Social Marketers Admit Search is King, But Life's More Complicated Than That

on under Social Media Marketing.

Social Media Today is top dog for the social media marketing community, and I'm feeling a bit vindicated today, because they recently reported on a study by Custora. The study concluded (as every such study always does) that:

"organic search still leads the way as the largest channel for online customer acquisition, accounting for 15.81% of total customers acquired. This has risen from 10.35% in 2009 (although it is down from 16.22% last year)"

Meanwhile, email marketing is perhaps the most underrated source out there, quadrupling over the past four years, and bringing in 6.84 percent of customers (PDF link).

Oh, Facebook? It brought in 0.17 percent of leads. Twitter? Less than 0.01 percent. Putting those together, we find that organic search literally brings in 93 times more customers than social media.

But surely the lifetime value of those social customers is higher, right? Nope. On a normalized scale, organic search offers customer lifetime value 54 percent higher than average. Facebook is hovering around 1 percent. Twitter is at negative 23 percent.

How about customer retention? Forrester research indicates that:

  • Thirty percent of repeat sales start with an email
  • Thirty percent of repeat sales come from direct traffic

I'm sure you can do the math yourself, but that means sixty percent of repeat sales come from email or direct visits. Meanwhile, fewer than 1 percent of repeat sales come from social networks.

Before we move on, I'd like to point out that all of this aggregate data is misleading. The total number of sales doesn't necessarily matter as much as the conversion rate. And here's how that breaks down according to Monetate in Q1 of 2013:

  • Email: 3.19 percent
  • Search: 1.95 percent
  • Social: 0.71 percent

I want to be clear here. None of this means that you should ignore social. There are die-hards who only use social networks and never check their email, and these studies fail to account for the influence of brand impressions on sales.

So, what's the takeaway?

Use whatever channels you need to for sales, but for God's sake, get those people on an email list.

Invest your resources wisely. Obviously, you can't start with email (except through sharing activity), so the next best place to invest your resources is in search engines, which you can use to drive people toward landing pages that are optimized for email list acquisition.

Now, clearly we don't have control over search engines, so the way that we approach SEO should involve marketing strategies that will continue to offer benefit if and when the search engines decide to ignore us. This means focusing not just on link building, but building up referral traffic. The Custora study mentioned previously has some enlightening data to share regarding referral traffic:

  • 6.39 percent of customers come from referral traffic, which puts it behind only search, email, and CPC
  • More importantly, the customer lifetime value of visits from referrals is 26 percent higher than average, higher than email, and trailing behind only organic search and CPC.

In other words, among non-paid channels, customers that arrive from referrals are more valuable than anything but customers from search. And the fact is, if you build an SEO strategy that focusses on building links that send high value referral traffic, your SEO strategy is more resilient to algorithmic updates than any other approach.

So let's recap:

  1. Build links that drive high value referral traffic
  2. Leverage those links to maximize visibility in the search engines
  3. Drive brand impression with social media, which will convert into organic searches and direct traffic
  4. Supplement initial sales with CPC
  5. Convert all channels to an email list
  6. Profit

And whatever you do, measure and test every assumption yourself. Put it all together and you've got a legitimate, resilient online marketing strategy, not the fundamentalist approach of a die-hard inbound marketer, social media marketer, SEO, or PPC nutcase.

I hope this helps. I'd love to hear anything you have to add, and if you liked what you saw here, I'd like to ask you to pass it along. Thanks for reading.

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