Why Purchases Aren’t Made Alone Anymore

How Buying Decisions Have Become a Team Effort

May 04, 2020
As Featured In 
Journal of Marketing

These days, making a purchase takes a village.

Between talking with friends, doing your research and reading reviews online, it is becoming increasingly clear that purchasing decisions have become more of a team effort. With so many choices to make throughout the customer journey, people are turning to their “traveling companions” for guidance, says a new article from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

In the article, published in the Journal of Marketing, Maryland Smith associate professor of marketing Rosellina Ferraro and three co-authors propose that these social influences can be organized along a social distance continuum.

“Social distance can be thought of as five dimensions: number of social others, the extent to which the other is known, temporal and physical presence, group membership, and strength of ties,” Ferraro writes on the American Marketing Association website.

With social others, Ferraro says there are primarily two types to consider: distal and proximal others. Distal social others, she says, can be larger groups, whose members might not be present or even known to the consumer.

“When a distal other is a single individual, it will tend to be someone the consumer does not know personally, such as a YouTube tutor or an anonymous review writer,” Ferraro says.

Proximal others, on the other hand, typically share an immediate relationship with the purchaser, says Ferraro. They contribute by offering distinct and articulated comments or ideas to the focal customer’s journey.

“For example, a consumer may be influenced by a single, close friend representing one, well-known, physically present, in-group member with strong social ties,” says Ferraro.

As companies and brands continue to adapt to the social customer journey, they will have to consider how and when to jump in what are considered to be consumer-to-consumer interactions, Ferraro says.

This might include determining when and how to respond to negative customer reviews or social media attention, as well as when to highlight a social media influencer who is either implicitly or explicitly endorsing the product, Ferraro says.

Businesses can also take a look into managing “sponsored” blog posts and when they should provide “corrective” information to mitigate unfavorable product information being disseminated by others, she says.

Given how technology has reshaped the customer journey by increasing the number of opinions consumers are exposed to, businesses may leverage new tools to help nudge consumers from evaluation to decision, says Ferraro. This has already been observed through decision support systems where the customer and an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled agent, like a chatbot, complete the purchase together.

However, Ferraro says, this is something that warrants further assessment in terms of how it might impact customer journeys in the future.

“Firms must carefully consider their usage of new technologies like AI and attend specifically to the social implications.”

Read more:Traveling with Companions: The Social Customer Journey” is published in the Journal of Marketing.

About the Author(s)


Professor Ferraro received her Ph.D. in Marketing from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in 2005. Her research focuses on consumer behavior, and specifically, the effects of nonconscious social influence on choice and preference and the effects of external threats on consumption behavior. Her work has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Marketing. She has presented research papers at the Association of Consumer Research and the Society for Consumer Psychology conferences. She teaches consumer behavior in the undergraduate and MBA programs and information processing in the PhD program. Professor Ferraro serves as the Associate Chair of the Marketing Department.

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Robert H. Smith School of Business
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