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.


  • Many thanks for the analysis, Geoff. I believe the three of them support entirely different areas of the new marketing funnel. I do not see how a brand can be properly built without bearing social in mind nowadays. That effort will not only influence PPC and email-driven behavior (through subjective recognition), but also cheapen those efforts (higher relavance/quality score, etc.).

    • Yeah, I totally agree that social has become an essential part of the branding process, and I think that’s why you see such a heavy fight for ownership between advertising and PR departments. Thanks for coming by!

  • Are we talking paid social here? If so, I am confused why marketers are saying this is not a good channel. Organic social – perhaps – but as a demand gen marketer, I typically run paid programs via channels including email, search and social. I have seen very good conversion rates with paid social media. Using the right tools I can track who is converting and from where, what is the cost per lead, and also if the action taken impacted the movement of the prospect through the funnel.

  • I find social is most useful to me as a tool for serendipitous discovery. Some of these discoveries could very well lead to a transaction later on but it was not my original purpose. Still, brands do need to build ‘smart’ social presence to facilitate the discovery and/or the transaction decision in the mind of the consumers.

  • Different animals serving different purposes, or so I see it. The branding aspect of social is outstanding and can be exceptionally effective, but I don’t expect it to match search and email sales.

    Not really sure that they should either, but it is a conversation worth having.

  • we view social as powerful mid-funnel activity – endorsement and referral. frankly if brands and agencies reduce the social marketing challenge to ‘how many coupons/offers can I push into my streams?’, then they will have wasted the opportunity: to get other people to tell the brand story.

    • Yes, I agree. I also think it’s a big reason why native advertising sucks so badly is that no one wants it in their social stream. Good addition, thank you!

  • “While social can generate direct sales it better lends itself to an inbound nurturing process.” Here’s hoping that sentence becomes the ” well duh” of 2013. Social isn’t for direct selling. Doesn’t make it useless. Doesn’t mean it can’t influence future decisions. One thing that confounds me after hearing study after study about this is the fact that thinking social = sales is a common enough assumption that people are still studying it. We don’t study how often television makes you fart. Because that doesn’t make ANY sense.

    • It’s the executive suite trying to justify investment. Because they don’t understand branding we have this continuing and very difficult tension. No comment on farting TVs ;)

      • Thank you for the objective and well-written article, Geoff, and I couldn’t agree more with Tinu’s point-of-view.

        Social media is becoming the cocktail party of the 21st century… of course you can sell there, but do you want too? The drink and the conversation (sales/pitch) aren’t the valuable commodity; it’s the relationship that ensues that will then sell whatever it is all by itself (with the right sales follow-up).

        Not everyone is good at cocktail parties either which leads to a lot of this confusion.

        • Glad you liked it. And I totally agree, soft networking is not the place to talk contracts or credit cards.

    • Television does make me snack, though. I’m not sure how effective the ads are on shows, but I know that I constantly find myself making Chinese food after watching (sometimes during) episodes of the Big Bang Theory. Breakfast foods in shows are even more powerful.

  • I’ve been struggling with this issue for about the last 18 months particularly because in my world we’re talking about capital B2B equipment. Talk about something no one is going to buy off a Facebook page!

    However, I think social media can be extremely valuable for branding – even for those same companies who might never be able to trace a sale to the medium. Now, that makes ROI very difficult. The pricing of social media marketing is so very hard to pin down, and if we’re now saying we’re not getting sales against those efforts, are we throwing money down the drain?

    I think the answer is a happy medium. Companies need to grasp control of how social media is handled at their companies so that employes aren’t spending a lifetime dedicated to the online world, and where possible, track things via special landing pages, promotions, etc. I don’t think companies should now freak out and drop all media, but I never thought companies should drop all “traditional” media in favor of social either. I hope we’re not headed for a counter-revolution.

    • I’m with you @MargieClayman:disqus . But what would you say to the, ahem, people who have built their reputation by impugning the reputation of those who admit the truth of brand ROI difficulty?

    • I do think calls to action and other forms of engagement allow you to show how social leads to other actions. But hard selling in social is hard. Measure the whole path, including source, as opposed to siloing it, and you arrive at your happy medium, so to speak. Thanks for a great comment.

  • I agree with all of this. I think social is more of a primer to lead folks to things like email. Social is where you build trust. Selling on social, if done too soon or at all sometimes, can erode the trust you’ve built. But, I do think it’s important to try and convert your social audience into an email audience. Paid search is a different animal altogether. :)

    • We do business with those we like. Those we like are those we trust. To trust e must relate, and that is a core result of social interaction, live or online.

      Nothing wrong with converting via email or other methods using next obvious steps or calls to action. Cheers!

  • “We need to weave tactics and types of media together for a holistic experience rather than isolate them.”

    This. Social Media isn’t something you do instead of marketing. It’s a component. The full marketing plan, from a-z has to include all the relevant elements for success.

    If I might use a cooking metaphor: you can’t call the celery the most important part of mirepoix (the holy trinity in cooking) without short-changing the onion and carrot and ruining the dish. For an amazing dish, the three must come together in the right proportions, sauteed in oil or butter for the right mount of time — and THAT mixture supports the rest of the recipe. If one part is ignored, left out, or undercooked…you’ve got a final dish your guests might choke down and smile about, then politely claim to be too busy for any invitations thereafter.

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  • Agree to this even if social is getting bigger each day. For me, social is more on advertising and networking while email and seo is for lead generation. The reason for this is because you get to reach with each individual while in social you are targeting the audience.

  • I can totally relate to everything that you said here. As a consumer, I’m also the type to get annoyed with brands that oversell their products. That’s a mistake of some companies on social media, they forget to target their posts to those who will potentially be interested in their product rather than aimlessly bombard random facebook users with tags and private messages about their products. I know a thing or two about seo because I’ve been making an effort to raise my local seo phoenix ranking too. My advice for these brands is to follow the current game of Search engine optimization — which is quality contents, quality contents, and excellent keyword use –and convert that to social media optimization.

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