But online forums (59 percent) and online reviews from other consumers on sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor (54 percent) also scored well. Among regular social-media users, reliance on those sources soared to 72 percent and 66 percent, respectively, approaching the level of users who consult expert publications (77 percent). About seven in 10 young adults also report relying heavily on those sources. What's more, it's becoming much more common for Americans to not only seek information about their experiences but also share it: More than half of regular social-media users say they have posted a review or comment online after a positive experience with a product or service, and nearly half say they have done so after a negative experience.
Sarah P., a thirtysomething graduate student in Rexburg, Idaho, who did not give her last name, was one of many respondents who said they now routinely seek the online reactions of other consumers before opening their wallets. When buying something, she said, she usually pokes through consumer reviews on Amazon, Target, or other sites. "You can shop smarter," Sarah said. "I think social media has certainly made it better for me to shop and look up problems that certain products have."
"It's impossible to call companies; they want to put you on a live Web chat all the time." — Beth Thibault, Westport, Conn.
Tom A., a sales manager in Champaign, Ill., who also declined to give his last name, was one of several who said that the communications revolution has shifted power from businesses to consumers by making it easier to compare options and alternatives. "Let's go back to our grandparents," he said. "They did business with the same people the whole time and didn't really have a platform to compare other industries or services with. People fire their banks and attorneys all the time now, because people use the Internet and social media to learn more about their alternative choices."
In weighing those choices, Tom said he now leans more heavily on the collected opinions of other consumers than on the reviews in expert publications: "I'm an avid biker, and I just bought a headlight for my bike. I didn't care what expert reviews and the manufacturer say because it seemed almost like propaganda. I care what people do in their real life. I can see a guy who is exactly like me and what he thinks."
Such assessments help explain why a resounding 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "the rapid growth of the Internet, most recently through social media," has made it easier "to be a well-informed consumer." Only 32 percent said that the information explosion "has made it harder for me to be a well-informed consumer" because of unreliable reports or by overwhelming people with "too much information to manage." The share who believe that the Internet has empowered them rises to 68 percent among college graduates, 69 percent among social-media users, and 73 percent among those who use the Internet several times daily. But it's not just the young digerati who feel that way. Robert Merkle, a retired 73-year-old former owner of a gourmet-food shop living in Bayville, N.J., succinctly expressed the consensus in the poll across a broad range of groups. "I don't buy anything or go anywhere without checking online," he declared.