Being a cynic by nature, I've never been fully convinced that any of the "Big Three" social media tools was effective in driving traffic to product sales. Self-anointed social media gurus hold seminars, write books, show up at conferences and blog about the proper methods of "Tweeting," "Liking," or "Pinning" your way to online success. And yet all of that hype never seems to fully drown out the hum of online merchants telling us that, despite the hours and hours of time they spend on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest (and any of the other social media tools out there) marketing their sales, the returns are negligible. So what's the deal?
We Tweet and Share our articles daily and post occasionally in Linkedin groups, in an attempt to take advantage of whatever additional traffic these services might offer. However, discussions tend to take place in private areas of these sites, outside of the prying eyes of Google's searchbots, so there is no real search engine benefit. To be sure, there are some fascinating topics and conversations going on in these groups, but how this drives social media to ecommerce - and I mean making sales, not sharing information - escapes me. There seems to be a mile-wide ravine between how well these tools work for bringing people together, and actually converting them into customers.
So we decided to go up one level from the online merchants on the frontlines of ecommerce. EcommerceBytes approached several online marketplaces and asked them if they would be willing to share their sites' referral numbers from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. These are sites that have invested time, energy and money to integrate social media tools into their marketplaces. They have real skin in the game.
Five online marketplaces were open to sharing their data with us. Combined, these marketplaces accounted for over 100 million visitors during the past year - a sizable sampling. We guaranteed anonymity to these marketplaces, and promised to publicly share the data only in the aggregate. Here's how the data that they provided to us broke down:
|Percent of Traffic to Online Marketplaces from Social Networking Sites|
|Social Networking Site ||% of Traffic|
|Facebook || |
|Pinterest || |
|Twitter || |
Source: EcommerceBytes survey of online marketplaces conducted September 2012
The numbers represent the percentage of traffic referred to these marketplaces from each of the three largest social media tools. This may not reveal the entire story, such as peripheral traffic from these sites (someone who may find a site via Facebook, then visit at a later time) but it is quite telling (there is some data in this NewsFlash article from Monday
with the conversion rates that the participating sites received from visitors referred by these social media tools).
Combined, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounted for just 1.1% of the total 100 million visitors to these five marketplaces. Combined. To put that in perspective, that's a smaller referral percentage than EcommerceBytes gets from Ask.com, HotBot and Lycos combined. It's what I consider incidental traffic.
Even more revealing were some of the comments coming back from the participating marketplaces - which again, we share anonymously:
Marketplace A CEO: What sane person is going to subscribe to the Twitter or Facebook feed of a business that is relentlessly self-promotional? And if you aren't relentlessly self-promotional (posting at least one item per day), how much traffic can you possibly drive from the social media sites?
Our site has Facebook sharing buttons prominently displayed on every item page, and every (showcase). We let users tweet items directly from the item page, and we usually get a few hundred tweets per day about our items. We even went "all in" on Pinterest and put their full widget on both our item detail page, and all of our search result/store browsing pages. The sum of this implementation is that we have made every reasonable effort to allow people to share their items (their own or others) via any of the major social outlets.
So, on the macro view, I don't believe social media is an effective way to drive traffic, relative to other options. But that isn't to say there aren't isolated success stories.
Marketplace B CEO: Shortly after Facebook started offering advertising on their system we decided to give it a try. We let our campaign run for about a week then reviewed the results. During our test campaign we picked up several thousand new "likes" for our facebook page, but further inspection showed that these new "Likes" were mostly from girls and boys in their early teens. This was odd, because historically our target audience has been women between the age of 40 and 60.
To make sure that these teens that Facebook had sent us were not some overlooked user demographic that we were not aware of, we went back and checked our internal site analytics to see if any of the referrals from facebook during the test period and several weeks after had converted to sales on our site. We were quite surprised to see that there was no significant increase in sales that we could link to the test advertising campaign on Facebook.
Comments such as these reveal a skepticism on the part of marketplace executives about the value of the traffic that comes from social networking sites.
I recall some of eBay's past attempts at incorporating social networking into their site - blogs, neighborhoods and wikis, for example - if they had been successful in driving traffic, wouldn't those features still be around? In July, we wrote about eBay's total revamp of its MyWorld pages
to make them less customizable. It also makes me wonder how their new acquisition of Pinterest-clone Svpply.com will pan out? Perhaps they can bridge what appears to be a fundamental disconnect between social media and ecommerce.
So why the big push for social ecommerce? An interesting phenomenon occurs when an industry invests billions of dollars trying to establish itself as the "next big thing." Stock analysts are given extravagant "dog and pony" shows, the press is pitched relentlessly, and a cottage industry of "evangelists" springs up almost overnight. A stampede of users jumping aboard ensues, and it quickly becomes difficult to separate common sense from hyperbole.
Social ecommerce has had more than a fighter's chance to gain traction, however after all these years, there is no tangible evidence that it's worth the time and effort involved to use these tools to drive sales. I'd be happy to have a social media "expert" come in and comment to the contrary, after all this is how they're earning a living.
Perhaps it's time to rethink the amount of time and energy you, as an online merchant, spend Tweeting, Liking and Pinning and evaluate what you are really getting in return. Have you spent the time to see what's working, if anything? I say it's way overdue for this baby to soar, or let's finally put a pin in it.
About the Author
David Steiner is President of Steiner Associates LLC, publisher of EcommerceBytes.