AdWords Vs. Social Media, Round I

A client recently presented us with the ultimate challenge: over a short time frame (one month), show us what social media can do in comparison to AdWords.

If you have any dealings at all with social media, you'll know this is nearly an impossible task. Social media is, by definition, social. It is designed to result in earned attention and permission marketing. This means that social media strategies tend to fall into one of two camps: "stunt" or "sniper" strategies (where a dramatic stunt or campaign is implemented in the hopes it will go viral) and "relationship" strategies (where time is invested up front in earning the right to leverage the relationship for business results).

Our company's core expertise lies in relationship strategies; however, 30 days of relationship-building doesn't go very far towards the bottom line. North Carolina social media agency Ignite uses a 90-day rule of thumb before expecting social media to begin returning results.



So the brief nature of the trial required more of a sniper, stunt approach. So, on the understanding that what you measure (in this case, clicks) determines how you behave, we focused on activities that centered around social media (bloggers), but used a more traditional public relations strategy. In order to show the best results possible for the brief time period, we contacted bloggers the same way a traditional PR firm might contact them, and sought to get them to embed the client's existing videos, review their products, and link to the Web site.

There is significant value in PR-type outreach to bloggers; any review in a major blog will drive more traffic than the commensurate amount spent on AdWords. The long-term issue is one of predictability and sustainability. Traffic will spike following that review, but then that channel is saturated for the next six months or so, begging the question: how can you base any sort of forward planning on that kind of exposure?

One thing paid search is great at is predictability. "We pay 93 cents per click," an AdWords aficionado will tell you. "Can social media beat that?" The answer, of course, is, "It depends." If your social media campaign is successful, it has the potential to generate the kind of exponential exposure paid search can only dream of. If it is unsuccessful, well, it dies.

And so the question of ROI rears its necessary head, along with the question of how to make an apples-to-apples comparison. How, for example, do you measure 100 clicks from AdWords against 72 clicks, 27 retweets, seven Facebook mentions, and two forum threads?

The answer lies in a paraphrased idiom: "In God we trust; everything else we test." Over time, you may find that 2% of your AdWords traffic converts to purchase while 7% of your social traffic converts -- or vice versa. There are topics that lend themselves more to the kind of lifestyle marketing social media offers, while there are others ("Mesothelioma" comes to mind) that are better suited to search.

What is important is that your tests and comparisons be adapted to the environment they're testing. There's very little benefit to be had in comparing the number of clicks generated from a month of social media activity to the number of clicks generated from an AdWords campaign.

If you want a horse, buy a horse. But don't expect your horse to be a chicken, and don't blame it when it doesn't cluck. Have you done any comparisons between social media and paid search? I'd love to hear about them, either here or @kcolbin!

11 comments about "AdWords Vs. Social Media, Round I".
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  1. Warren Lanier, jr. from Bridge Point Marketing, February 23, 2010 at 10:33 a.m.

    This is exceptional...a lot of online marketing newbies and C-Suite Execs alike can benefit from this insight

  2. Chase Mcmichael from, February 23, 2010 at 10:41 a.m.

    Kailia you have hit on something I have done a great deal of work in and can verify that marketers are still treating SM as an IO. They are not looking at the long term sustainability. SEO is critical around SM. The major question is who is clicking and are they creating conversation. The campaigns that created sharable content that was associated with many and tapped into a collective passion point seems to work. AdWord clicks could represent greater intent but there is not any WOM. It all comes down to how great of value the community receives from the participation.

  3. Michael Hubbard from Media Two Interactive, February 23, 2010 at 10:44 a.m.

    I agree - I like this article... One factor that shouldn't be left out of your ROI measurements is the SEO gain. Paid Search/AdWords will help as well, but with all of the engines providing universal search results now, you may find that your social media peaks into some key SEO terms that you might have been overpaying for on AdWords.

    The problem I have with the whole concept though is that one of your clients asked you to compete with yourself, and they should have been asking how can Ad Words and Social Media work together in my marketing mix. Regardless, it was probably a fun experiment for you, but I'm looking forward to the day that people better understand how one can compliment the other. If you want a great read on this - check out this article by Ellie Johnson.

  4. Wali Al-amin from Amin & Associates, February 23, 2010 at 10:59 a.m.

    I hope that many people who have online business the great result is placement of products and services a click. The customer is at the site to purchase and share with thier friends there experience of shopping.

  5. David Burdon from Simply Clicks, February 23, 2010 at 11:08 a.m.

    ROI or any other such measure is pointless in this completely spurious exercise. Its like saying what works best a $1 million price cut at Walmart or $1 million spent on brand building. Over a month the Walmart option wins. Over the long term brand building wins.

    Social media offers so much more than just short term impacts.

  6. Jonathan Hall from American Pop, February 23, 2010 at 11:39 a.m.

    I would like to see the results! It's also nice to see so many Search professionals really into social media. Our agency does predominantly short term/campaign focused social media campaigns with tangible goals. So, you can definitely do both within Social Media. The "Earned Impressions" you get through a PR model is very effective. It's completely opt in and leverages existing passions, relationships, networks, etc. When I started American Pop in 2008 I designed everything around the "Social" aspect of social media. It's one area where the traditional PR approach hits at a consumer level instead of trickling down from a Media Influencer level.

  7. Josh Grossman from Springpad, February 23, 2010 at 2:16 p.m.

    Social media has 2 components. To me, social media is getting people to use your product and then getting to them to help spread the word about it (usually on their blogs, through their networks - mostly Facebook or Twitter - or in niche community site forums). The first part if - getting people to use it - is more easily and quickly done through advertising. Getting people to love it enough to spread the word is a longer process, but can be done through several ways - brand ambassadors, contests, group projects/goals, games, unbelievable customer service, removing the friction to spread the word (like "share on facebook" buttons" and most of all great content/products that someone loves enough to want to spread the word.

  8. Anissa Wardell from The Publicists Assistant, February 23, 2010 at 4:13 p.m.

    We typically have the 90 day rule as well, and have had that rule for 3+ years. On occasion, we have bent the rule with the client knowing full well, that what we do in 30 days will have more benefit long term. That is not to say that we don't go after or even really knock it out of the park in that 30 days, but, until more companies realize the long term benefits, its our jobs to inform them.

    Kailia, I loved the article, and hope more companies get a chance to read it!

  9. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , February 24, 2010 at 10:43 a.m.

    i learned years ago that a good researcher trades unknown but available information to clients for private information . That little lesson has always been a simple tool and is more or less what social marketing and these comments are about . The best current example is google giving you your results for free so you will be more successful and spend more money . In general we are too afraid to take the risks of free for fear of being taken advantage of rather than seeing the potential

  10. Michael Olson from JanRain, February 24, 2010 at 12:51 p.m.

    Insightful article, Kaila. I see SEM and social media as complementary strategies, and think organizations can have the most success by employing both in concert.

    One metric we track for our customers is the amount of referral traffic generated to their website from social media efforts. Our customers are discovering that referral clicks from social media are more likely to result in conversion and thus yield a positive return on investment than those clicks from SEM, simply because SEM cannot replicate the trust generated among peers as they share information on social media sites. Word of mouth is still among the most potent methods for marketers.

    The other consideration, as Michael Hubbard keenly notes, is that social media can augment and boost SEO in a way that SEM does not.

  11. Josh Groth, February 24, 2010 at 2:14 p.m.

    Great post.

    I loved what commenter Mike Olson has to say: "I see SEM and social media as complementary strategies."

    It really isn't about pitting SEM against SMM in a battle of epic proportions to see who comes out on top. Just like it isn't about pitting those two against traditional print advertising.

    SEM and SMM are best leveraged as part of an integrated marketing campaign. And by tracking each individually, following their trends, and measuring their respective success, you can improve upon each.

    For example, you may have a great adwords campaign, but your marketing intelligence you gain through your social media monitoring system lets you know that there are now 4 new keywords that are showing up in relation to your brand (or client's brand) across social media platforms. This allows you to be agile, and make changes to ongoing campaigns as you gather real-time intelligence - thus giving you a leg up on your competition.


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