Study Finds Studies on Internet Influence Flawed

May 19, 2008

Sometimes it seems like much of the world has as much to learn as Senator Ted Stevens in discussing the Internet.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that the Internet influences consumer choice much less than “offline channels such as friends and sales personnel”, according to Yahoo. I see a couple big issues with that.

First, of course the influence is indirect. One rarely finds consumers who say ‘I would never have bought the product but that TV spot, billboard or magazine ad completely changed my mind.’ Are we holding the Web to different standards than other marketing channels?

Second, it relies on a false dichotomy of word of mouth vs word of mouse. This isn’t the first variant of ‘studies show that friends are more credible than the Internet’ that I’ve seen. Well, duh. Do you value equally advice from a close friend and a random email promising cheap pharmaceuticals?

But the Internet is a communication channel. Like the telephone. Like face-to-face communication. It’s not a source of information, only a means of transmitting it. Let’s do a thought experiment here. You’re trying to disarm a ticking nuclear bomb, and you have two choices for information:

  • An IM chat (with video) with the Pentagon’s foremost nuclear weapons expert
  • Sweet old Aunt Nellie, live and in person

Which do you choose? These studies would have us believe that most people would ignore the expert and go straight to Aunt Nellie. We know her and trust her. And because she’s present in the flesh, she’s inherently more trustworthy than that distant expert, right? (Ka-boom).

Clearly, making decisions on what information to trust based on what communication channel it comes through is a bad idea. Here’s a better one: evaluate the source. We get information recommending a purchase through the Internet (maybe a web page, blog post, email, tweet…you get the idea). Instead of looking at the source, we look through the source and ask “who does this information come from?” If it’s a random spammer, scammer or advertiser, we give it no credibility. We’ll trust it more if it’s from someone we know, or someone who we have reason to trust as credible in this area.

There are many sources of information in the world. There are many channels through which we can convey that information. To borrow and twist a construct from Marshall McLuhan, the medium is NOT the messenger.

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