The Challenge Of Social

Every quarter, I fill out an online survey about digital marketing trends. One question always shows up: “Are you looking at social as a replacement for search in your online marketing strategy?” I always answer no, and to myself, comment that it’s a stupid question asked by someone who obviously doesn’t know much about online marketing. But now I wonder  -- is it really such a stupid question? Aren’t many experienced marketers asking themselves exactly the same question?

The Social Graph (or Network, or whatever you want to call it) should be the single biggest opportunity in marketing history. But marketers are stubbing their toes by the millions in trying to step over the threshold into the golden glow of the online social party. It seems it’s incredibly difficult to figure out.

Search, on the other hand, was easily pigeonholed as a direct-marketing channel. Search was so easy to “get” for marketers that Google turned it into a self-serve model and became the fastest growing company in history as a result.



For marketers, I suspect, the very ease of search has caused it to be considered a limited opportunity. Social, on the other hand, seems virtually limitless. It expands into hundreds and thousands of fascinating, if somewhat cloudy, opportunities to connect with customers. As I said, in theory, social seems like a marketer’s dream come true. But in practice, it’s an unwieldy animal to wrestle to the ground.

Here’s just one example of the challenges inherent in mapping the online social landscape.  Pitney Bowes felt there was tremendous potential in social to foster deeper engagements with its customers, building long-term loyalty. But rather than jump headlong into it, Pitney Bowes decided to test its assumptions through a survey of those customers first. The result? Social may not be all it’s cracked up to be:

“These findings will give decision-makers pause for thought,” the report (from the survey) stated. “Businesses can be forgiven for getting swept away by the hype of surrounding social media and wanting to invest in such activity as soon as possible. ... But results show that those businesses tempted to lead with such techniques will quickly find themselves out of step with customer thinking.”

So why is social so awkward to leverage effectively? I suspect it’s because the exact same things that make social so promising also make it incredibly unwieldy to manage.  It’s part of our lives, which means we’re engaged, but what we’re engaged with is rarely what an advertiser wants to talk to us about.

Marketers get caught up in the concept of participation rates and usage. Facebook has one of the highest reaches of any online property, second only to Google. Alexa estimates that almost half of the total Internet user population (about 49%) uses Google regularly. Facebook is just behind at 43%. But if we look at time spent on site, Facebook comes it an about 25 minutes a day, compared to 13 minutes a day for Google. If we were using engagement as an indicator of marketing potential, this would have us salivating like a St. Bernard over a fresh bowl of kibble.

But the reason I don’t trust engagement as a metric is that it doesn’t consider intent. And intent is the key difference between social and search. The reason search excels in marketing is that it’s all about intent, and what’s even better, it’s about identified intent, neatly labeled by the search query. In the history of marketing, it’s never been easier than this to intercept a motivated buyer.

I don’t mean to minimize the value of a well-managed search campaign, but compared to other channels, it’s pretty difficult to completely flop on a search campaign. The same is not true for social. To illustrate, let’s step back and look at this from another point of view, one that removes some of the hyperbole that surrounds online social.

Let’s say you’ve just decided to sell your 2007 Honda Civic. As you’re backing out of your driveway, your neighbor flags you down and asks you how you like your Honda, and if you know where she could buy a good used one? From your perspective, this aligning of the planets seems too good to be true, but it’s similar to what happens on a search engine millions of time every day. It’s the power of alignment with purchase intent.

But let’s take a different tack. Let’s imagine that as you drive down the street, you see that one of your neighbors is having a party. In front of their house, there are at least 12 cars parked, including four Hondas. “A-hah, “ you say, “a perfect gathering of potential Honda buyers, with at least 33% of them showing a preference for Hondas” (note: if this is what your internal dialogue actually sounds like, you should consider an extended leave from work). You ring the doorbell and begin to work the crowd. The only problem is, no one came to the party to buy a Honda. Not to mention the obvious question on everyone’s mind: “Who the hell invited you?”

If your goal is to unload your Honda, I know what scenario I’d be betting on. It almost seems ludicrous that we’re even considering Scenario B as a substitute for Scenario A. Yet, every three months, I get that survey asking me if I’m thinking about it.

 I know -- it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.


12 comments about "The Challenge Of Social".
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  1. Lois Wingerson from CMP Medica, December 1, 2011 at 10:21 a.m.

    Not surprised that you have nailed it again, Gerd.

    As an early adopter of social in my online division, and content manager of a vertical search engine to boot, I have been struggling with the challenge of the former for a long time. I just can't seem to connect the dots effectively for social media in my vertical market (healthcare), and have had the inchoate feeling that the search part simply makes more sense.

    Now you've said why, and eloquently. Thanks for such a satisfying start to the day.

  2. kyle nelson from LaunchFish, December 1, 2011 at 10:48 a.m.

    Search advertising is about "interruption". Like billboards, commercials, ads... Targeted, yes, but not optimized. Among other shortcomings it doesn't scale. For example, if you are an online appliance reseller that competes with the likes of Home Depot, Sears, Lowe's, et. al., the keywords that you target are practically owned and controlled by the guys with the bigger budgets. Scales for Google, but not for everyone else.

    Social is about "engagement". Anyone can get involved and as you say there are "infinite" opportunities for all budgets. And, for a smaller brand with a smaller budget, social presents an opportunity to build a following around your brand - something search can't do.

    Another way to look at this: The keyword for vitamins costs $2.71 per CLICK. If the average click results in someone landing on a webpage for a mere 7-11 seconds. Versus someone "liking" the brand on Facebook (for FREE or for a small incentive fee) and then the brand appearing on the users wall for minutes several times each day offering value (advice, tips, discounts, etc...).

    I'm not suggesting that Social trumps Search, but I do believe that Social presents a better way to engage (feedback, surveys, suggestions, transactions) than Search.

    In the end, both strategies are essential to win customers online.

  3. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, December 1, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.

    Interruption..really? Not sure how you figure this. Search is the least interruptive of advertising options. That's why click prices are what they are. It's a chance to introduce yourself to a motivated prospect at the time of intent. We're talking two different beasts here, which was my point. There is definitely a place for social, but it's not a replacement for search.

  4. Krithika Rosenthal from Colangelo Synergy Marketing, December 1, 2011 at 11:09 a.m.

    Why does it have to be about replacement, can't they complement? Social speaks to engagement and also delivers awareness in the form of "likes" and "+1s" by friends, which when combined with search increases conversion. They are both important.

  5. Frost Prioleau from, December 1, 2011 at 11:27 a.m.

    Great post Gordon. Of the various data and targeting methods that we use to drive display campaigns, we definitely see that intent based data (as used in search retargeting) is the most effective. Also agree with the critical importance of "intercepting" a motivated buyer at the right time. The data shows big performance differences for search retargeting within different recency windows (eg within 5 minutes, 15 minutes, an hour, a day, and a week of the user performing the search).

  6. Ryan DeShazer from GSW Worldwide, December 1, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.

    Gord - another fantastic column. Agreed that social is not at all a replacement for search.

    That said, I have been thinking about the evolution of specific social channels and whether they will begin to see users expressing intent. For example, will the introduction of more relevant Facebook "Expressions" (a "want" button rather than the traditional "like" button) bring intent into the Social Graph?

    Interested to hear your thoughts there.

  7. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, December 1, 2011 at 11:38 a.m.

    Again..agree completely with the strategy of complimentary tactics. I'd love to figure out how to leverage social on a more consistent basis. The dangerous concept that seems to be floating out there is that social will replace search..Facebook will kill Google. As Ryan points out, search with social signals incorporated (a la Google+, if more people used it) seems to be pretty promising, but it's a long way from being fully baked.

  8. Alan Charlesworth from University of Sunderland, December 1, 2011 at 1:23 p.m.

    Gord – like you I am something of an agnostic at the church of social media as an effective medium for marketing and so agree with your article. But then, I wondered … what if the person selling the Honda was selling not cars, but parts for Honda cars?

    Fear not – I quickly repented and realised that the parts seller would not be welcome at the nothing-to-do-with-buying-Honda-car-parts party and so would be ignored.

    And if the Honda owners did need a spare part they would go to either a search engine or a Honda-parts forum. Oh bu**er, I always include forums as an element of social media. Ho humm.

  9. Matthew Broder from Pitney Bowes Inc., December 1, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.

    Gord -- Just a slight clarification from Pitney Bowes. We are already deeply engaged in social media via numerous channels, and have been recognized as a leader in this area as a B2B company. The survey results quite honestly surprised us a little bit, but we felt it was important to share the basic insight: social is not an end in itself, but rather a meaningful channel for engagement when used properly. I hope this comment is helpful to you and your readers.

    Matt Broder
    VP External Communications
    Pitney Bowes Inc.

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 1, 2011 at 3:22 p.m.

    How many fairies dance on the head of pin ? Your article is very polite, while they are discussing how big the fairies' wands are and what they would look like if their crowns were silver instead of gold. There are fairies who don't dance on pins and there are pins that don't have fairies.

  11. Robert Gilmour from Innfinite Hospitality Ltd, December 11, 2011 at 7:34 a.m.

    I don't understand this presumption that social media will be the biggest single opportunity in marketing history. In terms of results to date, it is more like a damp squib, certainly in the sector of hotels and travel, where social media is a wannabe, a solution looking for a problem, where costs are never quantified, and results can't be proper;ly measured. Whats sort of landmark marketing opportunity is that?

    Social media 'experts' - cut out the hype, the self fulfilling prophecies, and get real.

  12. Robert Gilmour from Innfinite Hospitality Ltd, December 11, 2011 at 7:44 a.m.

    I would qualify my last comment to refer to NON-TRAVEL specific 'social media' - such as Facebook &c
    Trip Advisor now seems apparently to be oddly deemed as a travel 'social media' site albeit it was around long before social media was born. Quite a logical move by the social media hypers, they need all the support to cling on to and embrace, that they can muster

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