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!