Column: The Long and Winding Road to the Cash Register

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We all understand as consumers that technology has changed the way we shop. With our telephone in hand, there is no need to shop alone, and endless choices are just a click away.

To dig deeper into today's shopping process, Yahoo executed a study with OMD surveying more than 4,300 buyers with broadband access about their shopping process across five categories, from shoes, to cars, to choosing a bank account.

The findings highlight that technology has changed the way consumers buy so drastically that it may jeopardize the classic marketing funnel: the idea that consumers move in a neat, narrowing way from awareness to consideration to purchase. It is so easy to circle back throughout the process that we found half of the buyers were still researching options at the final point (though not a neat, narrow one) of purchase.

Yahoo first published findings on this phenomenon more than two years ago in its consumer buying cycle study with comScore. That study debunked the belief of a nice, neat process for search refinement where consumers type in their computer and narrow to a specific product.

We found that many consumers use the broadest keyword as their very last one before buying. Why wouldn't you want to check one last time to see whether you missed an option? This new research confirms this is not just a search or consumer electronics phenomenon; it defines a new way of shopping.

Study findings also reveal that the Internet is the most-used source for becoming aware of new products. Yet bricks still outweigh clicks, with more than two-thirds of shoppers buying offline. Search does play a role in driving awareness and is as influential to buyers as in-store cues. Search usage also varied by product category, being greatest for highly considered purchases.

For those who leverage search, they appear to be an engaged, influential prospect. They use search more than four times to make a decision and consider search important in influencing their purchase. They are most open to influence and consider the highest number of brands.

Searchers also appear to enjoy the research process more than other shoppers and don't buy right away. They are more likely to discuss purchases with friends and family, give advice to them and even post an online review. More than one-fourth of the technology-empowered shoppers in the study have posted an online product review.

What does all this mean to marketers? Clear opportunities exist to reach out to these avid online shoppers and influence them with your brand. Search marketing c be considered a key tactic in driving brand consideration as we realize that even consumers searching for your brand are in the process of deciding whom to buy from. Companies also should begin thinking about how to leverage these unique shoppers as strong brand advocates because they are more likely to post reviews and provide advice.

Finally, because the majority of consumers still purchase offline, marketing campaigns should be measured from a multichannel perspective. A strong brand is one that won't be forgotten as consumers travel down the road from research to purchase.

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