When do shoppers trust strangers?

I’m at TED this week, and I’ve been thinking about the extraordinary rise of and rush to Facebook. During the Executive Afternoon at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, Josh Goldman of Norwest Venture Partners surprised the room when he downplayed the value of customer reviews, saying Facebook friends will matter far more than strangers. Shoppers know their friends, he said, so a friend’s opinion is more trustworthy than a stranger’s. I’m excited to discuss this idea with Josh next week – we’ll both be on the Shop.org Innovate keynote venture capital panel in San Francisco. For now, I’ll share my thoughts here.

I absolutely agree – as we all do at Bazaarvoice – that recommendations from friends (here meaning social network connections) are trusted among shoppers. That’s why we’ve enabled shoppers to filter content to find reviews from their Facebook friends. That’s also why we’ve integrated our products with Facebook, to collect reviews, answers, and stories from users on the social network. And that’s also one of the reasons Facebook is keynoting our Social Commerce Summit in April.

So yes, shoppers trust their friends’ opinions. That doesn’t make them the only trustworthy opinions shoppers seek. And all friends start out as strangers.

Word of whose mouth?

We may call our Facebook connections “friends,” but the social network is mostly powered by “strangers.” The average Facebook user has 130 friends, which for most is well above the number of truly trusted friends they consult with on a regular basis – Malcolm Gladwell documented this fact in The Tipping Point. The remainder are casual acquaintances whose input may be no more reliable or valuable than opinions from complete strangers.

The basic concept of word of mouth assumes that strangers’ opinions matter. How many times have you seen a movie because your friend “heard it was good”? Who did they hear it from – someone who saw the movie, or someone else who heard it was good? Recommendations flow through networks of people, influencing people the original recommender has never met.

Arguing that friends’ opinions are the only opinions future shoppers will seek ignores important context and age-old human behavior, dating back to the original tribes and bazaars. Consider the following shopping scenarios.

You need an expert. For some purchases, shoppers want more experienced recommendations than their friends may be able to provide. No one (I hope) signs a lease on a Honda Civic solely because a friend recommends it. For some buying decisions, especially highly-considered or highly-expensive purchases, a friend’s opinion alone won’t be enough to convince a shopper to buy – they need an expert.

Your needs or preferences are different than your friends’. If your friend uses their phone mostly for texting and checking social networks, but you need a phone for viewing business presentations while traveling, the same phone may not be best for both of you. Not all friends have the same needs, and shoppers won’t always have a friend who shares theirs. The Internet gives shoppers access to people like them, using a product the way the shopper hopes to use it.

You’re just browsing for something new. The wisdom of crowds is especially powerful in enabling the discovery of new needs and wants. Say, like me, you like Nine Inch Nails (lead singer Trent Reznor was behind the Oscar-winning score to The Social Network), and you’re looking for new music. According to Amazon, people who like NIN tend to like Modwheelmood. This recommendation is generated by the opinions and purchase behavior of complete strangers who happen to share your music tastes. Who cares if your friends haven’t heard of the new band?

You want to be different. Some shoppers may even prefer that their friends haven’t heard of a new band, product, or service. Many consumers get a sense of satisfaction from being the “first” in a group to like or buy something – look at the popularity of exclusive online shopping sites and secret sales, or the shared desire of men and women to be brand insiders online. There is a lot of social satisfaction for some in being the maven – the go-to source of knowledge about whatever brand, interest, or place suits you. Dmitri Siegel, VP of Marketing for Urban Outfitters, echoed this at our last Summit: many of UO’s target customers want to be the only person in their circle of friends wearing a certain garment. Reviews from strangers help them find clothes from people like them like, without replicating their friends’ closets.

Your privacy is a concern. Even among friends, privacy can be a concern. Shoppers don’t necessarily want their friends to know everything about their buying activity. This could be due to the sensitivity of what they’re purchasing – maybe you don’t want your friends to know you’re looking for the best dandruff shampoo – or it may come from a desire to be unique, as previously discussed. Opinions from strangers online help these shoppers find the right products for them, while maintaining the safety of anonymity.

Different decisions require different information, and shoppers can’t always get the information they need from their friends. Smart brands will gather as many customer opinions as they can to meet the needs of as many shoppers as possible, and work to make those opinions trustworthy – even though they’re from strangers. Incorporating Facebook can lead to greater influence (and therefore likelihood to buy) but it isn’t the panacea – nothing is, including customer reviews.

Update: Part 2 of this series has been posted, and is available here.

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2 Responses to “Friends vs. Strangers, Pt. 1: Whose opinions will shoppers trust?”

  1. AnonYmouse

    If people want to be different, I can guarantee you, the AREN’T on Facebook.

  2. Here is an interesting short video on Facebook’s usage, which Gill Felix, our Chief People Officer just sent me:

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