Expert Strangers Beat Friends for Web Recommendations?

Meebo study says yes

To hear it from social networks, the key to converting consumers is through friends. But a new study suggests that you shouldn't underestimate the click-value of strangers.

According to research from Meebo, a social platform that connects friends across the Web, expertise trumps friendship when people are surfing the Web for content that matches their interests.

The study, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,473 people, found that 53 percent of Web users are looking for recommendations from "everyday experts," or strangers with knowledge on a specific topic.

For information on specific hobbies or interests, 39 percent of people would seek the recommendations of strangers, compared to 28 percent who would turn to friends or acquaintances, the study found. For questions about travel and cooking, the gap is even bigger — about 40 percent said they would connect with "everyday experts" while about 20 percent would ask people they know.

“People are saying 'so my network of friends may not have expertise in what I’m interested in doing, so I need to look outside of that,'” said Pip Marquez de la Plata, SVP of marketing for Meebo.

Consider that in light of research from Nielsen and Facebook showing the effectiveness of ads served with social context from Facebook friends. Their study found that ads with social context lift recall 68 percent, and boost purchase intent by a factor of four.

Facebook has not yet disclosed data on its six-month-old Sponsored Stories program, which incorporates social actions such as friends "liking" brands into a user's newsfeed, and it declined to comment for this story. But the company has said that there are 50 million likes per day for Facebook pages and early reports suggest positive engagement.

While Facebook doesn't include a specific tool for seeking out expert friends, its Question feature does allow users to ask friends (and even other Facebook users) for recommendations and advice.

But Marquez de la Plata pointed out, “there’s a lot more strangers than friends.”

Seth Sternberg, Meebo’s CEO and co-founder, said the company stumbled upon the finding. Initially, they set out to research online sharing, but found that many Web users take issue with interrupting friends with distinct content.

“Sharing’s kind of a heavy act,” he said.

Other actions, like “checking-in” to websites (a feature recently launched by Meebo) or rating a recipe or restaurant online, require less effort and intrusion, but can still provide value to consumers and brands, the company said.

“Those lightweight actions are going to leave digital trails across the Web and brands can find consumers that are more relevant to their brand,” Marquez de la Plata said.