A new study of U.S. consumers by Razorfish suggests that old-fashioned discounts and promotions are the key to engaging online consumers. Even more shocking, the data implies that consumers favor deals over conversation – the mantra of social media – and aren’t as passionate about brands as previously believed. Like others – including the folks at Razorfish – I was somewhat surprised by this finding, since the ethos of social media seems to shun the hard sell and emphasize authentic relationships over transactions or brand profiles. Razorfish’s analysis on the data suggests otherwise: While conventional wisdom holds that consumers don’t want brands encroaching on their social or personal lives, this is far from the truth. The myth of marketing-free social spaces is just that. The “dialogue” between brands and consumers is not only frequent, but also welcome. Check out this post here for a good discussion of the findings, and another interesting take from Neville Hobson here.

If you look beyond this headline, there are other interesting findings that all confirm the Web is dramatically transforming how consumers interact with brands:

  • Consumers’ online experience has a big impact on their brand perceptions and purchase decisions – the digital experience (via branded activities) is now the message, and driving awareness or impressions is no longer sufficient
  • Consumers want to interact, regardless of whether brands are willing participants: 73% have posted a product or brand review on a web site like Amazon, Yelp, Facebook, or Twitter
  • The Web is not only a place to build a brand, it can also make or break it (65% of consumers report having had a digital experience that either positively or negatively changed their opinion about a brand – of those nearly all said their digital experience influenced whether or not they made a purchase)

Whether or not this survey is representative, I think the lesson here is that the rapid evolution of social media impacts not just technology or economics, but also consumer habits and norms. Communication and marketing professionals need to avoid retrenching behind dogma or cherished views and be open to new trends and ideas – even ones that may clash with tradition or prevailing wisdom. I suspect some social media pundits will attack or ignore this survey and defend the need for “pure” online conversation devoid of blatant commercial interests. That’s their right, but it would be missing the point. After all, isn’t the core power of social media that it gives consumers the power to drive online conversations and commerce? Maybe we need to listen to them a little more carefully.