To what extent do you think consumers are influenced by what they see or read on social media sites?
It is a good question, but unfortunately, I think it is the wrong one. The truth is that you don't have to read blogs or participate in social media networking at all in order to be influenced by it.
In fact, if you look at Pew Internet Research you will find that only a very tiny fraction of the populace (albeit a growing slice) are currently knowingly consuming blogs and social media. Their most recent study found that 6% of US adults have created blogs and 16% of them read blogs.
In spite of that, I still think that social media greatly influences the general public in three ways:
Passionate and knowledgeable new media creators and bloggers are followed by mainstream media. Bloggers and other social media content creators are increasingly seen as niche experts and asked to comment in mainstream media as pundits and sources for print, radio and television.
Example: Take a look at a recent issue where a less-than-top-ranked blogger had a run-in with Target PR staff that ended up on the pages of the New York Times. Or for that matter look at any newscast and you will most likely see bloggers interviewed or quoted.
Search Loves Social Media
In much of my focus group research I do for clients, people consistently report that they start their Internet experience on a search engine (read: Google). Social media content is often high in the results for search phrases and people visit that may not even know they are getting information from a blog.
Example: In my blog, about 60 percent of my traffic comes from people searching for phrases such as principles of public relations, social media trends, public relations trends and grassroots mobilization.
Amazon's customer rating system, which I consider a form of social media, set off an expectation that anyone could share their purchase experience with other potential consumers. This expectation has spread and broadened so that many people have an expectation that their opinion should should be heard. This expectation, more than any technology, is driving the demand for platforms where people can network and share their opinions. Even if a person doesn't participate in social networking or online content creation, many look at this content as critical to making intelligent purchasing decisions.
Example: Long before I became a blogger, I often Googled “X company sucks” to read what was out there before I made a purchasing decision.
Taken together, you would never have to read a single blog or participate in a single social network to be influenced by social media content.