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.

SEM, SEO, Social Media


  1. After penguin update thousands of SEO business shut their business down and the existing ones kept focuses on social media marketing hype. SEO have been working well since their inception and they will continue in future too.

  2. I agree entirely with the thrust of this research. In attributable sales, I don’t think I’ve yet seen any evidence for the value of social – indeed, if the general tenor of Twitter is anything to go by, many people see promotions on social channels as primarily a chance to publicly kick a company. It’s really the province of either local businesses who can genuinely talk to customers, or massive companies who can afford the staff and time to make it work as a long term brand-building channel… which *might* have long term pay off in SEO terms.

  3. In terms of priorities and focus most small businesses should concentrate on:

    1. The website – Build the best website you can, make sure it’s well structured, up-to-date, with good content, and converts well. Make sure you sell the benefits of your business.
    2. SEO – the on site SEO should be taken care of when the site is built. You can look at refining and improving the on site SEO from analysing your Google Analytics and all the info that provides.
    3. Pay Per Click – get more traffic based on the keywords that you’re targetting. Having analytics and an already converting website will improve your PPC campaign.
    4. Local SEO – Google Places is another of the basics.
    5. SEO promotion

    If you’ve done all these and done them well, them look at social media.
    Unfortunately most businesses I see haven’t done them well, and somehow think that despite not having the time to invest in these, they somehow think social media will get a better return.
    If you haven’t the time nor the budget to do these well, then likelihood is that’ll you just be wasting your time.

    Use a focused strategy, rather than doing everything and doing it poorly. When you’ve nailed one part move on to the next part of the plan.

  4. Love your article man. so many of my clients asume social media is a magic solution. I have been preacting to them for ages, google organic seo, ppc and email marketing. Integrated the social media into email markeitng yes but not on its own
    I will be reading your posts form here on

  5. Hi Barry,

    Thanks for the reply. Social media is definitely growing, and don’t get me wrong it works great as an arm for customer service, but that’s not all what it’s about.

    Social media maybe isn’t as mature as SEO, but it’s beginning to grow and the way it’s starting to influence other digital marketing disciplines is something to watch out for. In terms of a revenue driver, you can measure social relatively well: trackable URLs, increase in branded traffic, social media platforms being key traffic sources etc. You can also use social media to bring generate revenue – especially in an ecommerce sense – via discount codes for example – which I’ve used for brands and campaigns in the past to generate revenue.

    I find watching how SEO can impact social media and vice versa is fascinating. I look forward to many more of your blog posts about this topic in the future :)

  6. Hi Fay,

    Don’t take this too personally, but I wonder if you realise how you sound when you talk about ‘brand engagement’ and ‘open dialogue’? How is that not marketing fluff? How is that in any way accountable?

    Don’t get me wrong, I think social media certainly has a role to play. Like I said it’s a great customer service channel (and when utilised properly as such its advantages become very measurable), it plays a growing role in SEO (though mostly as a purely supporting tactic), and can serve as a useful market research toolset.

    But as a revenue driver, it’s next to useless. I welcome your evidence to the contrary.

  7. Hi @Barry,

    Interesting post, however, having focused my career so heavily within the social media discipline I feel I must jump to the defence of social media marketers without using ‘fluff language to justify my existence’.

    I would first like to concentrate on the fact that even though search marketing and social media marketing are beginning to overlap more and more, they are still both very different disciplines. As Kevin so eloquently put it social media is about building connections, a community and a following with a brand. Social media is there to give a brand a voice, a personality – somewhere for a user to go if they want to ‘talk’ to a brand. In a very black and white sense, search marketing does not provide that level of substance.

    However, even though social media may be one of the newest disciplines to emerge out of the digital industry it does not lean on ‘unaccountable fluff’ and is in fact a sector in its own right, and one I am very proud to be a part of. Firstly, social media is not PR – which I feel you were broaching on in your last comment. Don’t get me wrong, PR agencies are using social media heavily as part of their campaigns, but to me true social media is completely different from PR and therefore does not use the smoke and mirrors and fluff which sometimes comes with PR.

    Social media creates an open dialogue between a company and its customers. Even though the environment does sometimes call upon PR elements, such as quick responses and brand messaging, social media has matured beyond that and creates a place for people to communicate with brands they love and to stay connected with its products, promotions and developments.

    There are a lot of misconceptions out there about social media and its value to a company, business or brand, but true social media is all about creating a two way connection with a brand and its consumers and engaging and interacting with them. In my opinion, no other digital marketing profession provides that deep level of connection with someone who may well ultimately end up investing in your company and its product for a long time to come.

  8. @Carter; thanks for sharing that. I think that social media is the least mature of all digital marketing disciplines and still leans heavily on the unaccountable fluff that embodies all that is obsolete about classic marketing. When direct attributions – or even assisted attribution – fails, social media marketers often fall back on vague correlations that cannot be proven and old-fashioned PR language like AVE and ‘brand impressions’.

    I for one can’t wait for the first studies to emerge based on universal analytics, as Alistair pointed out in his comment. Though I suppose that, should social media emerge as a loser there too, social media marketers will find new fluff language to justify their existence.

  9. Barry, this is an awesome post, but there is one thing that bugs me about the data. It’s all based on the traffic source. There was one study suggesting that IMPRESSIONS on Facebook lead to the lion’s share of purchases that were influenced by Facebook.

    I recognize that Facebook played a part in the creation of that study, so I have reason to doubt the specific results, but I haven’t seen any other studies investigating this.

    I was able to track a correlative increase in direct traffic from Facebook advertisements (about one visitor for every 2000 impressions). I wrote about it here:

    Basically, I was seeing about the same number of visits from clicks as I was seeing from impressions. The type of person who sees an ad and then visits a website is a lot different from the type of person who clicks an ad, so I don’t think we can conclusively rule out the possibility that impressions shape sales.

    I think brand impression are one of the most overlooked metrics online, because we’re always tempted to focus on traffic referral source. If 40 something percent of people are saying social media can be a good place to find brands, I don’t think we can outright dismiss that based on the existing traffic data. I realize what people say and do are two different things, but I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.

    At the same time, social media hype is totally overblown, and I’ve written extensively about that (and the way that brands completely misunderstand how and why people use social networks in the first place). So you’ll get no strong arguments from me.

  10. I think one of the big problems with businesses jumping into social media is that many of them do it because there is so much hype about how it will increase customers and sales. They never do the necessary research into who their customers are and whether or not they are actually engaging in social media. If your ideal customer is on social media and talking about the products or services you provide then your business needs to be there, if not, it may not be worth the investment. On the subject of SEO I still feel that it is the most important aspect of your online effort. If you have a lousy website, located on page 20 don’t expect a lot of organic search traffic and since most web traffic comes from organic search, put your effort there first.

  11. good start, but you cant cut off your nose to spite your face. the article fails to address this issue of social media referral traffic. companies with large communities see social as a top five daily referral traffic source, of engaged consumers that actively seek out your brand after engaging in social. what happens with that traffic? Its not immediate, and these studies are hard. Panel based research would be most appropriate for this type of research, but its long, arduous and expensive. Who is going to pony up for that? Not these small research companies, typically not even big brands. Engagement leads to sales but its murky and unproven, so far. This article doesn’t really say anything new that any significant media buyer doesn’t already know, but lets take the next step of identifying the right types of research to make better broad assumptions.

  12. @Alistair; you make a good point about analytics, and as someone who values data I too look forward to the first studies using universal analytics and other more robust tracking methods.

  13. Great post! I’m sure that a lot of the “SEO is dead” guys have a lot to say about your post. I on the other hand actually agree on what you’re saying. So far, the evidence of social media bringing in more business just isn’t as convincing to me.

  14. I agree social media is extremely useful for customer service but not always useful as an inbound marketing tool. Social platforms such as Twitter and LinkendIn are often more powerful for creating B2B relationships not B2C.

  15. Nice article Barry, I don’t think there is any disputing the value of organic search, paid search and email — the jury is still out on the social traffic sources for the moment.

    I’ve never read a study on this anywhere before but I think it worth mentioning regarding the attribution comment you made above.

    As I’m sure you’re aware, attribution in Google Analytics relies on a browser cookie to identify a user across sessions. With more than 50% of facebook usage happening in a mobile environment (keep in mind the cookie comment prior), attribution modelling is going to fail in the majority of cases as the conversion rate of mobile devices (for a raft of reasons) is much lower than desktop. That doesn’t mean the traffic source isn’t valuable, just that it can’t be easily measured.

    Imagine that instead of using multi-channel funnels in Google Analytics, these big companies were switching over to Universal Analytics for a second. When a user is referred to their site via facebook using a mobile device, they could ask them to sign up to a newsletter, create an account – essentially hand over anything unique about themselves. Now when that user comes back via desktop or tablet later to convert, you can suddenly see the true value of a social traffic source across devices and sessions but without it — media attribution in Google Analytics in this context is flawed from the offset.

    Above is the kind of case study I’d like to see, at least you’d begin to understand the true nature, value and behaviour of those users; for all we know it could dramatically changes peoples opinions about social media in certain verticals.


  16. Hmm I guess I can view it both ways: in my professional life I’m a digital marketer (with a SEO focus), in my free time I’m a Youtube personality. I truly think it depends on your niche.

    Its much easier to use social media to sell things that have a community in the first place as Alessio pointed out. I used to work with lawyers…and who wants to tweet at their DUI lawyer? Or their personal injury attorney? I think these one time purchase companies should spend their advertising money elsewhere.

    But i’ve also seen how social media (Youtube and bloggers specifically) have literally lifted small start ups in to flourishing companies. Examples in the beauty world: Dailylook and Sigma cosmetics, which now even has a stand alone store. I remember when the CEO herself would message me and pitch. I think too people should take a close look at effective affiliate marketing programs, it makes your SMM efforts very trackable. Or even, discount codes specific to the influencer (you lose a bit of the profit, but you know exactly how much that person brought in). But in the case it doesn’t make sense to reach out to influencers…then you are probably not in the niche to be using SMM in the first place.

    I agree that companies should choose wisely which outlet they invest in, and that they shouldn’t be pushing time and money in to posts and tweets that no one will ever read. There’s a lot of clients I try to push towards SEO and PPC, but the high cost scares them off. But 7+ social media channels that no one is looking at is more costly IMO

  17. Great Article Barry,

    I work in an industry that sells for lack of a better term Shit Pumps….we sell to wastewater facilities etc. Its actually an insanely competitive business. In the past 3 years I’ve seen the wave of Social Media sweep across my industry and now, 3 years later…all of them are abandoning it.

    My simple rule for Social Media is this…does the average someone WANT to hear about your product?…followed by….”Would a Kardashian try to sell this?”…I can easily see Kim K out there shilling everything from Twinkies to patio furniture…but a Shit Pump?

    Neither question was yes in my mind and I stepped away from the Social Media bandwagon. I do feel it has weight, but it will be several years before it has value.

  18. Good one Barry. In my opinion the scope of social media should be in form of support and engagement towards retention unless your target audience is gathering on social platforms. It is again the same situation as it was with the growth of .com’s, if everybody has a fan page I must have one, otherwise where I’m going to share the “who cares” post?

    However social media requires constant development to gain traction and acceleration, there is where we usually fail along with the wrong communication approach.

    Cheers to SEO

  19. People react in the same way to products they see on social media, as they do to advertisements on television. I never bought products that are shown in my favourite advertisements. Entertainment is the first thing I seek in advertisement, secondly information and third and not so important is the credibility of the product ( I know I have to do more research, especially word of mouth, before buying the product).

    There is a interesting incident about who can be a potential online customer. I belong to Kerala, a fish-loving state in India. One fish exporter in kerala decided to sell fish online (you give the order online in the morning and you’ll receive fresh fish in the evening, by flight). The information of this new service was conveyed to the entire Church community by the Church-cook, who is illiterate.

    Every mode of marketing has its importance; we should wait and watch before laying The Social Media to rest.

    Your article was very informative. Thanks.

  20. You hit the nail right on the head here:

    “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.”

    Social media is the face that businesses need to show to their customers and the voice that communicates with them. SEO and all the other marketing/advertising techniques do the rest.

  21. Hello Barry,

    I think that the main goal for social media platforms is to humanize the business. Rarely do we see businesses interacting with a client on their website (ex. Formus, comments and such), social media provides the venue for this.

    I also believe that humanize and being able to interact with the people involved in the business, there clients/customers have more chances of increasing their CLV. IMHO

  22. Hi All…
    I think that most companies didn’t get it in the first place the concept of Social! If it is a Social Media platform or whatever, but it’s social, people want to hang out, show themselves, post their decisions, their fears; well, in fact, they real expose themselves too much but, it’s a social thing. You can discuss brands, you can discuss shopping and products and whatever you want but, it is not a call-to-action website/platform/resource. It can be, but… people sometimes get “persecuted” by shopping and sales.
    It is a Social thing, so, rather than buy X or Y product, they want to know how it handles, if it is good, if it gets their needs fulfilled and so on…
    Then, on another ambience, on a website, or through e-mail/newsletter, then they get in the mood for shopping. People often separate both actions.
    Of course it is not a rule but, instead, shows a pattern. The Social Media it isn’t the place to sell. However, it’s the place to get closer to the customer, to build up a relationship with him. To make him love the brand, to make him spread the word and for him to follow the brand, their new products, their actions. That will get to loyalty and then, the action. But, I think, the Social Media it is not the perfect platform to sell. So, it’s all about “loosing” money (if you’re negative about it), or “investing money” (if you’re positive, plan a strategy and take revenues out of it) in the Social Media hype.

    I don’t know If what I meant is understood perfectly but, it is just my opinion and what I think that it’s happening. Companies need to understand that.

  23. I think part of the responsibility needs to fall on the network themselves. Facebook for example, sure they have reported a record quatre but at what expense? Users are getting more and more annoyed by the level of advertisements being force down their throats, which is diluting the effectiveness of ads themselves. They need to target more effectively and in moderation.

    As for social sales in general, there’s an obvious inevitability that when more people join the network, noise levels rises and the messages get lost.

    That being said social (for my clients at least) social still equates to around 1/3 of clients online sales.

  24. thanks Barry for your post, it was sometimes this week i read on Guardian online that SEO is dead and that social media is the way forward.
    Keep up the good work.

    I found you on linkassistant twitter feed.

  25. Search Marketing and Social Media Marketing carry two different scopes. Social Media is about building connections on a more personal level (engagement), while search marketing is cultivating new opportunities for conversion and sales. The research in this article and others show that customers use search for one thing (buying) and social media for another (engagement)

  26. Always wondered whether all those social media traffic really convert well or not. As I can see, Social Media is best for user-engagement, rather than user-acquisition.

    Great post, Barry. :)

  27. @Callum; I can show you a number of multi-channel attribution reports from Google Analytics from a range of ecommerce sites, all of which engage in social media marketing as well. In those reports, social media is conspicuously absent as a conversion path, as well as from the ‘Assisted Conversions’ reports. If what you say is true, social media would show up as assisting conversions in those reports.

    Fact remains that many digital marketers, like yourself, are prophesising the gospel of social media. But, save for a few high profile big brand campaigns, there simply isn’t any evidence to back up the claim that it delivers new business.

    For customer retention and service, yes social media has its place. But right now social media is claiming an abnormally large share of many organisations’ digital marketing budgets, a share it simply does not deserve.

  28. Hi Barry,

    I’d disagree with you on this. As someone who works in digital shopper marketing, I FULLY appreciate the difficulty in measuring SALES that were generated directly through social activity; however I believe that discussing ‘online sales’ as the only key activity of the digital shopper journey is extremely limiting.

    Today’s omni-channel shopper journey is a complex and fluid one, with several different touchpoints supporting consumers at different stages of their path-to-purchase. Awareness and trigger? Consideration? Review? These are all highly important stages of a shopper journey, and in many – not all – instances, social media and other digital platforms play a vitally important strategic role.

    Tracking DIRECT SALES through social may be difficult, but the ROI of that activity CAN be measured through any number of measurement frameworks and metrics. Purchase intent, click-throughs, interaction, engagement. Social engagement for 10 months may well be the very reason that, when someone’s laptop breaks, they instantly type your brand name into Google and purchase directly.

    So to say social media is dead is perhaps not thinking of the bigger picture!

  29. Hey Barry,

    I’ve said to numerous clients in the past about social not being about selling. “What’s the point then?” is the usual response. Money is where businesses are at and social doesn’t necessarily bring in the dough.

    The biggest problems (I find) with social and business are the lack bravery and the persistence of banality. Budget doesn’t matter on social – some of the best things you can share are totally free, it just takes the right idea.

    But I’ve witnessed the fear of businesses, wanting to hold back, unsure of the medium and afraid to push the boat out. Keep it on brand – that’s what they want. But then it’s just boring picture, boring text, boring link. Every day.

    Be brave. You’ve got nothing to lose, try stuff out and see what works. Stuffy image? Work against it, play on it, poke fun at yourself.

    Ah, just a dream maybe. But it would be nice to see social brands contribute rather than broadcast.

  30. @Barry: exactly, they just get on the hype wagon and that’s it, wasting money and time doing NOTHING.
    I agree on the budget of course and on the demographic thing. But still online social community is worth a try to understand their needs.

    But yeah. If you have a limited budget, I wouldn’t spend it on social, at least not with those fancy and useless stuff they do.

  31. @Alessio: for many companies it’s a matter of budgets and resources. Yes big brands have the luxury of creating thriving Facebook communities and get a gauge of what a limited self-selected subset of their customer base might want or need (important to keep in mind that active social media users do not necessarily represent your standard offline demographic).

    But most businesses I deal with have to make a choice about where to spend their limited digital marketing budgets, and their objectives are always aimed at growing online sales.

    For those businesses it should a no-brainer. Unfortunately due to the vast amounts of social media hype out there, these businesses get confused and embark on the wrong path, resulting in needless waste.

  32. Interesting post, Barry.
    I don’t understand why companies are not doing some real experiments with social media, not with “sales” as primary focus.

    The priority should be: let’s create a community , let’s help users to understand my shop / company, let’s talk with prospects, let’s have fun.

    I’m seeing really shitty FB pages (for example) just because they are spamming hard and…..nothing else.

    Facebook should be a great lab where experiment and define voice and tone, and understand the community and what people wants or needs.


  33. Marvelous

    I do find it funny when the SEO industry hits back at the crappy SEO is dead articles like the one of the Guardian. With this article and Martin’s…I think the guardian article has been suitably disproven….Bravo Sir

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