Social Overtakes Search, Closes In On Display As Agencies' Top Digital Focus

Social media has surpassed search, and is poised to overtake online display advertising as the No. 1 source of digital media planning and buying, according to the latest edition of a quarterly survey of U.S. advertising agencies. The survey, conducted by Strata, the agency media software and processing firm owned by Comcast, found that 69% of agency executives now consider social the “focus” of their digital ad spending -- up 32% over the past year, and now a close second behind display (71%) as the dominant digital media-buying platform in the minds of agency executives.

“The survey demonstrates that there has been a shift from search -– which has dominated the digital part of the business for the last five to 10 years -– to social,” says Strata CEO and President John Shelton.

Shelton said that view was affirmed to him this week while he was attending a technology conference of executives from small and mid-size agencies in New York City this week in which social was the main topic of discussion and nary a word was mentioned about either display or search.

“I did not hear the word ‘search’ once,” he said, “ and maybe two out of three of the vendors [presentations] and three out of four of the [agency executives’] questions were about social. Social media is absolutely their main focus right now.”

The Strata survey is based on an informal quarterly poll of its agency clients, which Shelton says is more of a cross-section of the U.S. agency scene, and therefore more representative than typical agency surveys that focus on the major agency holding companies. Strata services more than 1,000 agencies, processing more than $50 billion in media each year, and they range from shops billing $3 billion to “just under $1 million.” He said they are also geographically dispersed and include agencies based in the American heartland, as well as the major media markets.

The survey found that mobile is also gaining steam, and is now seen as the No. 1 source of digital buying among 29.9% of the agency respondents.

The iPhone continues to be the dominant device targeted in campaigns for eight straight quarters, with 75% of the executives citing it. Android came in second at 57% and the iPad was third at 44%. Interestingly, Android has fluctuated between 46% and 70% over the last eight quarters and “continues to look for stability in the mobile arena,” according to Strata.

Not surprisingly, Facebook dominates the social media mindset, with 85% of the Strata respondents citing the social network. Interestingly, Google’s Facebook overtook Twitter as the next most dominant social media platform, and Google+ has moved up as a close fourth-place consideration behind Twitter. But Strata said Facebook has reigned supreme over the span of its surveys, scoring top consideration among 80% or more of the respondents for seven of the last nine quarters that it has been conducting the survey.

Shelton said TV remains the No. 1 medium of focus among its agency clients, but that digital overall is beginning to close in on its dominance. He also noted that much of TV’s current stature has to do with the cyclical timing of the television marketplace, and especially the fact that we are in a “pre-upfront” buying period, and that we are also in a so-called quadrennial year in which the Summer Olympics and Presidential campaigns place a disproportionate share of attention on television in the ad industry.

Shelton said the agency mindset shift mirrors Strata’s own development process, which has shifted significantly toward software and data processing systems earmarked for digital, which has been true of its major rivals – Donovan Data Systems and MediaBank, which recently merged into MediaOcean, and have put most of their focus on digital media processing.

Shelton said about two-thirds of Strata’s development investments surrounding its ad agency products has been spent on digital media processing, and he says the company has experienced a 73% growth in usage of its digital products vs. only “single digit” growth of its traditional media products in the past two years.


10 comments about "Social Overtakes Search, Closes In On Display As Agencies' Top Digital Focus".
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  1. Steve Goldner from DivorceForce, May 3, 2012 at 9:41 a.m.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    Social Steve

  2. Kevin Bullard from ILFUSION Creative, May 3, 2012 at 9:47 a.m.

    Social is overtaking Search in media spend? Really? Wow. Not disputing evidence, just think this is a bad turn for (most) advertisers as how does one. Sounds like lemming-itis to me...

  3. Gary Redmond from Archstone, May 3, 2012 at 11:04 a.m.

    Very mis-leading. I read this as "focus" of digital spend, not % of total digital advertising dollars spent. This is about top of mind vs. top of wallet. Agencies realize there is tremendous excitement from advertisers around social and are clamoring to develop offerings to supply the insatiable demand.

    According to a 2011 Forrester study, Search overall remains at #1 with 55% of total interactive ad dollars spent in 2011. Social is growing fast but is still just a drop in the bucket.

    The disconnect between the hype and real ad dollar growth is the ROI challenge. According to a recent survey of over 300 C-level exec's by the Economist, "Almost half of executives said that the major impediment to social media campaigns was the lack of a standardized metric that can measure a return on investment."

    Just sayin'

  4. Dan Auito from Next Century Studios, May 3, 2012 at 11:23 a.m.

    Merge, converge and engage is the key here. One way for entrenched advertisers and committed publishers to take advantage of both, print and digital media buys is to simply include a QR Code graphic on ALL their printed materials which drives the readers to ALL the print advertisers online social media properties with one scan of the code. Watch this 1 minute video and be amazed at how easy this is!

  5. alexander edlund from Caesars Entertainment Inc, May 3, 2012 at 2:11 p.m.

    Right. Meanwhile Facebook advertising revenue dropped in Q1..

  6. Robert Gilmour from Innfinite Hospitality Ltd, May 4, 2012 at 5:49 a.m.

    Let them spend away, the lack of metrics coupled with the very low chances of, and lack of evidence of, serious commercial gains, will come back to haunt them.

    I can only speak for hotels and travel, mind you.

  7. Robert Gilmour from Innfinite Hospitality Ltd, May 4, 2012 at 5:56 a.m.

    Also what do they define as 'social'? - the word social's conveniently stuck in front of about everything these days, even search, all in an endeavour to try to justify a ROI, which is conspicuous by its absence - by piggybacking on just about every other form of marketing..

  8. Adam Hartung from spark partners, May 4, 2012 at 10:25 a.m.

    No wonder on 5/3/12 Forbes magazine published a "sell Google" article

  9. Edward Gonzalez from 33 Degrees Convenience Connect, May 4, 2012 at 1:32 p.m.

    I think many are missing that the story is based that the 'focus' is on social, this is not 'ad dollars'.

  10. Latease Rikard from LMR Publishing, May 21, 2012 at 10:25 p.m.

    Quite a shift from two years ago when social was seen as a secondary alternative to search and that when used with search it generated more revenue than when used alone (Balegno, S. (2010). Social Marketing ROAD Map Handbook. Retrieved from

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