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Online reviews and comments written by users – often overlooked by marketers in favor of things they can control – are disproportionately influential to consumer buying decisions and are second only to personal word-of-mouth for purchasing influence for Americans, according to research from Rubicon Consulting.

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The survey, which was undertaken as part of a broader look into how businesses can use online communities, found that all online information is important in the purchase-decision process, but the most influential information is user-generated.

The research? confirmed the power of what Rubicon terms “Most Frequent Contributors” – the 9% of web users who produce 80% of all user-generated content.

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Rates of participation in online discussion also vary according to the type of content being viewed or consumed. Some people are contributors in one type of content but “Lurkers” in another.

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Key findings about influence in online communities:

  • Small groups of enthusiasts dominate most online conversations, but that doesn’t mean online communities matter only to a narrow segment of people. Most web users read community content rather than contributing to it and are strongly influenced by the things they see there, especially product reviews and recommendations.
  • Most web users are voyeurs more than contributors, and marketers should view an online discussion in the context of a theater performance in which the community leader(s) interact with a small group of contributors while a larger number of people look on. Companies who turn away from communities populated by enthusiasts have mistaken fellow actors for the audience, Rubicon said.

Additional findings about the internet’s influence:

  • The Web is the #2 resource for customer support information, after user manuals.? It ranks ahead of calling the manufacturer or asking a dealer.
  • Website categories that get the most daily usage are search, social communities such as MySpace and Facebook, general news websites like CNN.com and NYTimes.com, and online banking.
  • The websites that Americans value most are (in order), Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Facebook.? Although Yahoo’s financial challenges have generated a lot of press attention, it continues to have a very large and loyal following.
  • Young people (age 22 and under) are much noisier online than their elders.? They account for about half of all the content and comments posted online.
  • The major social networks are much more satisfying and useful to teens than they are to adults. In fact, satisfaction with the social sites peaks at age 14 and declines steadily with age.
  • Facebook appears to be ahead of MySpace in terms of number of users in the US, and perceived value of the site.
  • A person’s age makes a difference in the types of online information they are influenced by. However, across all age groups, the web has a significant influence on the purchase of consumer electronics.

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  • Despite extensive publicity, the community sites SecondLife and Twitter reach only a few percent of US Internet users.
  • Democrats are more active online than Republicans, and say the web has a greater influence on their behavior, including voting.
  • About a quarter of web users say they have dated someone they first met online.

“Many companies downplay the importance of online communities because only a few percent of all Internet users contribute to them heavily,” said Harry Max, a principal at Rubicon Consulting.? “What they don’t understand is that most other Internet users read those reviews and rely on them heavily when making purchase decisions.? Taking good care of online communities can be a huge money-saver for companies trying to get more marketing impact from limited budgets.”

About the survey: In September of 2008, Rubicon Consulting’s web strategy practice surveyed 3,036 web users age 13+ in the United States. The survey was conducted online, using respondents sourced from a national sampling company, and should be projectable to the US web-using population, or about 75% of US residents.? The white paper, “Online Communities and Their Impact on Business: Ignore at Your Peril,” is free and available for download.

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