I have a confession to make. I think much of what’s being proclaimed by social media experts is hype. We are constantly being told “social is the new search” and that traditional ways of measuring ROI don’t apply to social media.
Unfortunately, the data doesn’t back that up. The Ecommerce Quarterly report analyzed more than 500 million online shopping experiences in Q1 of 2013 and found that social media lags behind search and email marketing in e-commerce conversions:
… social media represented just 1.55% of all e-commerce traffic to top sites, far behind search (31.43%) and trailing email (2.82%). Moreover, social media platforms overall had a conversion rate of less than three-quarters of one percent (.71%), though this number varied by network.
Yet, in spite of that, “41.7% of SMBs surveyed by BIA/Kelsey say they see Facebook most importantly as an acquisition tool.” Local search expert Mike Blumenthal calls that “a huge disconnect with reality.”
Online marketing firm Vertical Response polled its nearly 500 small business customers about their social media use and found that SMBs are spending more and more time on social media, but struggling under the added workload:
- 66 percent are spending more time on social media than a year ago
- Nearly half spend 6 or more hours a week on it; one-quarter spend up to 10 hours
- A third want to spend less time on it
- Finding good content to share was the most time-consuming aspect
Yet, four times as many SMBs say they plan on increasing their social media marketing budget than those who are decreasing. The 2012 Constant Contact Pulse Survey found that 53 percent of small business owners ranked social media as the marketing channel they need the most help with. With more and more SMBs embracing social media despite its dismal conversion rates, where does social fit into the online marketing ecosystem?
Stay tuned, because over time, it is likely that social signals will gain more weight in search ranking systems, I’d suspect. – Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land, 2010
Although the disciplines of web design, SEO, and social media marketing are diverging, the lines between owned and earned media are beginning to blur. What SMBs need to grasp is that both search and social media marketing is electronic “word-of-mouth.” When someone goes online to search for a plumber or dentist, they are asking their “friend” Google to recommend someone. Google’s algorithm does so based on a number of factors—the same factors you’d use to recommend any expert:
- Years of experience in a field (i.e., age of website)
- Recommendations from others (i.e., inbound links from related sites)
- Endorsements from top industry experts (i.e., quality of inbound links from authoritative sites)
- Depth, breadth, and quality of knowledge (i.e., size of website and amount of information it contains)
The powers that be at Google are smart enough to realize that, to remain relevant, they must begin taking social signals into account when deciding who to “recommend” to its users. That’s why simply creating a Facebook page does nothing to help your clients acquire new customers—they need activity in the form of likes, comments, shares, tweets and so forth. (Google even takes the number of fans and followers into account.)
In the offline world, when a customer shares that you’ve done a good job, it’s earned word-of-mouth. Conversely, if you do a bad job—and your customer shares the experience—you’ve earned that as well, haven’t you?
Social media activity works in the same fashion. It’s earned media. The more times content is shared, liked, re-tweeted, or commented on, the more valuable it becomes—because Google takes notice. Social media activity has the ability to turn owned media into earned media and Word-of-Mouth into World-of-Mouth. That’s huge.
So in spite of what I said earlier, I believe social media to be the biggest communication shift since Gutenberg’s printing press. But like television and radio before it, most SMBs have yet to figure out how to utilize it as a marketing channel. Into this void will surely rush the social media gurus to woo clients away from the web designer and search engine optimizer. So, will you sell social in 2013? Or will you leave it to the social marketing gurus?
Former owner and partner of web firm Jenesis Technologies, John is currently Director of Digital Strategy at Haines Local Search, a company providing local search marketing solutions to SMBs, including print and Internet Yellow Pages, web design, and local SEO. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks.