Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Search and Social: Wherein Lies the Truth?

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There's been a lot of chatter about the intersection of search and social media lately. In fact, I'll be moderating a session titled, "The Link Between Search and Social" at SES Chicago.

Yesterday, I got a press release from comScore about a study it just released with GroupM Search on the "Interplay Between Search Marketing and Social Media." I have not yet had a chance to read the entire report but plan to in the near future and will post additional thoughts as an update to this post.

From what I read in the press release though, the results seem, at best, no-brainer material and, at worst, potentially misleading.

Here's one example from the press release...

"Further, consumers exposed to a brand’s influenced social media and paid search programs are 2.8x more likely to search for that brand’s products compared to users who only saw paid search."

No-brainer: of course people exposed to messages in 2 channels are more likely to respond than those exposed to just 1. Seems to me you could insert any 2 platforms (eg, radio and print vs. just print) and get the same outcome.

Potentially misleading: I don't think it makes sense to compare results for people exposed to social (or any other channel) plus search to those exposed to only search when the measured response is search queries performed. Obviously, people who only saw paid search are less likely to search again. They've already searched! Something will have to compel them to search again. Could be social media. Could be anything! Is it just me or is this a total circular reference?

Now, all that said, I don't want to make any hasty decisions about the validity of the analysis here before I've had a chance to read the entire report. For one thing, I know Chris Copeland, the author of the study, and he's a very sharp and talented guy. If he put his name on this, I'm sure it's legit.

So I suspend judgment pending further review. Thought it better to put in my 2 cents while the story is hot off the press than to wait until I've had a chance to read the whole thing, as my to-do queue is a mile long. Secretly hoping someone from GroupM or comScore can weigh in and set the record straight and save me the trouble of having to pore through the report. (Uggh! I'm officially one of those lazy bloggers that I hate! And speaking of lazy bloggers, suppose I better comply with the new FTC regulations by disclosing all my "material connections" here. So here goes: I was a comScore customer for many years at Resolution Media. I spoke on a panel a couple weeks ago at OMMA Global NY with Eli Goodman from comScore. Chris Copeland of GroupM Search and I both publish columns for Media Post Search Insider. And I make money consulting on search and social media strategy!)

Update 10/19: OK, I’ve finally had a chance to read the entire white paper. And, while there are definitely some good nuggets in here, my overall POV hasn’t changed much. This is mostly no-brainer stuff and the circular references are confusing if not misleading.

The study “sought to explore” three key areas:
1. Are consumers exposed to social media more likely to search?
2. Does social media exposure drive search queries further down the purchase funnel? (It wouldn’t be a marketing white paper without a graphic of the purchase funnel!)
3. Does social media plus search marketing drive a better performance than search alone?

SPOILER ALERT: As you might expect, the research cited shows the answers to all these questions are yes.

Point #1 is certainly a no-brainer. As I said before, people exposed to any media channel/platform are more likely to search than those with zero exposure. That said, the results are pretty compelling. They saw a 50% lift in click-rate for consumers exposed to both social media and paid search.

Point #2 is quite interesting. The study measured where queries fell among stages of the purchase funnel with upper-funnel “expressing awareness and consideration (industry relevant terms, general product attributes)” and lower-funnel “expressing action and loyalty (campaign brand terms, brand product terms.)” The results showed that searchers who interact with social media are “far more likely to search for lower-funnel terms compared with consumers who do not engage with social media.”

Point #3 is still a bit misleading. Having a control group that consists of people who were only exposed to paid search advertising doesn’t seem right when the lift being measured is search activity. Not sure why they didn’t just use the general online population as the control.

Another thing that struck me as odd in this study was this finding -- “Consumers exposed to both a brand’s influenced social media and paid search spent 3x more time online than the average consumer.” This is another one of those no-brainers/potential misleaders. I’d think your chances of seeing both a social media campaign and a search ad would be higher the more time you spend online. Let’s not confuse correlation for causality here.

Bottom line, I can’t argue with the major takeaway from this study. “This research clearly shows a direct correlation between social media and search.” And the methodology seems sound when it comes to showing that social media exposure can trigger lower-funnel search queries. So I’ll let the study’s author, Chris Copeland, have the last word with his conclusion -- which I fully support with an emphasis on the word “guide” -- “In using these learnings as a guide, we start to appreciate and act on better allocation of financial and brand investments for the betterment of paid media and overall performance.”

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