Is social media working for marketing?

With social media, does all that yapping translate into any sales?

I use social media a lot… multiple times a day, in fact. I’ve spent many a blurry-eyed late night responding to posts and tweets, which I regret mere hours later at 5 a.m., when my typical day starts. And I’m far from alone (isn’t that the whole point of “social” media?!?)—I’m joined daily by an ever-expanding flock of friends, family and colleagues. Social media is the cool, feel-good party that everyone is invited to. So naturally, as people, and as marketers, we want in!

For a good while now, I’ve been taking informal surveys of my social media cohorts—particularly those who are NOT in marketing. Nearly everyone has “liked” a favorite band, brand or TV show and will glance at posts from them. Many have noticed ads and banners, although no one I have spoken to has ever clicked through. And more than I thought have purposely made a social media trip to look up a brand on Pinterest, Twitter or Facebook.

Many react to sales messages in social media like you’d react in real life—imagine a real estate salesman showing up at your Fourth of July barbeque and handing out business cards. Yuk!

It begs the question: Is social media generating sales?

The conclusion I’ve come to: Social media undoubtedly has an enormous and growing influence on people’s lives and the larger zeitgeist. But when it comes to marketing—and specifically selling stuff—we’re still figuring this out.

Some brands are booming on multiple social media platforms, while others are barely tweeting their way out of oblivion. Everyone has the same ingredients available to them—brand, vertical, audience and platform—but how you mix those together and bake them is unique to each organization.

For example, in the political arena, Twitter seems to be king right. One of the critical measures of the recent Republican and Democratic conventions and presidential debates was “tweets per second.” People compared how many TPS one politician got over another as an indicator of the public’s political mood and who’s favored, for the moment.

And all the while, marketers and the media have been collecting data, too.

One such study, conducted by Forrester, simultaneously confirmed my informal survey and gut feeling. It examined 77,000 online transactions made over a two-week period and found that less than 1% of them could be tracked back to social networks. Yipe.

Now, granted, it’s really tough to determine how the web truly affects a buying decision. Conventional wisdom and math geeks tell us that you can really only give credit to the last touchpoint where the actual sale was made—for example, an ecommerce site like Amazon. But, everyone acknowledges that multiple touchpoints affect the final decision.

That includes online reviews… Google searches… Consumer Report-type sites… blogs and influencers… and, yes, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Pinterest, among others.

The Forrester study concludes that you have to be out there in the social realm, but do not discount your website, SEO, display advertising and email, which have proven to be consistent performers for marketers. Forrester reports that 39% of new customer transactions come from direct site visits and organic search. These “spear fishers,” as Forrester calls them, are consumers who know what they’re looking for and find it through search. (LOVE the term “spear fishers”!) For repeat customers, email is still working… almost a third of purchases start with emails.

It’s surprising to learn that less than one percent of sales are coming from social networks. The disappointing numbers seem hugely disproportionate to the hype and use of social media. But, we’re still in the infancy of all this. Social is the new species in the lush landscape of media choices, and how it will affect the marketing ecosystem will be fascinating to watch.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group.

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