Can We Please Stop Hyping Social as the Marketing Messiah?

Can We Please Stop Hyping Social as the Marketing Messiah?

If tech media coverage frequency were to serve as a barometer of the relative utility of the digital channels available to an inbound marketer, one could be forgiven for concluding that when it comes to search and social media, Search’s value pales in comparison to the much-covered Social Media.

An analysis of ‘SEO’ vs. ‘social media’ coverage on the top two major tech blogs, while not the most scientific study ever done, shows that social media was covered 4x more frequently on Techcrunch and 58x more frequently on Mashable.

search-v-social-coverage

This matters because, as any first year political science student knows, media coverage impacts public opinion.  In this case, that means impacting Marketer’s organizational decision-making, such as budget and resource investment.  And, as many a frustrated SEO practitioner knows, even if you yourself have things straight, the VP or CMO at the top of the food chain who likely controls the pursestrings is often the most susceptible to the tech media’s influence.

Media Saturation of Social Dominates Mindshare and Budgets

To add to the ‘how much’ coverage factor, the ‘what is being said’ is another variable influencing public opinion.  To a certain extent, the tech media has touted social media as the Inbound Marketer’s magic bullet, promising it will change the very fabric of how we market online.  When it comes to online retail in particular, we have been told that social will change the way people shop, presumably because recommendations from friends carry more weight than results from a search engine.

Given these dual factors putting downward pressure on public opinion, we thought now would be a good time to check in on where social should, in fact, be positioned in the Inbound Marketer’s toolbox.

Before we look at the data, let me put out there that we know that measurement of the current traffic social media drives to websites is not a definitive indicator about its future utility.  But it does give us a finger-in-the-wind check as to where social currently stands relative to other drivers of inbound traffic.

With that, let’s take a look at some data.

Data: Social Drives Far Less Traffic than Search

First, from Adobe’s analysis of ‘…billions of visits from 500 retail websites during the holiday season,’ only 2% of visits come from social, while 34% come from search:

2012-holiday-ecommerce-traffic-sources

Source: marketingcharts.com

And, a study from Monetate shows similar findings with social hovering at around 2%:

share-of-ecommerce-traffic-source

Source: marketingcharts.com

It would seem clear, therefore, that from a traffic perspective, social is driving only a small percentage of visits to retailers.  Our own study at Conductor suggests that may be in part because users overwhelmingly turn to search as a discovery platform versus social when it comes to online shopping.

information-retrieval-frequency

People Use Search and Social Differently

One last point.

Jay Taylor wrote an article on Search Engine Watch last month titled 5 Reasons SMBs Should Focus on Search, Not Social for Customer Acquisition.  He made a number of good points about re-positioning social when it comes to customer acquisition, but he must have struck one heck of a cord with one particular aspect of his observations on social because I noticed a phenomenon I had never seen before on my Twitter stream.  No less than 5 people I follow tweeted a link to his article with the same article snippet (or close variation) preceding the link:

People use social media to, well, socialize. People use search engines when they want to find something.

Facebook and Twitter are hoping to change that, particularly when it comes to commerce (see: Facebook Graph Search and Twitter enabling instant commerce with American Express ), but for now the data says that he’s right.

In the survey we mentioned earlier, users showed that they want to use social for, well, socializing, while turning to search universally across all information retrieval scenarios:

information-retrieval-by-type

Let’s Reposition Social Where it Belongs

There’s no question that social has a place in the modern Marketer’s toolbox, both as a brand development and customer service listening platform.  But can we agree that it’s time we as Marketers return it, at least for now, where it rightly belongs: a place for socializing.

A version of this article originally appeared in Search Engine Watch on March 25, 2013.

About Nathan Safran

Nathan is the Director of Research at Conductor and leads Conductor’s research and content team. Nathan is a monthly columnist at Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch. Nathan’s research on digital marketing has been widely covered in both industry publications and mainstream media such as Techcrunch, Venture Beat and the Washington Post. Prior to joining Conductor, Nathan was an analyst at Forrester Research.

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  • http://twitter.com/netspeakdesign Stephen J Dow

    THANK YOU NATHAN. I’ve been going out of my tree listening to endless drivel about “socialized media”. It’s just one tool of many!

    • http://conductor.com Nathan S.

      No doubt :)

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    Thanks Nathan, I absolutely agree with the sentiment and thrust of this article. Search is so fundamentally importance to ecommerce and branding, but – I think because it is much more poorly understood by non-specialists – is so often short changed because of social media hype.

    However, I will point out (as I noticed when this article was first published) that the introductory chart showing SEO vs. social media coverage on Tech Crunch and – especially – Mashable is disingenuous.

    TechCrunch is “a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news.” As anyone that reads it knows,TechCrunch is focused on startups, not marketing per se.

    Mashable dedicates much more time to social than SEO? Could that be that “Mashable covers the top social media news on topics like Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Twitter, Amazon, Pinterest and More”? That is, it’s dedicated to social media.

    (Both quotes above from the respective sites’ meta description tag.)

    • http://conductor.com Nathan S.

      Aaron,

      We agree on what Techcrunch and Mashable are and are not. However, as the article points out, arguably it is the perception of the person holding the purse strings that often matters most when it comes to the utility of online marketing channels (search and social) and *they* are often the ones consuming the Techcrunch and Mashable’s of the world, often to the exclusion of other pubs that will give them deeper insight into the true state of things.

  • http://raventools.com Courtney Seiter

    My two cents as a social media marketer and former journalist: Social media is MUCH more approachable to “the masses” than SEO, so it’s always going to get more media time.

    Even if you don’t do it for a living, you understand the basics of Facebook (and probably Twitter). So it’s an acceptable thing for mainstream tech blog to write about (and get more pageviews).

    SEO has an acronym for a name, it involves robots and spiders, it’s cloaked in mystery. It’s never going to be the media darling that social media is.

    • http://www.conductor.com Nathan Safran

      Definitely agree with that Courtney. And, I think the result of that is often that Marketers/budget holders conflate coverage in the tech blogs with ROI/a major input into where they will spend their budget.

  • http://interactive-arts.com C Jones

    Nathan, great post and totally agree. Social and search are two different animals that serve different purposes.

    But, I’m truly amazed at how quickly people jump on the Social Media bandwagon. I worked with a client once who wanted to spend 80% of their time and resources on social media, even though 80% of their online conversions were a result of their organic search traffic. Go figure…

    • http://www.conductor.com Nathan Safran

      Why you getting caught up in the details? :)

      • http://interactive-arts.com C Jones

        Well I know you’re kidding. But seriously, this reminds me of the early days where all that was of concern were number of visitors to a web site.

        Now all I’m hearing is “we need more likes” or “we need more followers”. I just want to see a decent report that shows the lifetime value of a Like or a Follower. I haven’t seen that yet, although I remain all eyes and ears ;-)

  • http://www.cypressintegrativemedicine.com/captcha/set.asp Anonymous

    Hello, just wanted to say, I liked this article. It was practical. Keep on posting!

  • http://www.planetmarketing.com Francisco

    I agree with this post. I have a couple clients who I market on Adwords. For us, we can see that conversions coming from Adwords is WAY higher than any social media channel. Google Adwords and BingAds will always get my client’s money before Social Media because we can in GA that it brings in more money into the bank.

    I’m not against social media. It is an okay form of communication. It also can build great credibility for a company, but this is much harder to put a value on.

  • http://proputtsystems.com Brett

    I really love this article and the FACTS it lays out. Social is a massive waste of resources. If you can reach 100,000+ followers in a click, great but, most can’t and never will. Organic search is 96% of our gross and I don’t see that changing.