The Power of the Web

Online consumer research illustrates why digital marketing is more important than ever.

I don’t know if your experience is anything like mine, but as a digital analyst, I often find myself trying to explain the focus we at Christianity Today put on our online presence. The problem is that it’s hard to know what people are actually doing with all of our digital marketing. Of course, we can track online sales and visits to our sites, but we don’t know how the online experience impacts users once they switch off the computer. At least, we didn’t know until recently. A few days ago I ran across the Consumer Barometer, hosted by IAB/TNS/Google, which provides research on consumer behavior online that can lead to both online and offline purchases.

Avinash Kaushik, on his blog Occam’s Razor, has helped to analyze this new tool and lay out four basic questions Consumer Barometer’s research can help to answer. I’m going to focus on two of Kaushik’s points that were immediately applicable to us at CT, and that have helped me to illustrate the importance of our overall online presence.

1. How do consumers access the Internet?

Using the Consumer Barometer, you can select multiple countries and compare their consumer experiences. Here is some interesting data from the Consumer Barometer showing internet use by consumers in both the United States and Canada:,34&pageId=1

Internet Access in US compared to Canada

For our purposes, let’s just look at the United States. Focusing on the left side of this image, we can see some fantastic data on Total Internet Access in the USA. Eighty-one percent of USA consumers have internet access and 60% have high-speed broadband connections. Mobile device use is also high: 44% smartphone and 13% tablet penetration, with another 3% of people intending to buy a smartphone and 12% to buy a tablet.

This is great macro information that tells me most of my customers in the USA are online, and it confirms the importance of mobile in reaching my audience. (Good thing Christianity Today just increased their mobile accessibility with new smartphone friendly websites.) I also see that our recent launch of a new iPad app was a good move, to reach that 12% of consumers who plan to purchase a new tablet in the near future.

The Consumer Barometer doesn’t just provide countrywide usage data, but also psychographic data on the types of consumers using the web and what their percentage is in a given country. Look at the Internet User Segments on the right of the graph. In the USA, the two highest categories are “Functionals” at 27% and “Knowledge seekers” at 22%.

If you view the chart online, you can click the user segment names to understand what they mean. For your convenience, here’s the description for Functionals: “The internet is a functional tool, I don’t want to express myself online. I like emailing, checking the news, sports & weather but also online shopping. I’m really not interested in running my social life online and I am worried about data privacy and security. I am older and have been using the internet for a long time.”

And Knowledge Seekers: “I use the Internet to gain knowledge, information and to educate myself about the world. I’m not a big user of social networks but I do want to hear from like-minded people especially to help me make purchase decisions. I’m very interested in the latest thing.”

Check out the user descriptions in full and take a minute to think about how your marketing campaigns reach these types of users. Neither Functionals nor Knowledge Seekers are very interested in social interaction, but they are likely to be drawn by something that offers information or ways of saving time and labor. How can your online marketing target those specific audiences?

2. How do consumers research and purchase products?

All of this demographic data is very interesting and definitely helpful in gaining a better understanding of online consumers. However, the part that most peaks my interest is the research and purchase behavior of customers.

Using Consumer Barometer, we can focus on one type of product and visually display consumers’ research and purchasing behavior. We’ll use USA book customers as an example. (In the charts below, I’ve removed Canada so we can focus on consumers in the USA.) :,34&productId=3&pageId=2

Internet Purchase Research in US compared to Canada

There is a lot of useful information in the purchase charts, starting with the fact that 43% of book purchases are made online and 30% of consumers researched their purchases online only.

The second set of data is even more illuminating, as it attempts to lay out the research methods consumers used and what was most influential in their decision making process. You can use the dropdown menu in this section to choose from three lists: I’ve included images for “Started Research With” and “Most Important in Driving Final Purchase Decision,” but you could also choose “Generally Used” to see which sources people use the most. For books, word of mouth caused the most people to begin researching a purchase, but visiting retailers, online websites, search engines, and advertising were all near the top of the list. When it came time to actually make a purchase decision, physical stores were at the top of the list, but if you add all types of websites together (manufacturer/retailer, search engines, blogs, price comparison sites, etc.), they easily displace physical stores at the top.

Cross Tabulation of Research and Purchase BehaviorFinally, this graph splits out individuals who purchased online vs. those who purchased offline and visualizes how both groups researched before making purchases.

For books, we can see that 25% of users who purchased online researched only online.

Eleven percent of offline purchasers either researched online only or both online and offline. So, even when buying books in a physical store, the online experience impacted customers’ decisions 11% of the time.

If you have a specific audience in mind, it’s easy to isolate just that group and evaluate what sort of advertising you should focus on. In most cases, you’ll find that online research played a significant role in a customer’s purchase decision. For example, you can find that 46% of female book buyers researched online compared to 40% of male buyers.

This post has barely scratched the surface of the data that is available. I recommend taking a few minutes and playing around with the Consumer Barometer. I think you’ll find some surprising and valuable information about your audience and their online behavior. Also make sure you read Avinash Kaushik’s blog on the topic, which goes into much more detail and provides a helpful guide to understanding what all these numbers can mean.