Why Email and Search Outsell Social

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So much for social ROI. Yesterday, the New York Times ran an op-ed debating social media marketing’s ability to deliver sales in comparison to other forms of advertising (for example, traditional search or email marketing).

A recent Forrester report stated paid search matters most for new customers, email matters most for repeat customers, and social tactics are not meaningful sales drivers. Correlating this data, ExactTarget surveyed more than 700 consumers (ages 15+) in its 2012 Channel Preferences study, and 77% responded that email was preferred over social media for communications for promotion offers.

Opt-in email and click throughs driven by paid search represent private acts of engagement that occur deeper in an online sales cycle.

While the linear sales cycle has been disrupted by online media in the past ten years, buying still represents a process.

From a marketing perspective, an analysis of each media — email, search and social — shows they offer different types of touches and interaction.

Social media represents an inherently relational media set. Specifically, people talk to each other about things, including brands from a personal perspective.

Brand-based interactions in social are generally awkward and usually related to a narrow topic area, as well as questions, complaints or features about a product or service. Branded social media represents a tangential thread in the course of more personal conversations, so sales offers feel intrusive to most people.

Conversely, when some opts into a brand’s email newsletter or “update” service they commit to receiving sales offers. That person is already familiar with a brand. They are further along the sales cycle, and trust the brand enough to accept solicitations.

Clicking on paid search — while customized to individuals based on keyword preferences, geography and other details — represents a straight advertising play in a medium where people are specifically looking for things. They are far enough into the sales cycle that they want specific information about a product or are ready to buy.

So in a linear context, social represents the top of the funnel where people gather information about products and brands. It’s a branding activity created via word of mouth, not an ideal hard selling medium. That’s why email and search outsell social online.

To be crystal clear, branded social interactions usually occur when context and relevance present an opportunity, usually through friends and peers via conversation and reviews. Social interactions with brands occur when someone begins to look for more information BUT before they are ready to purchase, or if there’s a customer complaint, or if a loyalist shares branded information within their networks. While social can generate direct sales it better lends itself to an inbound nurturing process.

This speaks to the need for integration so a potential customer has fluid and natural identification with a brand throughout corporate communications and marketing efforts. We need to weave tactics and types of media together for a holistic experience rather than isolate them.

What do you think about email, search and social?

A version of this post ran originally on the Vocus blog.