Social Media vs. SEO: The Hype and the Reality


ADOTAS – If you’re counting on social media to be the answer to your sales woes, you might want take a step back and examine the problem you’re trying to solve. The truth is, social media as a strategy doesn’t account for much in terms of sales generation — certainly not when compared with direct online searches. Bigcommerce clients (who are fast-growth businesses who sell online) frequently ask me which I would rank higher — SEO or social media?  It might surprise you, as it does our clients, that social is not the silver bullet its staunch proponents want to believe it is.

There’s certainly no lack of excitement among marketers over the possibilities of social media driving sales. A February 2013 Duke University survey of 468 U.S. chief marketing officers showed that social media spending will more than double over the next five years as a percentage of marketing budgets — up to 21.6 percent from current levels of 8.4 percent. What will be replaced as more than one-fifth of marketing budgets shift to social media? That’s unclear, although the survey findings show that conventional advertising is likely to drop by 2.7 percent.

Sales analysis doesn’t really justify this irrational exuberance for social media. Just this past May, the customer experience company Monetate showed that despite considerable brand investment, social media is much less effective than other electronic marketing strategies as a direct e-commerce traffic source. According to the report, online searches were the greatest contributor to e-commerce visits and sales, representing 31.43 percent of sales traffic. Even email, at 2.82 percent, outperformed social media, which the study said accounts for a meager 1.55 percent of all e-commerce traffic (and that number is well down from 2012, when it represented 2.36 percent of traffic).

In a report last year by Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, less than 1 percent of online transactions among US customers could be traced to a social media post. For new customers, organic search represented 16% of business, and for repeat customers, email accounted for 13 percent.

The reason for the hype gap

Why is social media not living up to its hype as a panacea for online sales? The answer may be found in a theory that’s come to be called “Dunbar’s Number,” coined after the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who originally noticed the correlation.

Dunbar’s Number is a theoretical limit on the number of meaningful social interactions that anyone can have. That number ranges from 100 to 230, but on average it comes to 150.

According to Dunbar, “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”

To put a finer point on it, how many of your social media friends would you really consider having over for a cookout? More than 150? Really?

That’s a jolt for the “Internet famous,” who collect friends and followers like some people collect matchbooks. It’s an even bigger jolt to social media sales evangelists, who believe that a recommendation of a product by one social media “friend” to another may carry more weight than search engine optimization.

Let’s look at the raw math. Conventional wisdom about direct mail (and social media falls roughly into this camp) suggests a standard response rate of about three percent. One international affordable retail chain has about 1,250,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. If it reaches out to that fan base with an offer, only 37,500 people are likely to take some action — which may only be pushing that offer along to their own friends by way of recommendation.

From there, of course, the number goes up again, because each one of those 37,500 has a number of friends — let’s say 1,000. Now we’re at an impressive 37.5 million. Three percent of that number is 1.125 million. That’s a lot of responses.

A lot, that is, until you consider that only 150 of each respondent’s friends may be “real” friends. The rest are an undifferentiated mass of friends of friends, occasional business colleagues, random strangers met at a bar, not the kind of people you’d take seriously if they forwarded a sales pitch your way. Use yourself as a test subject: If a “Facebook friend” of yours forwards a retailer’s message to you, do you view it as legitimate advice from someone you trust? Or do you react to that “friendly” offer as the social equivalent of junk mail? And if other similar offers come from that same friend, how do you start thinking about that person?

Social media theorists often counter Dunbar’s Number with Johns Hopkins University sociologist Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in which he argues, among other things, that “small-scale interaction becomes translated into large-scale patterns, and [that] these, in turn, feed back into small groups.” It’s kind of the Butterfly Effect of social media.

Regardless of which side of the sociological argument you come down on, let’s turn our attention to the dusty old grandfather of Internet marketing: Online searches. An online search for the international affordable retailer from our earlier example comes up with 25.4 million hits — the first of which is the retailer’s home page. Granted, that search result is less than the projected 37.5 million that might be argued to come from an extended social media campaign, but arguably more targeted.

In these two scenarios, an Internet search is like a laser focus on a hunting rifle. Social media sales posts, on the other hand, are like buckshot in a blunderbuss: If you scatter pellets everywhere, something’s bound to hit the bull’s eye eventually.

People will always be people

Now, none of this is to say that social media does not have a useful role in marketing. The truth is, social has to be one part of a matrix of interconnected outreach to the people whose business you value, in the myriad of ways they want to be reached. And do not undervalue the critical importance of human nature. Even as Big Data and social media are creating new ways of segmenting and distributing information, sales and business are still ultimately about people. The human element cannot be ignored, and behavior at its most basic level is still reasonably predictable. That’s a strong argument for search engine optimization, which at its core predicts the behavior of people searching for you.

It can certainly be argued that social media is now actually an integral part of SEO, particularly when it comes to YouTube and Google+. Simple activities like adding search keywords to your company’s YouTube videos can help raise your visibility in search. Activity on Google+ and +1′s (shares of your content on Google+) have also been seen to improve rankings on Google. While Facebook may be the more widely used social outlet, remember that they don’t write the algorithms for the number one search engine in the world — Google does.

In addition, there are ways to tie your social media activities back to hard sales, proof of ROI from the hours and dollars spent on social media campaigns. Tools like HubSpot, which allows you to see how many website visits, leads and customers social media has generated, can help to be the glue that binds these two seemingly disparate worlds together to your benefit. Leonardo da Vinci is widely quoted as having said,  “Realize that everything connects to everything else.” Five hundred years later, that advice is still relevant.

The question in this debate may not be “Who would win in an SEO vs. social media shootout?” Rather, ask yourself how much time you spend on social media every week. Now multiply that by 10 — that’s how much time you should spend on your SEO.


  1. Aren’t you being overly generous with your email response rate, the starting point for the final social media reach. Rates are much lower than that.

    Next you have the matter of focus, a recommendation is going to someone, friend or not, that has little interest in an offer, at that point in time. Compare this to search, which is targeted and self qualifying.

    But let’s return to email, email is used for retention, not acquisition. If its not, its got a high chance of being spam or perceived as spam, therefor ignored.

    Even with the sited studies SEO is the Rodney Dangerfield of Interactive Marketing.
    If you go to the job boards there are 5 times as many social positions as there are to SEO. Why is that the case, there are lots of reasons … hint another article.

    But yes, think about where you’re spending your marketing dollars and time. Beside customer service/reputation management search is a better bet.


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