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Social Media is Dead; Long Live SEO

As more and more digital marketers are buying in to the social media hype, we’re starting to see a growing number of studies on the ROI of social media marketing as compared to more established forms of digital marketing such as SEO and email.

And – if you’re a social media marketer that wants to drive online sales – the news isn’t good.

In late 2012 Forrester released a study in which they analysed 77,000 online transactions in a two-week period. They found that only 1% of those transactions had any influence from a social media channel:

“While 33% of transactions by new customers involve more than one trackable touchpoint, 48% of repeat customers visit multiple trackable touchpoints. The most popular platforms include organic search, paid search, and email.”

The report also touches upon the disparity between what users say they use social media for, versus what the data actually shows:

“Forty-eight percent of consumers reported that social media posts are a great way to discover new products, brands, trends, or retailers, but less than 1% of transactions could be traced back to social.”

Optify’s 2012  B2B Marketing Benchmark report shows similar numbers; here too organic search reigns supreme, followed by direct traffic and referral clicks. B2B websites get just 1.9% of their traffic from social media sites, and social media plays a role in only 4.75% of all leads:

Optify B2B report: Traffic Sources

Then in July 2013 a study by Custora also showed that the strongest drivers of online transactions were organic search, paid search, and email marketing. This study had a considerably larger data set, tracking 72 million customers across 86 online retailers.


Custora also kept tabs on the long term customer value of those transactions, analysing repeat purchases. Here too, organic search rules the roost and social media channels dramatically underperformed. Traffic from Twitter was especially poor at customer retention.


In light of such abundant evidence of the futility of social media marketing for driving sales, does it mean we should give up on social media entirely? Not quite.

We do need to stop seeing social media as a source of customer acquisition. Facebook and Twitter contribute next to nothing to growing your customer base.

Yet when it comes to customer service, social media plays a strong role, and you have a duty to engage with your customers on social media platforms. And advertising on social media platforms will likely contribute to brand awareness.

But as far as driving online sales goes, social media is an astoundingly ineffective channel. If you want to grow your online sales, the evidence is clear: SEO and PPC are where you need to invest.

Update 01 August 2013: Optify study added.

Update: in 2014, search still rules:

Custora report 2014 ecommerce orders by channel

Update: in 2015, guess who’s still king? Exactly.

Custora 2015 holiday season ecommerce sales by channel

P.S. Is social media really dead? Of course not. It just needs to know its place in the digital marketing pecking order.

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