It's now common to talk about consumers' reliance on peer opinions, reviews and ratings online. But, we probably assume this online tendency and comfort level is rooted in the real life stock we have always put in what our friends and families have to say. Even before going online, most of us have long relied on our friends, families and circles of influence to steer us in the right direction, on products and services. That kind of trusted endorsement has always been very powerful. So, offline being where it started, it follows that the online version of this taps into the same dynamic, just at greater scale. Essentially one and the same, right? Recent research sheds new light that this is not the case.

In the 2012 Digital Influence Index, a global study by Fleishman Hillard, we see that online is outright replacing offline peer recommendation or advocacy. The gap between our reliance on the Internet over our reliance on friends and family is widening at a steady clip. The numbers show globally that the online version is replacing our formerly trusty reliance on those closest to us in real life. In the United States, the reliance is about equal, but the same trend is emerging. The gap is widest, by far, in China and India. The report goes on to show that the degree of influence varies by topic.

Study+from+FLeishman+and+Hillard

We are given some indication within the analysis provided, as to what this is all about, "More than half the time, the anonymity of the Internet holds greater sway with consumers in influencing purchasing and other decisions – greater even than the opinions of family, friends and co-workers." It's the anonymity factor.

What, if anything, does this say about authenticity? Are online friends and offline friends on equal standing? What is it about anonymity vs. live acquaintance that boosts the value of an endorsement? What can be the benefit of anonymity? Or, is this online trend really about getting personal input at scale? More of it – and more readily?

In considering this eye-opening trend, it's important to take a step back and remember some primary strengths of the Internet as a consumer-marketing environment: relevance and immediacy. The digital environment, when well leveraged, has the ability to deliver both.

So, one of the great benefits of getting opinions from people you don't know online is that they are interested in precisely the same item you are considering buying – even perhaps down to model number or SKU. That's relevance. And they're further along in the decision continuum. So, you personally benefit from the work they've already done. So while friends and family can support your decision process, and confer with you along the way, there are many more people online, who you may never meet, who can share their learning in real-time. That's immediacy.

There is a lot to be said for the personal touch – a thoughtful recommendation or endorsement from someone you trust. That is worth its weight in gold, on so many decisions. Yet, it may or may not represent an opportunity for marketers to engage. So, for all the decisions consumers make all day long across numerous facets of their lives – relevance and immediacy available at scale are where the opportunity exists for brands and marketers to play a part.

Bonnie Kintzer is Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Marketing Inc. the authority on how women consume media. Women’s Marketing Inc. services more than 300 clients in the beauty, fashion and health space by delivering the best integrated advertising solutions in digital, print and out-of-home. Bonnie has built a distinguished career in the media world with a strong focus on revenue creation and reengineering. Bonnie can be reached at bkintzer@womensmarketing.com.

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