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When social media is (and isn't) the answer

When social media is (and isn't) the answer Lane Cochrane

Marketers today are obsessed with using social media as a way of building brand awareness and generating traffic to their websites. But is it really worthwhile for every marketer to frantically tweet and update their company's Facebook status every day? Does it necessarily translate into higher traffic and increased conversion?

Visitor-experience studies of websites across several industries point to a clearly demarcated split in the impact of social channels (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, links sent by friends) for directing traffic depending on industry type. Longitudinal qualitative visitor studies across leading automotive, hospitality, e-commerce, and media and publishing websites reveal diverging trends in the importance of the social channel in directing traffic to corporate e-commerce or media sites.

When social media is (and isn't) the answer

News travels even faster via social media

Over the past two years, there appears to be a steady growth in the ratio of visits boosted by either a visit to a social site or through links shared by individuals in the media and publishing industry.

A comparative snapshot of voice-of-customer surveys of science, business, news, or entertainment publication websites shows that visits prompted by links from other sites, such as blogs or social media sites, started off at 9 percent in August 2010, steadily rising to an average of 38 percent in August 2012. For one leading North American business publication, visits via Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn represented 11 percent in August 2010 versus 34 percent in August this year.

Yet e-commerce websites in the retail, automotive, or hospitality and travel industries (for which the online channel is a preeminent source of bookings) seem to lag behind in socially mediated traffic, while still being heavily reliant on search results or typing URLs.

Today's car buyers less concerned about "keeping up with the Joneses" advice

Over the past couple of years, quarterly data from automotive websites illustrate the preponderance of search engine results and typing the site URL as the path to the site over arriving via another site, link in a blog, or link sent by a friend. The quarterly fraction of shoppers reporting that they landed on an automotive website through a search engine result or by typing the URL fluctuated between 55 percent and 65 percent, while the proportion of those who landed via links on blogs, links sent by friends, or links on other sites varied in the 5 percent to 13 percent range.

Surprise: Travel and shopping aren't social when it comes to buying!

Hospitality and tourism online platforms exhibit an even slighter tendency traffic to follow social media links or links from friends. For example, in the second half of last year, less than 1 percent of visitors reported arriving at hotel or travel booking sites via a social media link or a link shared by a friend. Meanwhile, the fraction of visits prompted by a search engine result or typing the URL ranged between 55 percent and 61 percent.

Data aggregated from a selection of consumer electronics and household retail sites from August 2010 to March 2012 is consistent with the trends seen across automotive and hospitality websites -- an average of 67 percent of visitors reported arriving on the site via search engine or by typing the URL, while the corresponding figure for traffic referred from another site averaged 6.5 percent.

Does "social noise" impact purchase decisions?

Does this apparent correlation between traffic via social channels and industry type translate into a corresponding effect on on-site purchase conversion, the bottom line of e-commerce websites? It would appear that when reaching for their wallets, online shoppers tend to be more conservative, preferring the perceived impartiality and broader scope of keyword searches. However, where entertainment and information are involved, people tend to listen to what social outlets -- peers or corporate social presences -- are excited about.

Online consumers seem to be making a conscious (or unconscious) decision on how to reach a business based on the nature of the end product and the budget at stake. When it comes to spending money, whether picking a car brand or booking a holiday, consumers seem to be less attuned to "social noise," instead leaning toward informed, personally researched purchase decisions. 

Marketers: Prioritize social marketing appropriately

By no means do these findings mean that marketers from these verticals need to disinvest from social media efforts. However, an obvious conclusion is prioritizing spending on SEO optimization for e-commerce and automotive marketing budgets, rather than worrying about appealing to car review bloggers in order to direct traffic to their online showrooms. A web strategy combining keyword optimization, solid web platforms for model selector tools, and interactive add-ons configurations looks like a more likely route to getting drivers in seats.    

The same applies for travel and hotel sites -- while consumers may awe over friends' holiday photos on Facebook, a targeted SEO strategy should be more successful in landing them on an airplane. Presences on social media channels may be harnessed for fostering loyalty, such as through promotions or contests, as well as for image or brand building. However, on-site booking rates are more likely to be boosted by driving traffic through more aggressive keyword optimization, a simplified booking process, real-time room availability tracking, and prominent on-site promotions.

On the other hand, focusing on the social channel -- regularly updating social site feeds (be it status updates, tweets, or encouraging readers to share content) for journals, news, and entertainment sites seems to be the key to increased circulation and audience penetration.

The shared, communal nature of information -- information is merely a fact if I alone am aware of it -- means that specialized paid-subscription publications may need to rethink policies with regard to free and subscription-only access to content. Granting subscribers a monthly allowance of shareable content (in exchange for free-of-charge circulation via social media!) or making links to archival content accessible without registration is one way of consolidating  audience loyalty. Engaged readers willing to share a journal article by emailing it to their contacts or to post a news story on their social media page, acting as de facto brand promoters, are unlikely to become more loyal or more inclined to spread the word about your publication when the broken link they posted states, "Sorry, you need to subscribe or log in to read this article."

Findings based on data from iPerceptions Inc. studies.

Lane Cochrane is the VP of research at iPerceptions Inc.

Co-authored by Zornitsa Staneva, web analytics consultant for iPerceptions Inc.

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"Hand with a thumb up and hand with a thumb down" image via Shutterstock.

Lane Cochrane is the VP of Research at iPerceptions and has more than 15 years of management and business development experience in the market research industry, including 10 years in leadership roles at The Nielsen Company. At iPerceptions, Lane is...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Miglena Nedelcheva

2013, January 10

I'm really surprised that "Travel and shopping aren't social when it comes to buying!" My observation and experience show just the opposite, especially in shopping. I've read several researches which prove my thinking too. So for our site $earch we are counting on a good social platform to drive enough traffic and conversion.