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Friends offer sound advice for online shopping

Online shopping exposes consumers to information overload. How can they sort through the almost infinite product choices on the Internet? The consumer's social network could come to the rescue, acting as a beacon to illuminate the best choices and encourage serendipitous discoveries. To understand the impact of social capital on search behaviour, Camille Grange, associate professor in the Department of Information Technology at HEC Montréal, created a restaurant review website from scratch, listing around 100 restaurants and importing the participants’ Facebook friend lists.

Different platform designs were developed: some users were connected to many friends, and others with few, if any. The greater the social capital, the greater the participant’s propensity to engage in exploitation, which consists of seeking peers’ opinions and placing greater value on their comments. Participants with few or no connections to friends were more likely to engage in exploration, consulting the opinions of anonymous members.

Exploitation proved to be the most useful and user-friendly type of opinion-seeking behaviour. It is also the one that induced the most serendipity, i.e. the ability to generate interesting but unexpected finds.

In effect, the design that provided access to the user’s social circle had greater potential for serendipity than the one that connected to both the social circle and all the platform’s users. Consumers place greater value on serendipitous discoveries when they come from their friends, considering them more reliable. Our social network could therefore serve as an initial filter for the overabundance of choices on the Internet. For retailers, integrating a social network into an online business website is an interesting option for fostering serendipity and improving visitors’ shopping experience.