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Consumers are increasingly tapping into their online social networks of friends, fans, and followers to discover, discuss and purchase goods and services, according to analysis from trendwatching.com. The consumer trend analysis firm calls this trend the “F-Factor,” with the “F” standing for friends, fans and followers.

Sources Become Trusted

As a result of social networking and other online communication technologies, consumers can now use trusted sources they know to obtain information about products and brands, rather than rely on third-party advertising or perform extensive first-hand research.

trendwatching.com advises that consumers have always relied on word-of-mouth advice from friends, relatives and associates, but modern technology is greatly accelerating its development as a major influencer of purchase decisions.

Facebook Dominates F-Factor

The F-Factor is currently dominated by Facebook, according to trendwatching.com, as April 2011 Facebook data indicates 500 million active users spend more than 700 billion minutes a month on the site and every month, more than 250 million people engage with Facebook across more than 2.5 million external websites.

In addition, 2010 Facebook data shows the average user clicks the “Like” button nine times each month and February 2011 Ad Age/Ipsos data shows three-quarters of Facebook users have liked a brand.

Consumers ‘F-Discover’ Best of the Best

trendwatching.com has broken down five key ways the F-Factor influences consumer purchase decisions. The first, “F-Discovery,” involves consumer desire to own or experience the best of the best and their desire for serendipity, excitement, interaction and community. People are curious and interested in what their friends and contacts think, do, eat, read, listen to, drive in, travel to and buy, because often this will be similar to how they want to think, act and buy.

Thus consumers are embracing communities, tools and apps that allow them to dive into and discover selections from friends, fans, followers, and so on.

Consumers Want ‘F-Rated’ Products

While consumers sometimes enjoy finding the best of the best through discovery, they are increasingly able to access personalized recommendations and reviews on something they know they want to purchase. In fact, trendwatching.com expects more and more sites will automatically serve up friends’ recommendations, ratings and reviews next to goods and services that people are researching.

‘F-Feedback’ Makes Recommendations Personal

Anonymous reviews aren’t always what consumers need or want; they can lack relevance and context, and consumers with many options sometimes just want an unambiguous, or finite opinion. F-Feedback involves consumers actively disclosing their purchasing intentions and reaching out to their friends and contacts for personalized feedback.

trendwatching.com further advises that with more and more consumers increasingly viewing their online reputation as something to enhance as well as just protect, the quality of answers on Q&A services is rapidly improving.

‘F-Together’ Makes Shopping Social

While group-buying platforms such as Groupon are revolutionizing local, consumers usually don’t actually know the other members of the group that they’re buying with. So, while consumers get to leverage the power of the web to benefit from better deals, the actual shopping experience frequently lacks the F-Factor. Consumers, of course, have strong incentives to share certain purchases, especially for F-Factor-friendly experiences such as buying event tickets where consumers can now automatically invite friends to a concert or movie right after purchasing a ticket.

‘F-Me’ Individualizes the F-Factor’

trendwatching.com refers to the trend of personalized products and services based on the activities and output of one’s social network as “F-Me.” This includes services that turn a user’s Facebook page into a daily newspaper and a user’s Twitter feed into a published journal.

Look for ‘Twinsumers’ and ‘Social-lites’

Both of these types of online consumers were identified by trendwatching.com in December 2010 as critical to spreading positive word-of-mouth recommendations. Twin-sumers are consumers with similar consumer patterns, likes and dislikes, and who are hence valuable sources for recommendations on what to buy and experience; while social-lites are consumers who consistently broadcast information to a wide range of associates online.

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