Downgrading the sales effectiveness of social networks seems to be the trendy thing to do these days.

A recent report by Knowledge Networks found that social media doesn’t drive purchases — or at least, that customers don’t think it does. The survey results indicated that less than 5% of social media users say they regularly turn to social media for guidance on purchase decisions, and only 16% of social media users say they are more likely to buy from companies that advertise on social sites. Some blogs are citing the report as evidence that social media doesn’t drive purchases, chalking social commerce up to no more than hype.

The fact is, social commerce is about much more than a corporate brand presence on Facebook or Twitter. Successful social media marketing is about soliciting structured feedback relevant to shopping and buying, and making this feedback available to customers making purchase decisions.

Getting useful feedback on your product and brand

The first step to driving sales through social media is to build a collection of rich, structured feedback relevant to your customers. Enable customers to contribute their experiences with your brand and products, and reward them for their contributions.

Jon Nordmark, founder and CEO of eBags, had a number of useful insights on encouraging contribution at this year’s Social Commerce Summit. Jon found that while promotions are always a great way to drive reviews and traffic, a simple “thank you” can turn a one-time reviewer into an influencer. Recognize your top reviewers individually and on your site to keep them contributing and encourage new reviewers.

Making feedback available to shoppers making purchase decisions

Once you have relevant feedback, place it where your prospects will be influenced by it. Input and opinions from people like them help consumers cut through the clutter and find what they’re looking for. Including ratings and reviews on product pages allows customers to read about products in their own language, building trust in your offering and encouraging shoppers to buy.

David Tice, Vice President and Group Account Director for Knowledge Networks, drew an important conclusion from the social media study. “Social media users do not have a strong association between these sites and purchase decisions,” Tice said. “They see them as being more about personal connections – so finding ways to embrace that powerful function is key.”

While consumers may not get on Facebook looking for ads or corporate profiles, their peers’ opinions do influence them. Customers want the opinions of people like them; leverage their personal social networks to promote your brand. ShoutIt! allows customers to easily share their reviews and feedback with their existing social media networks. Customers can then promote their opinions to those they influence most – their networks of friends on their Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and del.ici.ous accounts.

Bazaarvoice clients know firsthand the positive impact of user-generated content on sales. Your customers are your best marketers; empower them to make social media work for your brand.ShoutIt! lets customers share reviews across their social networks.