Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Does Search or Social Media Have More Impact?

Of course there’s a secondary question—impact on what? For several days I’ve been thinking about two specific questions:

1. Does search marketing or social media drive more traffic to websites? I’m going to limit it to PPC and not include SE0.
2. Does PPC or social media have more impact on sales?

Both sound pretty simple and straightforward, right? If we believe that, we’ve forgotten all we know about the interconnectedness of media. Nevertheless, starting out with two specific questions led me to some interesting data.

Going backwards, we also know that question two is not as simple as phrased; there is immediate impact on sales and delayed impact. From early studies we know that web exposure, which was mostly display advertising at that time, had some immediate conversion impact but also had longer-term impact. In other words, it often took more than one visit for a consumer to decide to make a purchase. Think about your own behavior—does that make sense? We also learned that conversions occurred offline in retail stores after consumers had visited websites. That was a pretty common phenomenon in the early days, “research on line buy offline.” Again, we’ve all probably done that. Are we more likely to just go ahead and buy online today; probably depends on a number of things.

The same is true of the online vs. offline conversion issue. These 2005 data seem pretty straightforward. More people convert offline. comScore went on to say that they “analyzed the time lag between consumers’ initial searches and subsequent purchases made in the same categories during November and December of 2005. . .more than half (56%) of consumers’ online holiday buying actually happened in subsequent internet sessions, clearly demonstrating the strong latent impact of search.”

I’ve been looking for a replication of this study ever since. I’ve never found one. Does that mean that the latent impact of search has become part of Internet marketing conventional wisdom and no one sees the need? I did find a marketer’s analysis of a single campaign in 2009. He found that initial Google results were faster to come in than Yahoo’s, but that 31% of all results came in after his (approximately 1 month) campaign was over. I’ll take that as confirmation until someone shows me otherwise.

Ok, so here’s what I found in terms of traffic. The answer to question 1 looks pretty simple, right? Search is the winner by a huge margin. But look at what else eMarketer said (newsletter, October 22, 2009):

According to research by ad network Chitika, social sites Facebook and Digg are more likely to send returning traffic your way than search engines such as Yahoo!, Google and Bing. More than one-fifth of users referred to a site by Facebook visited at least four times in the course of a week. Less than 12% of Google-referred visitors were as loyal.

It doesn’t say that the loyal users were more likely to buy, but would you agree that the likelihood of a purchase goes up with repeat visits? It does seem likely; how much is unanswered, at least in any recent research I could find.
The most interesting data I found is this 2007 study of the influence of newspaper advertising on web traffic. 44% of people who saw an ad did additional research; 67% of them did their research online; and 31% went to a search engine first.

But strong brands matter; in 2009 Nielsen found that 61% of the holiday traffic of retail web sites came from direct visits, not search. A Nielsen spokesman said:

the fact that such a high percentage of people go directly to retail sites and even those that search generally have a pretty clear intent as to which website they'd like to go to -- it makes a compelling argument that brand and past experiences [with a marketer] matter an awful lot and will be far more significant determinants of success than any customer acquisition strategy that they're going to engage in."

That’s really interesting. Two things strike me. First, that’s holiday shopping data for retailers and it may be different for purchases during the rest of the year. Second, all marketers have to do customer acquisition, so the question as to whether social media or search is best for acquisition still matters. Each and every marketer has to answer that by looking at quality vs. quality of initial referrals and the persistence of customers who were acquired in various channels—in other words by Customer Lifetime Value. At the same time, it’s unlikely that one acquisition channel will ever be enough; the question is allocation of resources.

Question 2 one more time--does search or social media have more impact on sales? Here’s data from the current Razorfish Fluent Report. Offline friends are most trusted when making a purchase—WOM again and always. TV was also trusted by these respondents, then “online” activities of several types appear. Search is down at the bottom as far as trust when making a purchase is concerned.

The issue is not straightforward in the sense that either search or social media is “best.” However, there seems to be a pretty clear picture in these data. Search brings more people to your site; social media gives them more trusted information on which to base their purchases. It’s not either/or.

Several times while I was looking for data I came across a good piece of advice. Marketers must measure the impact of various media at each stage in the conversion funnel. It changes from “just looking for information” to “deciding to buy something” and in between. That’s the real message; marketers must use all the tools in their arsenal—wisely!

1 comment:

Charlie Osmond said...

Great post. Thanks for aggregating all these studies and sharing your analysis.

I think there are different flavours of social and search that can have different impacts. e.g. social media of the facebook group sort, is very different from (social media) ratings and reviews on your site that increase conversion by 30%.

There is always more study required!

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