As of 2019, just over half the world has access to the internet: close to 4 billion people. Once people get internet access, they’re highly likely to use it to make purchases. This means it’s increasingly important for businesses of all stripes to understand how people behave online.
Who is the digital consumer?
Digital consumers use the internet to buy and sell. They used to walk into a retail shop to make a purchase, or used their phone to call for a taxi. But increasingly, those people use an app to get an Uber, or make purchases online.
As they become more comfortable using the internet, they shop online more often, for a broader selection of items. New users tend to shop online for special purchases—things they can’t get locally. But as they get more comfortable they start to buy all kinds of normal everyday items online, too.
Digital consumers behave differently in some respects, but they make essentially the same decisions and take the same steps as they used to when purchasing from a retail shop. Now, they’re just using a different medium to do it.
The Digital Purchase Process
The digital consumer moves through a series of steps, the difference in the online setting is that these can take place simultaneously.
Step One: Search
Before the internet arrived on the scene, finding out about new products and services was a more passive process. News was delivered via TV, radio, and print advertising, or people would find out about a new product by seeing it in a shop, or word of mouth.
The internet has obviously changed this process in a big way. Searching is more active now. While consumers still receive a lot of news via advertising, they can now interact with advertising, and actively search online for solutions to a problem. Clicking on ads typically takes the consumer directly to a website or sale page, for instance. Google and other search engines are designed specifically to make it easy for people to find answers, solutions, and products.
Step Two: Shop
The act of shopping—comparison shopping in particular—was certainly more laborious in the days before internet. Consumers could compare prices and attributes by visiting a shop, or making phone calls. Now it’s just a matter of a few quick searches to find branded products on various websites. Even easier are comparison shopping websites that allow consumers to choose what attributes they want to compare for various products and services.
Comparison websites are just as lucrative as retail sites themselves—more so, in many cases. These sites are set up to capture search queries from people at this stage of the buying process, essentially acting as middlemen. For instance, MySupermarket allows Brits to check grocery prices across a number of different retailers, while MoneySuperMarket offers financial advice and comparison tools for a wide range of financial products.
Step Three: Choose
Choosing products before the internet meant looking closely at products in the store or in advertising, and basing decisions on the attributes of the item. Now, consumers can buy items without ever seeing them, which means they tend to rely much more on social proof.
When it comes to food, entertainment, and home services, for instance, Yelp.com provides a compelling argument about the power of social proof. Review sites are almost as popular and ubiquitous as comparison shopping sites, and highly influential too.
Step Four: Purchase
The ease of purchasing an item is one of the simplest ways that the internet has streamlined purchasing. Waiting in a line to buy a popular item is a thing of the past when you can order it from a website with as little effort as a single click. Consumers can opt for next-day delivery from national sellers, and receive items in as little as a few days from a global seller. It may be more immediate to go out and buy an item from a high street shop, but for many consumers, the convenience of online shopping, combined with delivery, makes the online option incredibly attractive.
Gifts add an extra layer to the purchase process. It requires a bit of additional effort to wrap, pack, and post a gift. But when you purchase that gift online, many sites give you options that make giving a lot easier. Consumers can buy from their address and have the item delivered to a different one. They can pay extra for gift-wrapping and even add a personal note to the packing slip.
Amazon is the obvious example, here. The site has made shopping—and spending—as easy as possible, with features such as one-click ordering, reorder subscriptions, next-day delivery, gift-wrapping, and more. Shopping doesn’t get any more convenient than this.
Understand the Journey to Understand the Consumer
There’s huge potential value in exploring the digital consumer’s path to purchase. By understanding the different touchpoints where consumers might interact with your brand, it gives you the chance to create marketing opportunities that draw them in more effectively, making your advertising budget work harder.