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Social or search: search is pure acquisition but social can be highly targeted
Social or search: search is pure acquisition but social can be highly targeted

Search is accountable but social media is more engaging. So where should you allocate your budget, asks EHS 4D Digital's Craig Walmsley

Social media now accounts for nearly one quarter of time spent online in the UK, and traffic generated by social media is growing exponentially. The category itself is in a state of constant evolution – first forums, then communities, blogs, user-generated content, micro-blogs, social networks, and now location-based services.

So as we emerge from the recession, the big question facing marketers is: if social media is where people are spending their time, and that’s where referrals are coming from, surely that’s where marketers should be spending their money?

Well, maybe. While traffic and time might be shifting from search to social media, they are far from identical and interchangeable. Search finds people at the point of need, while social media facilitates conversation with the like-minded. Brands can be relevant in both, but have to understand their respective purpose and properties to get maximum value from each. For the business-minded marketer, there are five key criteria against which both should be measured.


1. Return on investment
Search 9/10; Social 6/10

Paid-for search is quintessentially acc-ountable. Select your keywords, bid, optimise, pay for the clicks. You know the cost, and the outcome – the ROI is black and white. Search engine optimisation is a bit messier. Algorithms determine how far up the natural rankings your site appears for any given search. Not quite as precise as search engine marketing, but design your site to work broadly within the rules, and create interesting content so that people link to you, and you’ll do fine. With search you get what you pay for – traffic from people who were looking for something that you can help them with.

Social media is free though, right? You don’t buy a blog, Twitter feed or Facebook page, so surely any return will supersede the investment? Not quite. It takes time to run social media – the time of people who update statuses, post, tweet and share. Brands like Microsoft make it part of their employees’ jobs to build a community through social media presence. Dell and O2 have dedicated in-house teams whose role is to manage the online conversation in social media. Staff time is expensive.

Moreover, assigning value to Twitter followers, or the bloggers you have built relationships with, or the customer service calls you have diverted, can be difficult. But it can be done – sales driven through Twitter promotions, traffic driven through community sponsorship, test drives booked via a Facebook page – all of these can demonstrate ROI (see box, below). While the communication means might be experimental, the marketing ends are not.

2. Acquisition
Search 10/10; Social 7/10

Search is pure acquisition – people think of something, go to a search engine, get relevant content and click on what they’re interested in. If you want to acquire customers through digital means, search is definitely the place to start.

But it’s far from the whole story. Brands are finding that significant amounts of their traffic come from social media – links on forums, videos shared on Facebook, tweets of the latest news. While social media is not intent-directed like search, it has the power of reliable recommendation. I might not ordinarily be interested in a certain music video, but the fact that everyone I know is looking at this is bound to pique my interest. If someone on Mumsnet recommends the Bugaboo Bee over the iCandy Apple, my click will likely go one way rather than another.

3. Targeting
Search 8/10; Social 7/10

Search is self-targeting – your audience is looking for something you have. In paid search you can target by geography, time and demographics. And (almost) everyone uses search. Social media currently has more limited reach, but can be super-targeted within its audience.

Ad buys on social networks can be highly precise – completing a profile tells the network a large amount about a user. Moreover, anyone who ‘likes’ your Facebook page, or follows your tweets, is clearly interested in what you have to say.

Moving into the wider social sphere, you are looking at common interests – forums about Alfa Romeos, blogs about country and western, communities of concerned whisky drinkers; places like Glam cry out for targeted advertising. Social media can also act as an early warning system for brands. If someone decries a service on Twitter, the company can respond to that person directly.  

4. Customer engagement
Search 2/10; Social 9/10

People spend next to no time on search engines: they type something into the search box, get results, click on what looks promising, and leave. Social media, on the other hand, is the natural place for engagement, be it blogging, community liaison, YouTube channel development, Facebook page updating, tweeting or just listening to what people are saying.

When we helped Peugeot launch its RCZ campaign, with the idea that consumers advertise themselves to the car for a chance to win it, social media was the natural place in which to work. Facebook Connect brought in users’ personal details, and inviting Facebook friends increased consumers’ chances of winning the car. A Facebook page showcased the best entries, hosted competitions as the campaign progressed, and provided tech support for those having difficulty creating their ads. All in all, social media facilitated that deep customer engagement.

5. Control
Search 9/10; Social 3/10

Search is manageable. Search engines rank you highly on the subjects on which you are the authority, and you can buy what-ever keywords you like. You simply can’t control what people say about you on social media. You can have millions of Facebook fans, manage sales promotions on Twitter, ask for input on product development, and run surveys on who is the hottest TV vampire.

But social media also provides a loud public place for people to lay waste to your brand. Witness the Greenpeace palm oil campaign against Nestlé, flooding the company’s Facebook pages with negative comments, and compelling it into a hasty commitment to combat deforestation. If you seek to engage in dialogue, you can expect that people will answer back.

If it comes to choosing between social and search, the answer is, don’t. Brands will optimise search and social media to engage consumers. Search is an amazing acquisition mechanism at the customer’s point of interest. Social media excels at customer retention and advocacy – sharing messages through communities of interest, giving customers a place to engage with brands they love, vent at those they feel have let them down, or simply providing entertaining content they can share.

The two are mutually reinforcing – the more links to your content, the higher your search rankings; the higher your search rankings, the more customers will engage with your brand.


Monitor your online buzz: Set up real-time search and social media listening tools to keep up with what is being said about you, and regularly create relevant content.

Make it shareable: Build your site so that it’s easy to share on Facebook and similar sites. The more your content is passed on, the higher your search ranking.

Reach out to influential voices: Blog entries are great content, which pushes you up the search rankings. Treat your best bloggers as you would key journalists.

Build your community: Create a place where you can engage with those most interested in your brand and as a venue for rapid response in case of crisis.

Expect search and social media to merge: Google and Microsoft recognise the power of social recommendation, and are looking to factor it into search results.

If your web presence isn’t already search-optimised and socially shareable, get redesigning now. For paid search, set ROI benchmarks against tangible measures.

So, for example, an online retailer might require that every £1 spent on search generates £10 in sales – the specific ratio selected will depend on your margin, market and other standard factors.

For social media, align your marketing spend to your audience’s time spent on the networks, bearing in mind a) your specific marketing goals; b) the time needed to learn what is most effective for your brand; and c) that social media is much more than just Facebook and Twitter – blogs, communities, forums and user-generated content are all part of the matrix.

Set goals all the way down the purchase funnel, and beyond. If social media doesn’t drive sales to your online store, or cut call centre calls, or improve brand loyalty, then stop using it.

Craig WalmsleyCraig Walmsley is managing
director of EHS 4D Digital



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