Study: Posts on Facebook Almost Never Lead to Retail Sales

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Social media has been described as having an “enormous influence” on consumer behavior. A 2011 Nielsen study found that roughly one-quarter of all time spent by Americans on the web is devoted to sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr, and that 70% of active online networkers shop online. Yet new research suggests that less than 1% of online purchases can be traced back to something the shopper saw posted on social media.

Social media may be transforming the way people interact with each other. But, at least for the time being, it doesn’t seem to be having much of a direct impact in how consumers decide to buy things.

In a new study from Forrester Research, analyst Sucharita Mulpuru presents some surprising—and what would seem to be contradictory—data:

Forty-eight percent of consumers reported that social media posts are a great way to discover new products, brands, trends, or retailers, but less than 1% of transactions could be traced back to trackable social links.

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These factoids come from consumer surveys, as well as the tracing of 77,000 online purchases made by American consumers over a two-week span in April. What researchers found is that consumers almost never buy something right after seeing it mentioned in a post by a friend or retailer on Facebook or other social media outlets.

Instead, consumers who are making a first-time buy with an e-retailer were far more likely to originate their purchase via a direct visit to the site (20%), or an organic or paid search (16% and 11%, respectively). For repeat shoppers, 30% of online purchases begin with an e-mail from the retailer. (No wonder retailers flood customers with e-mails.) Another 30% of repeat customer searches start with a direct visit to the retailer’s site.

“We’ve known for awhile that Facebook hasn’t been a direct sales channel for most companies and it never will be,” says Mulpuru, the study’s author, via “Hopefully we can put that conversation to rest now.”

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Nonetheless, Mulpuru says that exposure on social media sites can “amplify a brand or a product.” It’s possible that repeatedly seeing a product highlighted on Facebook could slowly sway a consumer into making a purchase. This sort of influence is difficult to measure. It’s almost subliminal. But there’s influence there, no doubt about it.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.