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I cut out on SES early to head to Denver to observe a focus group conducted by our research partner ConStat, Inc. The point was to find out anecdotal information about consumer behavior, the purchase cycle for both products and local service businesses and the relationship between online research and offline buying.

Behind the glass wall with me was John Kelsey, as well as representatives of Dex Media and Aptas, both based here in Denver. We're going to show an edited version of the group at Drilling Down in Santa Clara, but I'll provide some high- level takeaways.

We had a pretty diverse group of 10 (gender, ethnicity) in the room. They were all high-speed access users, with at least 10 to 15 hours of personal time online outside of work.

These folks LOVED doing price comparison shopping online. And they were all over the place: they bought online, in stores and visited many many sites in their research process. Can you say "fragmentation"? In the product category, there were a few things that distinguished their online purchasing from offline buying behavior.

The average purchase cycle for them, depending on the intended item, was from one week to one month–relatively short. We didn't ask them about specific categories of products or services in detail 'cause we were covering a ton of ground. The degree of consideration involved (and cost) would of course impact the cycle and the amount of research performed. But I was surprised how generally compressed their timeframes appeared to be.

As I mentioned, these people went to many, many sites. In addition, they went to stores to look at products (furniture, electronics, clothes, cosmetics), they used verticals, shopping sites, search engines, talked to friends (online and off) and read online reviews. (In fewer cases, they used IYP. However, if we had pushed harder on the services category we probably would've gotten stronger mention of IYP.)

The online word of mouth phenomenon was a very interesting aspect of this group–the degree to which they talked about user-generated content (ratings/reviews) as a factor in their decision making.

Without exception, they wanted this content and trusted it in most cases. And this group trusted consumer/user-generated content more than "expert" or "editorial" reviews in most cases. Get ready for this: 6 out of 10 had actually written reviews themselves.

Another suprise: The importance of pictures and visual information. Many people have dismissed A9's visual YP effort as novelty. But these people wanted to see pictures of everything, including the dentist and the guy with the wrench who's going to fix the toilet. As you might expect, the desire for visual information was especially strong in the product category.

They all used search engines very routinely, but by no means exclusively. That was the starting point when they didn't know what they might be looking for, how much something should cost or where to find something.

These people were also aware of search engine advertising but very seldom responded to it. A few didn't like the mixing of paid and unpaid results.

They also generally avoided directory assistance as a vehicle to find local businesses. And, as sophisticated as they were about Web sites and the Internet, only one person in the group (actually the boyfriend of a person in the group) used wireless devices to find local businesses.

One can't really generalize from anything we heard. But some of the things said and attitudes expressed are consistent with data we have and other focus groups we've conducted. It will be very interesting to compare some of this anecdotal information with new, empirical consumer data that we're collecting right now.

More to be discussed later and at the conference.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Right. And that's been true on Amazon and in other contexts. I think that, for example, in the case of Trip Advisor, people look for a consensus view of a hotel rather than relying on any one opinion (because of the anonymity issue). And there were people who explicitly said as much last night.

    So it's a more acute potential problem where there are fewer reviews. But if there are a larger number I think the problem goes away.

    You see a version of what you're talking about with marketers trying to pay or otherwise manipulate bloggers to provide favorable opinions/views of particular topics or products.

  2. If user ratings/reviews grows, a "rating/review fraud" issue is of concern: i.e., "real users" may actually be company representatives either giving positive notices to themselves or negative notices to competitors.

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