The Social Media Generation Says Social Media Ads Don’t Work
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The Fiscal Times
June 23, 2014

Have you ever thought about buying that completely unnecessary but entirely fabulous item on OneKingsLane.com or Target.com, placed it in your online shopping cart, and then decided not to buy it? Well, it probably haunted you for months on your Facebook minifeed. New data shows that most people aren’t affected.

Gallup’s new State of the American Consumer report shows 62 percent of Americans say ads on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have no influence on their decisions to buy products. A mere sliver of those surveyed, just 5 percent, said social media advertising has “a great deal of influence” over their purchasing decisions.

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It’s an amazing number, especially considering that 94 percent of that same surveyed group said they use social media to connect with friends and family.

Even the so-called ‘social media generation’—yes, millennials—say social media marketing has little affect on their decision-making. Forty-eight percent of millennials said social media has “no influence at all” on their purchasing choices, while only 43 percent admitted it had “some influence.”

Twenty-five-year-old Antoine Sargent, former BuzzFeed fellow and current writer for the millennial-focused website PolicyMic, knows a thing or two about attracting eyeballs on the web. “They are crazy about where I get my clothes,” says Sargent of his more than 8,000 followers on Instagram. “If you have a following, people are influenced.”

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In today’s day and age, having influence often means getting your message through the clutter of the fractured media landscape. Gallup’s report shows that when it comes to shopping, consumers are less likely to look towards a company-sponsored Facebook page or Twitter feed than they are to turn to friends, in-store displays, television commercials, and magazines. Those are the places of trendsetters and celebrities.

"I think that images are powerful and in the age of Tumblr and Instagram people certainly are influenced by the different styles people are wearing. Perhaps that doesn't translate into brand specific purchases but it does inspire people follow trends or buy something that looks like an item they found online," says Sargent.

Perhaps buying the item advertised is not the end goal – maybe it’s more like window-shopping and the idea is to explore the site because you like the style of the ad or the friend who recommended it. The challenge is that people like to touch and feel the products they buy. They seek out the brands and services they already know they like.

“Companies that engage their customers, by providing exceptional service and a pleasurable in-store experience, will, in turn, drive those customers to interact with them on social media,” writes Gallup’s Art Swift. “Simply promoting products and services on Facebook or Twitter is unlikely to lead to sales.”

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So is the combined $5.1 billion spent on social media advertising by American companies in 2013 all for naught?

Companies are always looking for ways to reach younger consumers, those who aren’t stuck in their ways, and those who have disposable income, especially. The Internet seems like the Holy Grail for reaching them.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is not a millennial. But she is an avid media user and disagrees with the premise of the study. “Americans generally might say that, but I think that’s not true of people who actually use social media. I look at Yelp or Travel Advisor if I’m looking for a restaurant. I look at reviews before I buy a toaster, all of that is social media of the sort.”

Gandy is unique. The data shows that only a small fraction of consumers take into account what they learn from social media when they are buying something. But the reality may not be whether or not people consciously recognize that social media influences their purchasing decisions; it’s whether or not they’ll admit it.

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Reilly Dowd is a senior writer at The Fiscal Times. Based in Washington, D.C., she covers national politics, economic policy, technology, and elections. She has previously worked at Al Jazeera America, SnagFilms, ABC News, CNN and in the Obama White House.