Engaging customers on Facebook: Challenges for e-retailers


Lisa Harris, School of Management, University of Southampton, UK.

E-mail: l.j.harris@soton.ac.uk


The purpose of this paper is to carry out an exploratory investigation into the emerging interactions between young consumers and consumer products/services on social networks. In particular, we examine the extent to which a small exploratory sample of participants are willing to incorporate social shopping behaviour, namely, product/service recommendations and retail purchase activities. We draw upon a qualitative study of four focus groups carried out with students at two UK-based universities. The results lead us to suggest specific avenues of enquiry that could be pursued in future larger scale work in this new area of consumer behaviour research. We note that for our participants, a ‘nudge’ in the form of recommendations from friends appears to be influential in changing online shopping behaviour and that a hierarchy of trust ordinal scale in recommenders/reviewers ranging from ‘real’ friends at the top down to reviews on retailers’ websites may be positively associated with intention to purchase. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


The purchase of goods from online stores is now a mainstream activity in the UK. According to Interactive Media In Retail Group, online sales were growing at 18 per cent per year in 2010 and forecast to reach €81 billion, or 17 per cent of total retail sales in 2011 (IMRG, 2011). Increasingly, online retailers are offering interactive features to engage customers and encourage them to buy. These include rating and review systems, product video, virtual assistants, 3D modelling, or barcode scanners for smart phones (onsite social commerce).

Consumers are also bringing their online experiences into their own social networks rather than engaging directly on company websites (offsite social commerce). While social network platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn started out as meeting spaces for online identity construction, the addition of functionality echoing the reputation and feedback mechanisms of major transaction sites such as Amazon has enabled social networks to develop into full-scale recommendation centres. Facebook's new features are now instigating another step change in the power of social networking: online recommendation through the ‘Like’ button and the ‘Places’ location-based service. It is still early days for transactions, but innovators such as Delta Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Avon now permit an entire purchase to be completed without the consumer needing to leave Facebook.

Social commerce has been defined as ‘the use of social technologies to connect, listen, understand, and engage to improve the shopping experience’ (Cecere et al., 2010). It can build brand equity by adding to the brand value proposition with socially powered applications. For example, the Kraft iFood Assistant offers recipes, shopping lists and community support and feedback. The authors define four stages of social commerce while noting that many companies are currently still in the first phase:

  • 1.‘Let's Be Social’ where companies are using social technologies to test the waters. The focus is on the brand, building a community around it and identifying its value.
  • 1.‘Enlightened Engagement’ where companies recognise that customers expect the structure and processes to be in place for regular online interaction, both between the brand and themselves, and with each other.
  • 2.‘Store of the Community’ where customers help drive product selection, development and merchandising.
  • 3.‘Frictionless Commerce’ where the buying experience is completely redesigned to create a fully customer-centric experience.

Cecere et al. (2010) highlight Hallmark Cards as a good example of an early adopter of social commerce. Their programme began with a card creation contest that received more than 28,000 submissions, and the winning card designs were incorporated into the product portfolio. Hallmark followed this up with a Facebook application called a ‘social calendar’. This reminds users of key dates such as their friends’ birthdays, and it now has over 1.3 million monthly active users. The next stage of the process will be a Facebook store giving fans the ability to purchase personalised cards and recommend the experience to their friends. Customers will be able to choose a card and add a personal message; the card is then printed and posted by Hallmark. These are innovative examples of social commerce, but there is a fine line between fans authentically sharing their brand passion and spamming their friends. Forward-thinking businesses are moving away from reliance on the centrally controlled mass broadcast and towards the development of personal and localised relationships with well-informed and demanding customers. This group of consumers increasingly expect consistent engagement with their preferred brands across a range of online and offline channels. Enhancements to broadband Internet access and the growth of applications facilitating online collaboration through social networks, video/photo sharing sites and blogs mean that consumers now have the ability to spread ideas and recommendations even more quickly, widely and cheaply (Ferguson, 2008). The importance of consumer engagement in the achievement of marketing effectiveness was noted by Calder et al. (2009). They showed that engagement with the context and content of an advert increases its effectiveness, and this is magnified if the engagement is achieved at the personal or social level with the individual. Engagement adds a new dimension to the traditional model of Awareness–Interest–Decision–Action (AIDA) defined by Kierzkowski et al. (1996), helping the company to obtain marketing information about the consumer's preferences whilst interacting with them on a personal level.

Nearly half (49%) of all UK Internet users have used social networking at least once in the last year, and over 70 per cent of people and households are now Internet users (Dutton et al./OxIS, 2009; IMRG, 2011). According to 2010 research by Experian Hitwise (www.hitwise.co.uk), social networks in the UK received more visits (11.9% of traffic) than search engines (11.3% of traffic) for the first time in May 2010. Facebook is now the second biggest source of traffic online, closing in on Google's position as the most visited website in the world. Approximately one in ten visits to a website come immediately after a visit to Facebook. Social networks are sending an increasing amount of traffic to retailers (up 13% in 2010) such that 9.1 per cent of visits to e-shopping sites now come from social media.

This paper investigates the extent to which consumers are incorporating recommendations and purchase activity into their social networking behaviour, through a qualitative study involving analysis of focus group discussions with students at two UK-based universities. We begin with a review of recent Facebook developments before considering the implications for marketers of the changing climate of trust and influence upon consumer behaviour. When all this is considered in conjunction with efforts by online retailers to make themselves become more social, we suggest a need to investigate whether young people in particular may find Facebook's shopping features more appealing than those of an individual retailer. We then present the findings of our primary research, speculate on the possible implications for theory and practice and draw some preliminary conclusions.


Facebook's own statistics show that by July 2010, its membership exceeded 500 million people worldwide, which is equivalent to the population of the third largest country in the world. Fifty per cent of active users log on in any given day, and each of these users connects to an average of 130 friends. Every time a user interacts with a brand on Facebook, that activity will be displayed in the news feeds of their Facebook friends. This has the potential to create a significant network effect. According to Nielsen (2010a), Internet users are spending more time on Facebook (a massive 7 hours per month on average) than they spend on Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft, Wikipedia and Amazon combined. From a marketer's perspective, this means that their company or product brand needs to be located within Facebook. Consumers are increasingly likely to watch a movie trailer or download a discount coupon if that activity happens inside Facebook, in preference to being pushed to an external website.

Facebook has recently released a number of tools for marketers known as ‘social plug ins’, which are designed to drive deeper engagement with customers. Twenty-four hours after first releasing the ‘Like’ button, over one billion ‘Likes’ had been served (Facebook data). This button allows users to share pages from the website concerned back to their Facebook profile with one click. Depending on how the code is implemented, they can leave a short comment as well. This information is then displayed to the user's network of friends in real time via their newsfeeds (Debatin et al., 2009). ‘Liking’ a page on Facebook essentially serves as an opt-in mechanism for ongoing communications with the owner of that page (Poynter, 2008).

In August 2010, Facebook launched a location-based recommendation service called Places, which leverages local knowledge and word of mouth. Consumers can check in at retail locations and claim ‘deals’ on their mobile devices. This gives retailers the ability to reach consumers and potentially attract them into a given store. The new service combines the features of location-based check-in services such as Foursquare and local group deals services such as Groupon or LivingSocial. Facebook has big names such as Starbucks, McDonald's, H&M and Gap lined up to create deals on their Places page. Essentially, these deals are digital versions of the traditional coupon and loyalty cards, where a customer gets a punch hole for every item purchased. The ‘friends’ offer gives a discount to users who check in their friends and the ‘charity’ deal requires the retailer to donate per purchase (Slutsky, 2010).

A study by Chadwick Martin Bailey (cited in Owyang, 2010) reports that 33 per cent of Facebook users are fans of brands, and 60 per cent of these consumers are more likely to purchase or recommend to a friend after ‘liking’ a brand. This activity has the potential to create a new index of the Web based on user choices rather than the intricacies of Google's algorithm. The most popular reasons consumers gave for ‘liking’ a brand were to receive discounts and show brand support to their friends. These findings confirm the results of an earlier study by Marketing Sherpa (2009), which also highlighted consumers’ wish for entertainment or to find out more about a brand and the company that produced it. The ‘recommendations’ plug-in gives users personalised suggestions for pages on a site that they might like based on what other Facebook users have done with that content. For example, if a link to a particular discounted product has been shared several times on Facebook, it will appear in the recommendations list tagged ‘6 people shared this’. The item shared most widely on Facebook will appear at the top of the list. Users who click on that recommended link can be taken to an ‘add to cart’ button inviting purchase.

Facebook ‘Login’ (previously called ‘Connect’) allows people to sign into a website using their Facebook login rather than create a specific account with that retailer. The Login feature displays profile pictures of the user's friends who have already signed up to that particular website. By using this service, over 100 million Facebook users are consenting to share their personal details with the retailer concerned. This opt-in is valuable because activity on the site can be tracked and associated with an identity so that the consumer can be contacted with special offers. This new capability will have to be used responsibly since the opt-in permission is controlled by the user who will be quick to exit if the retailer abuses the connection.

These new developments raise a number of questions about the importance of trust and influence within networks, which will be considered in the next section.


Trust has often been reported to be central to e-shopping intentions (e.g. Lee and Turban, 2003; Goode and Harris, 2007). The Edelman Trust Barometer (2008) based on an international survey of online influencers found that their most trusted source of information was ‘a person like myself’. The role of trust was also considered by Sen (2008), who observed that ‘audiences establish a speaker's credibility’. Online communications, which originate from a consumer/peer perspective rather than having been pushed out from a corporate power position, create messaging that is ‘more believable to the reader’ (p30). This finding is supported by a recent Nielsen study (2010b) which showed that consumers trust their friends and family more than any other source of information about products and services, and that online product reviews by consumers are trusted more than information posted directly on a company website. Research by Hulme (2010) confirmed the importance of friends and online reviews as key information sources. Additionally, it showed that only 4 per cent of UK customers trust advertising, 8 per cent trust what the company says about itself and just 10 per cent believe that companies are prepared to listen to the views of their customers.

In an environment where Joinson (2008) identified the major themes of Facebook use as “Keeping in touch, passive contact, and communication” (p1030), the values and benefits generated in contributing to the network are highly weighted towards the development of social capital. Ellison et al. (2007) identified the acquisition of social capital as a primary motivator for sharing perspectives and contributing to word of mouth recommendations. Their finding that Facebook users ‘view the primary audience for their profile to be people with whom they share an offline connection’ (p1155) demonstrated at an early stage of development that online social networks were influential in decision making and that integrated recommendation systems could be leveraged by marketers. De Valck et al. (2009) suggested that recommendations on social network sites such as Facebook may have ‘a more significant effect on need recognition, actual behaviour and post-purchase evaluations’ than more established virtual communities. Members are also likely to know each other in real life and can observe consumption practices. The authors found that the most active members of the community were influenced most by the discussions taking place.

In summary, prior research demonstrates that both friends and opinion leaders have significant influence upon consumer purchase behaviour. Potentially, more traditional brand communications may be left out of the mix altogether.


For many years, researchers have drawn attention to the importance of social motivations in shopping (e.g. Westbrook and Black, 1985; Shim and Eastlick, 1998; Dholakia 1999). More recently, social interaction has been shown to be important in online shopping (Parsons, 2002; Rohm and Swaminathan, 2004). On the other hand, e-retailers have difficulty in satisfying customers’ higher-level needs such as personal interaction (Kolesar and Galbraith, 2000). Yet, as we have detailed above, social networking is becoming one of the major ways in which people socialise. We sought to explore the fit between shopping and social networking; given that shopping is such a popular social activity, it is likely that people will welcome combining the two. Nevertheless, there is a dearth of scholarly research on social networking and shopping such that we are able to cite only one paper (Dennis et al., 2010). In that conceptual paper, Dennis et al. (2010) propose that shoppers will welcome combining social networking with shopping. They explored the proposition with a qualitative investigation that asked participants to compare a specific social networking shopping site (www.osoyou.com) with a more traditional shopping site. Despite not being previously aware of Osoyou, the panel of young women all preferred the social networking shopping site, finding it enjoyable and useful. A disadvantage was that the site was hard to use on account of having to log in separately to each individual retailer in order to shop. As mentioned above, Facebook's Login service is now able to overcome the major disadvantage of logging in separately to individual retailers. Therefore, we expect that the opportunity of combining Facebook social networking with shopping will be welcomed, particularly by young people. We are unaware of any previous scholarly research on the links between Facebook-type social networking and shopping.

We have shown that Facebook now provides a variety of ways for online retailers to offer a more ‘social’ purchase experience, either by integrating Facebook features into their own sites or (increasingly) by operating within Facebook itself. What this could mean in practice is that retailers begin to link fan membership with behavioural data such as how often specific people visit the site and what they actually buy. Customers can already log into a site using their Facebook credentials, and before long, they will be able to pay and checkout with any other form of registration required, making the purchase process dramatically easier. These trends indicate that the potential power of interaction is now being raised to a new level as the attention and trust of consumers has shifted towards social networks. Consequently, there are significant implications for marketing in general and online retailing in particular.

So, is the future of marketing really all about leveraging a consumer's social graph to sell more products? It is important to remember that most users tend to go to Facebook to socialise with friends, not to shop. As reported by Tran (2010), Josh Himwich, Vice President of e-commerce solutions for Diapers.com and Soap.com, stated at the 2010 Rise of Social Commerce Conference: ‘Consumers go to Facebook to socialise, not spend 20 minutes shopping. No one wants an entire shopping experience in Facebook, they want to spend time with friends.’

The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) (Davis et al., 1989; Davis, 1993) has often been proposed as a framework for e-retail studies (e.g. Monsuwé et al., 2004; Lee et al., 2005). In TAM, ‘perceived enjoyment’, ‘perceived ease of use’ and ‘perceived usefulness’ are key factors that affect people's behaviour intention to adopt new technological innovations such as social e-shopping (Dennis et al., 2010). In the following section, we outline the exploratory research design for the current study, using trust and TAM as a loose framework.


This research concerns a complex area that has been little researched to date. Therefore, an exploratory qualitative approach that sought to provide insight into consumers’ experiences was indicated (Bellinger et al., 1976; Dey, 1993). Qualitative research allows researchers to formulate interpretations of the subjects under study and to give representations of these interpretations in order to add to a body of knowledge (Wright, 2008). This was operationalised in the form of four focus groups. Focus groups are particularly appropriate for this type of research, as they provide insight and depth into the attitude and behaviour intentions of a group of participants (Kruegar, 1994).

A convenience sample of 26 students was drawn from two UK universities. Student samples are well suited to e-shopping research because they are computer literate (Balabanis and Reynolds, 2001; Fiore et al., 2005) and ‘shoppers of tomorrow’ (Dennis et al., 2002: 283). The profile of students is closer to that of the online customer population than is the profile of the general population and accepted as suitable subjects for studies on the use of technological innovations (King and He, 2006). All participants were experienced Internet users and e-shoppers. The sample also represented younger age groups (16 participants aged 18–24 years and 10 aged 25–44 years), which is appropriate, as young adults in particular regard the social aspect of shopping as important (e.g. Dholakia, 1999) and are major users of social networks (Social Networks, 2007) (Table 1a).

Table 1a. Ages of focus group participants

The sample also included a wide variety of nationalities/cultures, including Chinese (5), UK (11, including 2 UK-Indian and 1 UK-Afro-Caribbean), Greek (3), German (2), Indian (2), Uruguayan, Slovak and Syrian (Table 1b). The four focus groups were of between 1 hour 15 minutes and 1 hour 45 minutes duration and took place in December 2010 and January 2011.

Table 1b. National cultures of focus group participants
National culturesNumber

A topics guide was prepared in order to ensure consistency between the two experienced researchers who moderated half of the focus groups each. The topics guide aimed to explore participants' uses of Facebook (or other social networks), in particular for recommending or guiding purchases. Each focus group was moderated by an experienced researcher and audio-recorded. After introductory questions such as ‘because you're here, can I assume that everyone's a Facebook user?’ (all except one participant was) and ‘to start the ball rolling, could we go round the table with what you use Facebook for?’, the moderator probed uses of Facebook a source of information or providing information for friends. After narrowing the focus to information on products, brands and shops, participants discussed which sources they trusted most/least and why. This was followed by a discussion about combining Facebook or other social networking with shopping and whether participants did or would find it enjoyable/not enjoyable, useful/not useful, easy/difficult (i.e. the TAM variables); time saving/takes longer; convenient/not convenient; and sociable/not sociable. Finally, participants were shown demonstrations of Google's dedicated shopping social networking site www.boutiques.com, invited to ‘play’ with it and comment on whether they would use this type of service and why/why not.

We adopted a systematic approach to data analysis. This was considered preferable to a conversation analytic approach or group dynamics, which would have been likely to suppress useful findings as a result of digressing outside our sphere of investigation. Sorting and theme generation in the form of axial coding facilitated the listing of recurrent themes. Axial coding facilitated the process of listing key ideas, using a transcription form based on a standard template, derived from the topics guide. Two researchers experienced in focus group analysis carried out the coding of half of focus groups each and then discussed and agreed on the final selection of quotes as indicative of consensus or minority views as appropriate.


On average, the number of hours spent on Facebook per week by our participants was 12.2, of which 9.8 hours were spent socialising (including activities such as posting pictures, wall posts and groups), 1.8 hours seeking information and the balance of 0.6 hours providing information. There were some extremes reported, with one participant saying she used Facebook ‘all the time’, as she had an application on her smartphone, which was always kept switched on. Another said that she ‘rarely’ checked Facebook and preferred to telephone her friends to keep in touch. Most participants regularly access Facebook from mobile devices as well as from computers:

‘My iPad is for checking Facebook and reading magazines.’ (male participant)

‘I have an iPhone app for Facebook and Twitter.’ (male participant)

‘BlackBerry’ (female participant)

‘iPhone is Facebook in my pocket. I use App IM+ [which has] all your social networks, [for example] Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Yahoo instead of separate apps for each.’ (male participant)

Many participants claimed that they do not use Facebook to search for information but rather use the search engine www.google.co.uk:

‘Facebook is a social space. It's about finding out what my friends and family are doing. I'm very protective of that. I keep my comments or queries about University or career-related issues to Twitter.’ (female participant)

‘For information on products, I'm more likely to use Google; Facebook is not the right place [for that].’ (male participant)

Our participants showed little interest in interacting with businesses on Facebook, or indeed with anyone whom they did not already know in ‘real life’:

‘I seldom link Facebook to brands and shopping.’ (female participant)

‘I don't accept friend requests from strangers. And I don't like my feed cluttered up with junk. I'll leave groups if there's too much rubbish going on.’ (male participant)

Nevertheless, when asked how they obtain information from friends, all agreed, mainly ‘Facebook’ but to a lesser degree, also ‘text’ [sms] and ‘email’. As the discussions progressed, it became clear that they do post information on Facebook that directly or indirectly recommends products:

‘I do put up in my [Facebook] profile my favourite books, artists [music] and athletes. This is my most genuine opinion that I'm proud of.’ (male participant)

‘My friends ask “was this film nice?” and I recommend.’ (female participant)

‘I bought a Mac [Macbook] laptop and was so excited, I had to post it [on my Facebook wall].’ (female participant)

Similarly, they do use Facebook as a source of information on products and services:

‘If I need something, I ask friends. For example, I'm looking for some software. I posted it on my wall, got a response and got the software.’ (female participant)

‘I do quite a bit ask for advice. I wanted a holiday in Europe 5-star scuba diving. The travel sites don't do it easily. I got 20 replies from friends and family—useful information.’ (male participant)

Engagement with products

The focus group topics guide led the moderators to probe the use of Facebook and other social networking for giving or finding information on products, brands and shops and combining Facebook and other social networking with shopping. Participants indicated little interest in engaging with products within their ‘social space’ on Facebook. A few exceptions were mentioned, usually concerning sporting interests, hobbies, favoured charities or local cafes offering special deals. The rationale for following such businesses was to keep up to date or to get discounts rather than to interact with other fans:

‘Two for one offers on milkshakes! What's not to like?!’ (male participant)

‘I'm a fan of Dog's Trust, because the cause is close to my heart. I like being kept up to date with what they are doing, and find out about local fund raising events taking place. I've never interacted with anyone else in the group though.’(female participant)

‘Just because my friends follow something, that doesn't mean I will too. I like to make up my own mind. It's for my own benefit, I'm not interested in converting others.’ (female participant)

‘This company paid me £100 to put a link to their site in a festival group that I created. It has about 3000 members and the company's products were relevant to the group's interests, so I did it. I wouldn't advertise anything in my personal site though.’ (male participant)

Our participants showed little interest in, or use for, the ‘Like’ button. ‘Likes’ are mainly for their own (or close friends’) benefit rather than in actively recommending brands to others or in brands being recommended to them:

‘“Like” is a recognition that you thought a particular thing was good, or funny…it does not imply a relationship going forward.’ (male participant)

‘If it's just “like” and no insight, I don't see the point.’ (male participant)

But that was later contradicted by one participant:

‘Facebook [“like”] is good for [evaluating products] because you can get information from strangers—lots of them.’ (female participant)


Notwithstanding that we did not a priori define the meaning of the word ‘trust’ to participants, a shared understanding of the term can be inferred from the discussions as a willingness to rely on information provided by the relevant others. Recommendations from friends are trusted above other sources:

‘I would use [Facebook] for a genuine recommendation from a friend.’ (male participant—all the group expressed agreement)

‘There was a discussion on my friend's Facebook wall, I bought a BlackBerry.’ (female participant)

‘I bought a laptop on a recommendation from a Facebook friend. But that was because I knew he was a computer expert.’ (male participant)

And they also take an interest in others’ Facebook postings related to products:

‘One friend carries fashion advice … gifts and ads … My friend is into cosmetics and posts on her Facebook “like page” and profile. She advises on the use of mascara and cosmetics. She teaches how to do it.' (female participant)

‘If my Facebook friend recommended I buy something from a company, I'd have a look but still shop around for the best deal.’ (male participant)

This type of posting can lead to two-way interaction and buying:

‘I put on [Facebook] that my favourite camera is Nikon, I'd love to talk to people about it.’ (male participant)

(same participant, later:)

‘My friends put up really good pictures. I ask about camera brands and lenses. They tell me. They're experts. I believe them … I bought a camera lens last week because my friend recommended it.’ (male participant)

Real friends and family are trusted most, but Facebook friends are also trusted:

‘I would trust my Facebook friends for information on products and brands, they wouldn't lie at all.’ (male participant)

‘If someone said it's a good film, I'd go and watch it.’ (female participant)

Views were mixed on the extent to which friends are trusted if they are thought to be earning commission for their recommendations, with a single participant (referring to advice on the use of mascara and cosmetics reported in this section above) continuing:

'I still trust her even if she gets a commission’ [from companies whose products she recommends]. (female participant)

On the other hand, the majority view is that if friends are thought to be earning commission for their recommendations, this can negatively affect reaction:

‘If I knew my friend was on commission, I'd be much more sceptical.’ (male participant)

‘I've got a friend who recommends cosmetics. I know she's trying to sell and I won't buy.’ (female participant)

Indicating that they pay attention to and sometimes act on friends recommendations, the cyclic process was stated:

‘First, I didn't trust the company, then my Facebook friend gave me information and I thought “I'll go for it”. Then I recommended it to friends. One friend used it.’ (female participant)

Participants claim to trust their friends:

‘…trust people that my friends know more than strangers.’ (female participant)

‘For insurance or investment, I rely on my friend … I trust her because she is my best friend's sister’ (female participant)

‘If it's people you know, they're more trusted.’ (male participant)

Friends who have specific subject and product expertise are trusted more than are anonymous reviews:

‘I would believe people whose expertise I know.’ (female participant)

‘A review on the shop['s own website], I'm a bit cynical, they wouldn't show a bad one.’ (male participant)

‘Often authors review their own books.’ (female participant)

‘I bought apps from iTunes because the reviews said “5* the best ever”, then found some are really bad—OK not bad but not 5*. They were recommended by strangers.’ (male participant)

It came out strongly that the participants trust their friends more than anonymous reviews. There were only few examples of buying on the basis of friends’ advice and none of using the Facebook login facility to buy. Notwithstanding that participants use Facebook for suggestions and recommendations from friends, Google (of course) is their main information search tool:

‘I use Google, for example to get experts' responses on blogs. For example, pcadvisor.co.uk fixed the virus on my computer.’ (female participant)

When asked what they trust least, all participants agreed upon the company website and reviews on the company website. They have more trust in reviews when there are a lot of them, even when they are from strangers:

‘If a review is just two or three people, I wouldn't trust it. If it's 50, I trust it. I go with the majority.’ (female participant)

They also apparently trust some brands and reviews more than others:

‘I would trust my friend first, then Amazon [www.amazon.co.uk] not just because it's a trusted brand but also because of genuine reviews and easy returns’ [if wanting a refund or to exchange the product].

‘I like independent review sites. Trip Advisor [www.tripadvisor.co.uk] has well targeted ads and hot UK deals.’ (male participant)

Similarly, there are mixed attitudes to trusting celebrities, depending on who the celebrity is and whether they are perceived as writing personally:

‘I would trust a celebrity more [than an anonymous review], depending on who. … I would trust more if I know it's them writing [if the writing is] more personal, less polished. … [I trust] Derren Brown's blog, clicked on an affiliate link and bought the book. … I wouldn't trust Cheryl Cole as much.’ (male participant)

‘I don't trust what's his name…Mark Zuckerberg. Amazon has never misused my data, so I'd rather shop with them any time.’ (female participant)

These comments show that perhaps more brand interaction goes on than our interviewees initially cared to admit, although we found very little evidence of active engagement with either the company or other supporters, beyond the basic wish to be kept updated about activities and discounts.

Social shopping

Our participants showed little interest in shopping directly on Facebook:

‘It's not as enjoyable as the high street … I enjoy food, comments, feel, touch and talk to a [salesperson].’ (female participant)

‘Maybe for low value items…if they gave big discounts.’ (female participant)

Most participants expressed no prior interest in the Facebook login, and there were no examples of using it to buy. When prompted, they expressed mixed opinions:

‘I don't like the idea.’ (male and female participants)

‘Facebook doesn't have many places that you can log in.’ (male participant)

Nevertheless, benefits of Facebook login are recognised by some participants:

‘Combining Facebook with shopping would be great—Facebook is boring. I might be more likely to buy [latest fashion using Facebook login] rather than Google.’ (female participant)

‘It would be really good, for example, with Amazon, for example if your friends’ reviews came to the top [because you were logged in to Facebook].’ (female participant—all in the group agreed)

There were also mixed views on the potential privacy of Facebook login:

‘Facebook login to retailers would be useful but I am concerned about privacy.’ (female participant)

‘With Facebook login it's convenient but you have to put in your address.’ (female participant)

‘I don't think this is the risk. I think [Facebook login] would help.’ (male participant)

‘I'd like to use it—jump on it. I'm aware of the security [issues].’ (male participant)

Participants were previously unaware of www.boutiques.com (which was discussed earlier in the paper) but were interested in it when it was demonstrated, and they trialled it for themselves:

‘With “Boutiques” you can choose lots of nice things…from one website’ (male participant)

‘I like to see celebrities wearing stuff and where to buy it from.’ (female participant)

‘It's quite a good intermediary. If there's a men's version, I'd like to be told.’ (male participant)

‘Usually, you have all the browsers [individual retailers’ websites] open [but with www.boutiques.com] you can look at all the clothes from all the companies.’ (female participant)

The demonstration of www.boutiques.com also led one participant to contradict his previous lack of interest in Facebook ‘likes’:

‘If I see trainers I like, I click on to Bluefly and see 40,000 Facebook “likes”—yes, I would click through to Facebook, I like to see what others have said … anybody, not just people I know. … This is the kind of reviews that I like because there are so many.’ (male participant)

Participants appeared to be influenced by the discussions and/or the demonstration and trial of www.boutiques.com and its links to Facebook, which sparked more interest in Facebook shopping, such that one group left the discussions with more positive feelings towards Facebook shopping than at the start:

‘Facebook and shopping could be the future [because it offers] convenience, choice and [you can] feel close to celebrities.’ (female participant)


Participants originally stated little interest in Facebook shopping in particular and social e-shopping in general, yet it emerged from the discussions that they often need only a slight ‘nudge’. This is apparent, first, because they trust their friends and Facebook is their main way of obtaining information from friends. Searching via Google is understandably the main means of searching for information, yet because information from friends is trusted more, then they often buy on the basis of friends’ recommendations, without realising that they are participating in social e-shopping. Second, when the social e-shopping site www.boutiques.com was demonstrated to participants and they tried it for themselves, they expressed mainly positive opinions based on access to, for example, large numbers of customer reviews and easy access to many e-retailers at the same time. In parallel with the ‘nudge theory’ (Ehrenberg, 1997), this leads us to speculate and recommend for further research that, notwithstanding consumers expressing little interest in Facebook shopping in particular and social e-shopping in general, a ‘nudge’ in the form of recommendations from friends and trial of appropriate systems may result in significant changes in consumer behaviour towards the use of Facebook shopping/social e-shopping.

A clear hierarchy of trust emerged. Participants trust first ‘real’ friends, particularly experts in the relevant topic, then Facebook friends, then expert blogs and independent review sites. Next come celebrities, although the degree of trust depends on who they are and the perception that they write the material themselves. Last come reviews on the e-retailer site, although these are trusted more when there are many of them. Trust has been proposed as a major antecedent of e-consumer behaviour (e.g. Dennis et al., 2009). In line with the role of trust in the model of e-consumer behaviour by Dennis et al. (2009), we propose for further research to investigate our suggestion that the recommending party in a product or service recommendation or review role can be considered as an ordinal proxy variable representing trust, influencing intention to e-shop. Specifically, we speculate that the ordinal variable will consist of the following (in descending order of influence on influencing intention to e-shop on the basis of the recommendation or review): (i) ‘real’ friends, experts in the relevant topic; (ii) other ‘real’ friends; (iii) Facebook friends, experts in the relevant topic; (iv) other Facebook friends; (v) expert blogs and independent review sites; (vi) celebrities; and (vii) reviews on the e-retailer site.

As preliminary research in a field for which there is little prior research, the empirical part of this research is limited to a qualitative study with a non-random sample. Also, this study has considered only students, as an important shopping and social networking segment. The participants in our study were not necessarily from ‘early adopter’ groups in terms of their use of technology. While adept at communicating with their friends on Facebook, not many of them had given much thought or application to the full scope of engagement that is now possible online. For example, not one participant had used Facebook's location-based services or interacted with other supporters within Facebook groups. Few were aware of recent developments in online shopping as illustrated by the discussions about Boutiques.com. More extensive qualitative and quantitative studies are recommended to study behavioural segments in more detail and to extend the generalisability of the results.

The organisational implications of engaging in a variety of ways with specific groups of consumers through social networks need investigation. From a business perspective, it has been reported that a lack of senior management support, staff skills and general interdepartmental co-operation represents a significant barrier to effective engagement with social media. Hulme (2010) notes that strategies should be in place to develop joined up systems and databases that bring together all available customer data in a transparent way. This includes transactional data, direct response data and more contextual data contained in spaces such as blogs and social networks. Delivery mechanisms need to be present to ensure that promises to online community supporters are kept, for example, with regard to discounts. Currently, many retailers still lack any real integration between their own Web channel and social media despite the proliferation of ‘Follow us’ banners and ‘Like’ buttons in recent months. This leads us to recommend for further research the notion that in order to develop trust and subsequent purchase activity from their social network supporters, retailers need to pay attention to the integration of their data across the whole of the organisation and ensure the availability of sufficient numbers of trained and empowered staff to engage with their supporters effectively.

In conclusion, we have argued that social networking, particularly Facebook, is becoming ever more prevalent, particularly with young people. The results of our qualitative study led us to propose new theories appropriate for this new form of consumer behaviour. First, notwithstanding consumers expressing little interest in Facebook shopping/social e-shopping, a ‘nudge’ in the form of recommendations from friends and trial of appropriate systems should result in significant changes in consumer behaviour towards its use. Second, we expect that there is a hierarchy of trust in recommenders/reviewers from ‘real’ friends at the top down an ordinal scale to reviews on retailers’ websites at the bottom. We speculate that this scale should act as a proxy for trust in the recommendations and be positively associated with intention to purchase the recommended product or service. Future quantitative studies are recommended.


  • Lisa Harris teaches online marketing at the University of Southampton. She is Course Director of the MSc in Digital Marketing and an accredited tutor for the University of Liverpool online MBA. Her research interests lie in the disruptive effects of technology on business, education and society.

  • Charles Dennis is Professor of Marketing and Retailing and Director of Research at Lincoln Business School, the University of Lincoln (UK). His teaching and research area is (e-)retail and consumer behaviour. Charles is a Chartered Marketer and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Charles's published books include Marketing the e-Business (1st and 2nd editions) (joint-authored with Dr Lisa Harris), e-Retailing (Routledge) and research monograph Objects of Desire: Consumer Behaviour in Shopping Centre Choice (Palgrave).