How Offline Messages Influence Online Behavior

You own a web site, and you optimize it for the search engines. You may also do some offline advertising. This means that you probably wonder if your offline messages are inspiring potential customers to search for you and find your web site. Fortunately, iProspect and JupiterResearch wondered the same thing.

In June of 2007, the two companies teamed up to conduct a survey of US search engine users. They wanted to find out how exposure to offline marketing messages affected searchers; specifically, they wanted to see if offline messages inspired them to perform online searches, and then to make purchases.

The web-based survey comprised about 25 multiple-choice questions that covered respondents’ “behaviors, attitudes, and preferences as they relate to games, digital imaging, portable devices, and service bundles,” according to iProspect. More than 2,300 individuals responded to the survey. The sample was large enough that the companies could balance it demographically to ensure it was representative of the online population as a whole. (The error margin, for those who keep track of this kind of thing, is plus or minus three percent).

iProspect used the first few questions to get a handle on how much their respondents used the Internet to search before getting to the meat of the survey. The answer to the first question is one of the most telling. Fifty-seven percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “performing searches on search engines has become more important to my use of the Internet over the last year.” That number increased to 72 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 24, and 71 percent for those with less than one year of experience online (no surprise there). These numbers didn’t skew the results, however; 55 percent of their older and more experienced counterparts agreed with the statement as well.

With searches growing in importance for more than half of the respondents, the answer to the next question should not have been a surprise. iProspect wanted to know how frequently users conducted online searches using a search engine in the past six months. About 54 percent of the sample performed daily searches – and for one-third of the overall sample, this meant multiple daily searches.

So iProspect established that their sample is heavily engaged in online search – they take it seriously, they do it frequently, and they see it growing in importance to the way they use the Internet. How much are these frequent online hunters influenced by what they see offline? After all, it seems pretty natural to do a search for something you see online; you’re already online, and with tabbed browsing  available in the most recent versions of both Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox, you don’t even need to lose your current screen.

Doing a search online after seeing something offline, however, may involve a change of venue – assuming users aren’t multitasking, sitting at the computer while watching TV for example. And indeed, as it turned out, in the past six months, one-third of the sample apparently wasn’t driven to perform searches by offline advertising messages.

Of course, that meant that two-thirds of the sample DID perform a search related to offline advertising. Of these, the most influential messages came from television (37 percent), word of mouth from friends and acquaintances (36 percent), and magazine/newspaper ads (30 percent). The finding was interesting in part because iProspect had predicted an even split; they expected half of their sample to be influenced to search from offline messages, and half to not be influenced to perform such searches. The actual question was worded thus: “Within the last six months, which of the following prompted you to go to a search engine and look for information on a particular company, product, service or slogan? (Select all that apply).”

As you might expect, those who are most accustomed to performing searches are most likely to perform a search in response to something they see or hear offline. Fully 44 percent of daily searchers reported performing a search in response to a television ad in the last six months, while 41 percent did so in response to word of mouth from a friend or an acquaintance. In fact, daily searchers were more likely than less frequent searchers to perform a search in response to an offline advertising message through every medium iProspect asked about – television, word of mouth, magazine/newspaper ad, company’s store/physical location, radio ad, billboard, ad/company name on company truck/van/car and ad/company name on taxi/train/city bus. After all, if you’re already moving naturally from offline to online on a daily basis, you’re more likely to remember and be curious about what you’ve seen offline – and search engines are often the quickest way to satisfy a person’s curiosity.

So what kinds of keywords are used for these searches? iProspect thought that about half of those performing searches that were inspired by offline messages would use “branded” keywords – keywords that contain either the company name or the name of one of its products or services. Once again, they underestimated. Fully 44 percent of searchers used all or part of a company name, and an additional 24 percent used all or part of a product or service name – for a total of 68 percent! Obviously, brand names are very influential when it comes to online searchers (a point we’ll return to later).

So far we’ve talked about what channels drive search engine users to satisfy their curiosity online, and what keywords they use to search. Let’s get to the bottom line: how many online searchers, after being influenced by offline advertising messages to perform searches, actually make a purchase? iProspect predicted that one in four, or 25 percent, would be motivated to buy something from the company they researched.

And once again, in what is becoming a strangely common theme, they underestimated. Fully 39 percent of online searchers actually went on to make a purchase. The offline channels that were most likely to result in a purchase after driving users to make a search were magazine/newspaper ads and word of mouth (30 percent for each). Obviously, iProspect asked this question only of the portion of their sample that said they had been influenced to perform a search after seeing an advertising message offline.

One conclusion we can draw from this data is the importance of both online and offline factors when it comes to selling a product or service. It seems clear that a person is more likely to buy something when they’re exposed to it in more than one media – and especially when they’re curious enough and motivated enough to seek it out themselves via a search engine. Some other very important implications can be drawn from this survey as well, as you’ll see in the next section.

When you combine the fact that users are saying that search is growing more important in their Internet activity, and that so many of them use branded keywords to search, it becomes obvious that “businesses need to assign growing importance to ensuring that their website is found by searchers,” according to iProspect (emphasis in original). “Failing to do so would equate to denial, and foolish disregard for the online population’s perspective on, and use of search.”

iProspect noted that many advertisers could do more to take advantage of the fact that 67 percent of searchers perform searches in response to offline advertising messages. More companies should prominently display or announce (or both) their web site’s URL in their advertising. After all, many already include the toll-free number; including the URL could reach a group that wants to collect more information before buying but doesn’t want to interact with an individual (read: salesman on a phone line) to gather it.

iProspect also noted that the two channels that are most effective at driving online search are a study in contrasts. Television is a mass market medium, and its advertising messages are invariably interruptions. iProspect speculates that TV commercials have a “curiosity-generating effect” that drives viewers to search for more information. Word of mouth, on the other hand, is “made up of many one-on-one conversations” in which someone more experienced with a company shares information with someone less experienced with the brand. The trust level is inherently higher for word-of-mouth advertising than it is for TV advertising.

Additionally, word-of-mouth advertising is not limited by time – an attribute it shares with the other medium that is most effective in driving searchers to make a purchase, namely magazine/newspaper ads. As iProspect observed, “Unlike a television or radio ad that is viewed or heard over a 30-60 second period and then is irretrievable by the viewer/listener, and unlike the billboard or outdoor or transportation channels that pass by as quickly as the vehicle is moving, messaging from print ads and word of mouth can be extended in time.” iProspect advocates utilizing the print channel and word of mouth “in a coordinated and consistent fashion with both organic and paid search campaigns” to increase conversions.

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