to say about products or brands and might believe them over product owners.
Consumers now rely on technology to choose their preferred product. According to GE Capital Retail Bank, 81% of retail shoppers conduct online research before buying. This means an overwhelming majority of retail consumers start their journey with online research. Consumers go through a rather interesting but predictable decision journey. First, they recognize the need, also known as problem identification. This happens when a potential consumer identifies a need or encounters a problem and thinks of a product or service that may solve it.
The next stage of the process is information search. An information search may be internal or external. An internal search is based on memory, prior knowledge, conversations or experience with previously used products. An external search is when there is no prior knowledge about the product and consumer seeks information from external sources such as friends and family members, internet, circle of influence, relevant groups etc.
At the information search stage, the consumer tries to establish two things;
Customers with a purchase intent embrace the choice rule. Nobody wants to feel restricted or manipulated. The more options are available, the higher the chance of purchasing the best product and getting value for money spent.
In a Qualtrics survey, 93% of customers said they read online reviews before buying a product. To get a sense of how products have fared from the customer’s perception, reviews are considered the most momentous social evidence and may directly or indirectly impact purchase decisions. The positive ones strengthen the brand’s credibility and reliability, while the bad reviews instill doubt, hesitation and result in revenue loss.
Although spotting fake purchases and fabricated reviews might be difficult, sites like Amazon make it tougher by ensuring reviews are based on verified purchases.
The next stage in the consumer decision process is evaluation of alternatives. The consumer’s information search leads to alternatives and will be evaluated in order to make a decision. At the evaluation stage, certain attributes are influential in the decision- making process. Organizations must identify such attributes and position their products as such. In addition to alternatives considered during information search, consumers will include an evoked set; brands that automatically come to mind after a need recognition.
The last 2 stages of the process are purchase and post-purchase behavior. At the purchase stage, the consumer decides to opt for a particular product and pays for it. The consumer’s post purchase behavior is determined my satisfaction or dissatisfaction after product use. This is very crucial, as it determines whether there will be a repeat purchase and customers will become loyalists and advocates, or will never come back and never recommend. In fact, there may be another stage where consumers develop cognitive dissonance, and hold conflicting ideas or feelings against the product, following dissatisfaction.
Of all the highlighted stages, information search and evaluation are the most important for marketing professionals to increase sales, though post purchase behavior determines whether a customer is retained. If a product does not make it into the considerations set, it stands no chance to be purchased.
Apart from reviews, other factors considered by online searchers and used for a base for comparison are price.
In the next few paragraphs, I’d be highlighting how technological advancement has influenced how customers search for product information, and how marketing professionals can take advantage to innovate and drive competitive advantage.
Search Engines (Horizontal and Vertical)
Search engine technologies have significantly impacted how customers seek and receive information after recognizing a need. Consumers now rely on search engines so much that a world without them seems unimaginable. Oftentimes the search focuses on 3 things; the product, the problem and the geographical location.
Search engines are programs that search for and identify items in a database that correspond to keywords or characters specified by the user, used especially for finding particular sites on the World Wide Web.
Though Google does not share its search volume data, according to Hubspot, it’s estimated the search engine processes approximately 63,000 search queries every second, translating to 5.6 billion searches per day and approximately 2 trillion global searches per year.
Consequently, brands must strategically position products in ways that enhance visibility on search result pages. Implementing Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing are great ways to get started. SEO strategies include, on-page, off-page (backlinks), technical and content marketing. While SEM, fully depends on pay per click advertising platforms.
Though mainstream search engines like Google and Bing control the market, there are vertical search engines such as skyscanner.net, and momundo.com, used for specific information search and are dedicated to a particular area of focus or industry. Vertical search engines have proven to be effective touchpoints.
Additional ways to improve search visibility include image optimization, improving meta tags, and keyworded headlines.
Mobile search accounts for about 65% of all search volume, according to Broad Brand Search. These days, smartphones are like the air we breathe. Smartphones users use their devices to retrieve information, relieve boredom or to help in emergencies, so they keep it close.
Thus, mobile plays a huge role in product information search and evaluation activities. A problem or need can be identified on the move, and consumers want to have immediate access to required information and available options. Mobile is their best bet.
Though browsing behavior may differ from one device to another, mobile users are usually goal-oriented in their search and want to move ahead quickly compared to desktop users. Consumers do not only use their smartphones for product search, they also use it for purchase, especially on e-commerce sites. Sometimes, mobile search may be their first step before a walk into the physical store or purchase on the desktop.
Amending and optimizing SEO strategy specifically for mobile is crucial to product visibility and being found. to reflect that mobile search is commonly used to find different kinds of information. During information search, businesses with the best mobile compatibility are favored by search engines and receive the top spots on search engine result pages. This further indicates that businesses need a highly mobile optimized and friendly website.
Price comparison, reviews, store proximity
Optimizing products and services for mobile will require prioritizing mobile user experience. Ranking for desktop and mobile are quite different.
Here are some mobile optimization strategies. Consistent content across desktop and mobile, testing multiple browsers and devices, and using mobile video best practices,
Voice trends are reshaping the search landscape, and this is because talking is by far easier for consumers than typing. By at-internet’s definition, voice search is a technology that allows the user to use a voice command to perform a search on the Internet, a website or an application.
Though there are other devices such as watches and TVs, smartphones and smart speakers are currently the most popular devices among voice search users, and are powered by digital assistants that are AI-powered and respond to voice commands.
The most popular ones include Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), Assistant (Google), Bixby (Samsung) and Cortana (Microsoft). What do consumers who use voice search want? Speed, accuracy, and efficiency.
Voice search is more popular in the western world, 27% of the global online population uses voice search on their mobile devices (Global Web Index, 2018). According to data from Think with Google, more than a quarter of the online population of the world is now using voice search on mobile.
To be considered as an option following a voice search, marketer professionals should considerately integrate a voice search strategy into their websites. To optimize your website for voice search.
1. Use long-tail keywords
2. Set up likely questions/queries as content.
3. Use conversational content strategy
4. Update your Google my business profile.
5. Use H tags and an inverted pyramid structure
As consumers continue to expand their knowledge base by actively searching for information through technology, companies have a more difficult role to play, in ensuring their brands are not only visible but also opted for.
About the Author
Oluwaseun Adebola is a global marketing executive and strategic communicator. He writes from Lagos