Gen Zers are abandoning Google and using social media to find new products, opinions, and reviews. This phenomenon is called Social Search. But why is this happening?
While Google, and search engines in general, are powerful tools to find information, they come with a price. A few established companies that are heavily invested in SEO, thanks to good backlinking strategies, can dwarf other smaller or less tech-savvy competitors.
For these reasons, many users may consider Google results less reliable and not as able to provide true unbiased information.
Social media, on the other hand, provide less sophisticated search tools, and much smaller results pools mostly comprised of user-generated content that resonates with users as genuine and less biased. Marketers need to keep in mind these kinds of changes and adapt while they are happening to avoid rushed hard pivots when is too late.
The evolution of SEO, search engines, and social media is changing where consumers discover products and search for information before buying. For brands is crucial to keep an open mind about integrating marketing efforts that aim to strengthen their position on social media through paid and earned media.
What is social search?
Search engines have been one of the leading forces that shaped the internet into what it is now. They made it possible for anyone to find websites without knowing the exact domain address. Without them, we will be browsing the same handful of websites we are familiar with, and we would rely on organic linking between websites as the main avenue to discover new websites.
But while they allowed much easier and faster internet navigation, they brought the birth of Search Engine Optimization. To gain more visits and, potentially, customers brands started applying strategies to improve their ranking in search engine results. While SEO is not inherently bad, it allows a few dedicated companies to de facto monopolize results and gain a dominant position in their field.
Social media on the other hand exists as a separate internet universe from search engine results. Content published on social media does not rank high in search engine results and is actively avoided by many of the algorithms to prevent fake news and dubious sources from ranking. But is often searchable inside the social media platform itself through various ways, most commonly simple word queries or hashtag searches.
While not as intuitive or efficient as searching through a search engine, social search gives users organic results and unfiltered access to other users’ experiences. This is especially important if considered along the growing trend of researching reviews and first-hand accounts of product use before making a purchase.
The influence of social search on consumer behavior
While the full social shopping experience may have to be put on hold for a bit longer, social media platforms are becoming the first and most trusted platform for product discovery. By allowing users to interact with one another they are becoming the main way to find out if something is worth buying or not. Just by following and interacting with other users and influencers with your same interests, you will be able to organically discover products and services catered to you.
Social media not only allows one to join communities and find other users with the same interests but also deploy fine-tuned algorithms that can understand which kind of content one is looking for and provide personalized recommendations. By combining user-generated content, organic discovery, and personalized suggestions social media creates a more authentic and trustworthy experience than search engine results.
Compared to professionally created content like blog posts, branded communication, and landing pages social media posts feel more authentic and genuine working towards establishing a stronger social proof for the user.
Social media also host most of the influencer-generated content that can be a great bridge between fully brand-owned content and user-generated social media posts. Influencers can target highly specific audiences and have one of the highest levels of trust in any marketing channel, with studies showing 61% of users trust the recommendations of other users on social media compared to only 38% trusting brands. While in most countries branded content created in partnership with influencers needs to be disclosed as an advertisement it still benefits from the trust and expertise that is around the influencers themselves.
As of now is difficult to directly track the impact that social search have on purchase decision and conversion rates since many of the users will passively engage with posts and discussions about products long after they have dried up. But for brands is important to realize that fostering online discussion around their product and pursuing creative ideas to generate organic and influencer content on social media is going to be a long-term winning strategy not only to sell today but to establish a positive track record that users will be able to come across in the future.
How can influencers boost social search?
Social media influencers and content creators will be an essential part of any campaign that wants to harvest the benefits of social search. Even if not explicitly included they are going to weigh in and influence the outcome.
Influencers are internet personalities who have been able to create a substantial following by posting content in line with their interests and expertise. They function as thought leaders towards their audience and they can stir the attention of the audience toward specific topics and brands.
Any brand that is interested in developing a successful social media presence should consider collaborating with influencers and other key opinion leaders in their market segment. Being separated from the brand itself and having reached notoriety thanks to their ideas and opinions influencers are the perfect medium to establish brand visibility and credibility on social media.
When partnering with influencers brands are not only gaining exposure to the current audience that they currently have but also leaving a track about the brand and their feeling towards it for future searches. Influencers are also a great way to start the discussion around a brand, prompt user-generated content, and frame the brand in the best light possible.
While using direct sponsorships is the most common way to collaborate with influencers there are alternative ways like product seeding or interacting with organic discussions around the product that can yield great results in promoting a brand and enhancing its visibility on social media.
How to get the best out of social search
Exactly like with SEO, there is work to be done to optimize the social search results for a brand. But should keep in consideration that unlike SEO here there isn’t complete control over the material that is published and a too-polished approach may backfire by giving the curated vibe social searchers are trying to escape in the first place.
If there are no mentions of a brand on social media there is no possibility to use social search in the first place. Work towards getting the brand name out there in the first place. Collaborate with influencers, engage in viral stunts, or just provide an incentive program for customers to post reviews and impressions on social media.
Monitor the discussion
When there is a bit of movement about the brand going on social media, people are posting reviews and opinions. That is a good start. But is no time to rest. While there is no way to control what gets posted, and some of the things that get posted may be negative, a good practice is to engage with those posts, interact with the users that mention your brand, help the posts to gain traction, and show how much your brand cares about its customers. Being able to interject in the right conversations and be helpful and insightful is going to improve the brand image, even if the initial post is negative or critical of your product.
Focus on the language
Social media are not search engines and they are much less helpful to stir users towards adjacent terms that may be more used. This means that if the messaging has an unusual choice of terms it will be more difficult to find compared to someone who is using common terms. Try to maintain your brand uniqueness and identity by focusing on a few distinctive traits and special choices of words but also coopt and include widespread terms of your industry. Similarly, do not change hashtags too often but focus on the ones that can be repeated across multiple campaigns.
Use influencers correctly
Influencers are going to be the strongest ally in improving social search results. By partnering with various tiers of influencers you are going to reach different segments of the target audience. But how you include influencers in your plan is going to make the difference between a forgettable campaign and one that will leave the mark. As we said before influencers are highly valued by their followers due to their genuinity and authenticity, and these are the characteristics you should go after when planning your collaborations. Organize ways in which not only they can endorse the brand and the products but so it from a genuine perspective. This is often achieved by having them do reviews and relate the product to their daily use.
What are the challenges in social search?
But social search is not free from challenges. While for the moment is a relatively underdeveloped part of most companies marketing efforts are likely to see an increase soon and with it a steeper entry barrier.
Compared to other ways of doing marketing optimizing social search results is at high risk of being overdone and creating a “too corporate” feeling for the users who are just trying to escape from the too-institutionalized search engine results.
Social media, especially smaller ones with little to no moderation measures, may be vulnerable to brigading and fake reviews. Determined keywords and profiles may come at certain times under the attack of adversarial actors that would use bots and fake profiles to spread false and misleading information about certain topics. Most large social media have already in place ways to prevent and mitigate the effect of these actors it can be a very difficult issue on smaller and less established platforms.
Search engines have brought a great change in how we can access information, but they are also more and more doubted when it comes to purchasing information. Concurrently social media have created new ways people can communicate and get exposed to each other experiences and opinions.
In recent times we are assisting to a shift by the new generations which are abandoning search engines in favor of social media when it comes to pre-purchase information. With this shift, it emerges the possibility for marketers to turn social media into their frontline for customer acquisition and conversion.
These trend fits in perfectly with the growth of influencer marketing since both nurture the feelings of honesty and authenticity in high demand by customers making a great choice to pursue both concurrently.