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Search's Role in the Buying Cycle

Kevin M. Ryan
Search's Role in the Buying Cycle Kevin M. Ryan

If you can build it, they will find a way to buy it somewhere else. The question of how search affects buying behavior, brand awareness and perception along with purchase points is an ongoing debate for most marketers.

Without question, when a prospective buyer is investigating a product or service, the buyer will often turn to a search box for answers. Investigating the purchase doesn’t mean the purchase is made online, though. In fact, there is a pretty good chance your marketing dollars have influenced a purchase elsewhere.

The point of purchase question is a subject that comScore research has sought to answer for some time. Dating back to mid-2004 and more recently last week, comScore has accumulated data to help provide some intelligence and a view into the mind of online buyers.

What we knew about search and offline buying
The last time we approached the subject of online/offline buying behavior, many advertisers in the search world were surprised to hear that more than 90 percent of transactions were completed offline. The last round of observational data was collected in the Q1, 2004 time period using comScore’s panel in the consumer electronics category.

A key finding beyond the offline transaction behavior was the revelation that users conducted multiple searches and visited multiple sites before making a purchase. Only 15 percent of purchases occurred in the same session as the search and 40 percent of purchases were made up to and beyond 12 weeks later.

Advertisers could argue that category-specific buying behavior reports are more effective than generic observations about the industry at large. Also, those who partake in search engine marketing or advertising would argue that with a multitude of response mechanisms available, studying buying behavior for each campaign will ultimately provide the best answer as to which purchase method users tend to prefer.

The new and improved offline conversion
The latest round of comScore intelligence was a report sponsored by Google (although 24 major search engines were observed) and released last week. Of the 83 million Americans or so searching and buying in the 2005 Holiday season, it seems a large portion decided to make a purchase offline.

One of the key differentiators in this round of reporting was insight into multiple category-specific response behavior. For example, in the incredibly competitive Jewelry category only about 15 percent of visits resulted in a purchase and only 25 percent of those converted online.

On the other end of the search-to-conversion spectrum, shoppers looking for apparel purchased at a much higher rate-- 43 percent converted into a purchase and 37 percent of those purchases occurred online. In the Video Games and Consoles category only seven percent of a total 17 percent of purchasers decided to complete the transaction.

The wide variances in purchase behavior by category provide us with a few important details.

Conclusions in the eye of advertisers
First, in spite of advances in technological ways to get in touch with a product online via enhanced imaging or secured purchase authentications, buyers still want to go offline to complete a transaction. Video gamers may not want to wait for a product to ship for example, but there are going to be other mitigators. 

Second, in as much as we would like to think our online stores make a connection with buyers, certain items demand a visit to a retailer. You can tell a buyer exactly what a sweater looks like, what it is made of and what other products go well with it but nothing can replace the “try four sizes on and buy one” method of buying. 

Third, although one category (Consumer Electronics) showed a slight decline in offline transactions from 92 percent in 2004 to 86 percent in 2005, clearly advances in creating a rich online experience are no replacement for a buyer’s desire to look, touch and purchase in person. 

What can you do?
Start by learning how your potential audience would prefer to reach out to you and balance that with expectations on your end. We know that many potential buyers prefer to use the telephone in taking the next step towards purchase completion but that doesn’t mean dialing in is the end-all-be-all for completing a transaction.

The advent and subsequent expansion of pay-per-call has provided an avenue for reaching out to buyers but the high cost of communicating with humans is prohibitive for many marketers. Tracking offline conversions is complicated in the telephone world and requires dedicated response systems.

Use technology to your advantage, but don’t forget human nature. The very notion of shopping online requires multiple searches and contact points. Ease of site transition, advances in search efficiency and connection speeds means that everything beyond tea bags and bathroom tissue has become a considered purchase.

If purchase behavior indicates a need for an offline transaction, seek to accommodate buyers with that which they desire. Generous return policies, discounted shipping and in-store pickups are great ways to help close the deal.

There are many tools that you can use to qualify advertising spending. Connect the purchase dots with cross channel tactics. Allow the use of multiple tracking mechanisms and attribute purchase behavior to the correct source or sources.

If search is merely a facilitator in the purchase process, treat it as such when communicating with buyers and they will thank you with a transaction in the method they choose.

Roll with the changes
As these studies show us, there is more to search than what we can discover trolling in the waters off direct conversion metrics bay. Beyond the obvious impetus (spend more money on search) for completing research of this nature, the lesson is pretty clear; you can lead them to the web but they will buy wherever they please-- be there when they do.

Kevin Ryan is search editor for iMedia Connection and managing partner at Kinetic Results. .


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