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SEO vs social media—which is better? There are benefits and drawbacks to each.
57% of B2B marketers say that SEO (search engine optimization) generates more leads than any other marketing initiative, but we also know that 54% of social browsers use social media to research products.
Each can be effective, depending on your business and your goals. You need to consider carefully which will work best for you.
SEO vs social media: A definition
SEO is the practice of optimizing a website (and its content) for search engine algorithms and the users of those search engines. The idea is to create content that aligns with what a searcher is looking for on a search engine, like Google or Bing.
It’s a form of online marketing that’s meant to passively generate traffic. Once you’ve created valuable SEO content, you wait for search engines to index it and show it to someone searching for the topic you covered. Over time, that content begins to generate traffic if it is valuable and comprehensive.
That content might be a blog post that teaches you how to build a shed or a selection of lawn chairs for sale. It could be a video, podcast, article, infographic, etc.
SEO often aligns with content marketing, the process by which marketers create useful, valuable content that a searcher is looking for (like how to build a shed).
The idea behind this marketing strategy is that the content will begin showing up on a search engine results page (SERP), users will click on it, and they will then check out other pieces of content on the website, with the hope that they will eventually take action, like making a purchase or joining an email list.
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Social media: A definition
Social media refers to a set of social networks that allow users to communicate with each other and share content (in the form of social media posts). Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram – these are among the world’s most popular social media platforms.
Social media marketing (SMM) is the creation of quality content that users of a social media site then read/watch/listen to. It’s unpaid, meaning you don’t pay the social media network anything to post this content.
Social media advertising is when a business creates and pays for advertisements that are then shown to a chosen target audience on a social media network (usually on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis).
The goal of social media marketing campaigns is to get users to consume your content and then learn more about your brand. Ideally, this will eventually lead to an action that will contribute to the growth of your business, like making a purchase.
Both can generate traffic to your website. Both can generate sales. Both can build a brand.
SEO is generally far more effective at generating traffic to a website than social media.
Social media marketing is excellent at creating relationships with customers and building a brand awareness.
Both can be effective methods of generating leads and sales, though SEO tends to outperform social media.
60% of marketers say that inbound (SEO, blog content, etc) is their highest quality source of leads. SEO leads have a 14.6% close rate.
The share of people who use social media primarily to research and find products to buy is 31%.
45% of internet users today say they’re likely to buy brands they see advertised (think social media ads).
However, the average click-through rate (CTR) for social media ads in Q2 2020 was 1.3%.
While social media ads work, they require a significant investment and can have a small return.
Of course, with the right resources, social media and SEO can also work together. People who find you on search may then follow you on social media, and people who follow you on social media may then become regular consumers of the content you produce on your website.
SEO vs social media: A case-by-case comparison
Both forms of digital marketing have benefits and drawbacks. Which one you choose depends on the type of business you have and your goals. Generally speaking, SEO is better for B2B businesses and social media is better for B2C businesses. But let’s look closer at individual cases.
1. What kind of results can you expect?
What do you get for your investment of time and money?
Social media: brand awareness
The main result you’re going to get from social media is brand awareness. Though social media ads can lead to sales, most forms of social media marketing focus on building relationships with customers.
Social media can lead to traffic, leads, and sales, but it’s much better suited to generating brand awareness and building relationships. You use social media to establish a rapport. By maintaining regular interaction with your target audience, you both humanize your brand and position yourself top-of-mind, so when your audience is ready to buy, they think of you first as a trusted provider.
SEO: traffic, leads, and sales
Generating search traffic is primarily meant to get your target audience onto your website, with the goal of them then converting in some way, usually by turning into a lead or sale.
Still, SEO can generate brand awareness. When a searcher comes across your content through organic search and gets an answer to their question, they are now aware of your brand.
However, unlike social media, you’re not able to talk directly to that person, answer their questions, or establish a relationship. They just see the content and then see your brand as a source of good information. Of course, you can retarget visitors to your website, but this is a much more indirect form of relationship-building than social media can provide.
2. How long does it take to see results?
How soon will your marketing efforts be rewarded? How long do you have to invest before you see a return?
Social media: quick results
Social media tends to be instantaneous because, once you start posting, people start seeing your content immediately (if they’re following you on social media or monitoring the hashtags you use).
That said, it takes a long time to generate a following on social media that you can rely on for steady traffic, leads, and sales if you’re doing it organically.
There are services that offer to quickly generate an audience for you, but those should be avoided. They’re generally only going to give you fake followers that do nothing for your marketing efforts.
Growing an audience organically can take months to years, just like SEO. You have to post social media content regularly. You have to engage with your audience — commenting on their posts, responding when they comment on yours, putting together contests or polls that are interesting to them. To make social media even more difficult, most businesses need to manage multiple social media profiles to reach as many different target audiences as possible. And this can compound the difficulty several times.
Social advertising is different. With social media ads, you can see quick results, but those results will stop when you stop investing in the ads. Generally, you don’t grow an audience with social media ads. Instead, you use them to generate leads and sales directly.
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SEO: 6 months to 1 year
You might not see results from your SEO strategy for 6 months to a year.
The process requires the regular creation of content, whether it be video, written, or audio content. Depending on how long the content is or how much production goes into it, it can require significant effort.
For example, some studies show that, to see results on a blog, you need to post 2–4 times a week.
If you’re posting 2000+ word blog posts, that’s a significant effort. The same goes for videos or even media as seemingly simple as infographics. It’s not atypical for businesses to hire full-time content creators to succeed with SEO.
Even if you’re not publishing content regularly, just generating web pages for all your services can end up taking months.
That said, once your SEO strategy is in place, your pages will start generating traffic, and you won’t usually have to do much more once a piece of content has been produced.
It’s nothing like taking care of all the social media activities that even a single day of social media requires. Though SEO can take longer to see results, it’s a more reliable form of traffic generation because it doesn’t require the same level of continued effort.
3. Audience types
Who is on social media? Who is using search engines? How are they different?
Social media: targeting individuals and forming relationships
When you’re on social media, you’re targeting people. You’re actively trying to establish a relationship with people, one at a time.
Social audiences are interacting with you in real-time. You’re talking to them one-on-one.
They tend to be at the top of the sales funnel. They’re aware of your brand, and they like your content, but many of them just want the content — they have no intention of buying anything.
However, just like any form of marketing, there are going to be people who follow you on social media because they’re interested in your products/services, so they may be considering a purchase, or may even have already made a purchase and follow you because they intend on making more in the future.
SEO: targeting searchers and generating leads/sales
Searchers can be anywhere in the sales funnel, but there are searchers who are above even the awareness stage — they don’t know you exist at all before they hit a page on your website.
The type of search they’re performing can tell you where in the funnel they are. For example, if they’re searching for, “how to build a shed,” and you sell sheds (but not the parts for them), they’re not in your funnel at all.
But if they’re searching for, “best shed for sale this year,” then they’re in the consideration stage of the funnel, though they might not be aware of your brand as an option until they land on a page on your website. They’ve then become a lead, or maybe even a sale if they make the decision to buy based on that content.
If they’re searching for a specific product to buy, they may come right to you if your product pages are optimized for search. Then you’re directly generating sales from your SEO efforts.
Searchers are looking for content that fulfills their search intent, whatever that happens to be. Your job is to target these searches and the people behind them. If you can do this consistently, you have a better chance of turning your visitors into leads and customers than you do on social media.
4. Content types
What type of content works best for social media? What about SEO?
Social media: it depends on the platform
For social media, the type of content that works best depends on the social media platform you’re on.
On a Facebook page, for example, you’re going to get the most engagement from photos.
Across all forms of social media, question posts get 100% more traffic than other types of posts.
For LinkedIn, long-form content tends to perform best, especially posts over 2,000 words.
SEO: fulfill search intent
What kind of content works best for search? Content that answers a searcher’s query as fully and accurately as possible.
It’s a different mindset from social media. You have to do keyword research, find out what people are searching for, and then create content that best satisfies their search intent (the goal they have when they type a query into a search engine).
For example, if people are trying to learn how to build a shed, a blog post with step-by-step instructions might be a good piece of content.
However, some searchers might prefer a video step-by-step guide.
To satisfy both searchers, you might want to do both—a blog post with a video embedded at the top.
Put yourself in the mind of the searcher and ask yourself what kind of content is going to be most useful for someone searching a specific keyword phrase.
How long do results from social media last? What about SEO?
Social media: days
It’s rare for a single tweet or Instagram post to drive significant traffic beyond a day or two.
Building a large following is a long and difficult process, too. On Instagram, which has the highest growth rate of any form of social media, you can only expect a 6% to 8% growth rate per month.
And even once you build a large following, you can only expect to get referral traffic from social media for as long as you continue posting and engaging.
Once you stop posting, you’re very unlikely to continue generating traffic from social media.
Once SEO is set up, you can generate traffic with a single piece of content for years to come.
Over time, SEO requires much less maintenance than most other marketing initiatives, including social media. That’s because you can create content that’s evergreen — which means it doesn’t need to be updated over time.
For example, a guide on how to plant a tree is unlikely to need to be updated anytime soon. However, a video about the best zoos in Texas might need to be updated over time.
And even that video might not require a lot of changes to be kept up-to-date. What’s more, that guide on how to plant a tree can become a bigger source of traffic as years go by and more people read it or link to it. A piece of SEO content can get stronger over time, whereas a social media post will only get weaker.
6. Key performance metrics
What metrics should you be tracking for social media? What about SEO?
For social media, you should track the following metrics:
- Audience growth rate (how many net followers you gain/lose per month.)
- Post reach (most social media platforms will give you this information.)
- Demographics (you may need to invest in a social media tool to get this information, though some social media platforms will give you this info, like Facebook through Facebook Insights.)
- Brand mentions (tools like Awario can help you track this.)
- Engagement rate (learn more about how to track this rate here.)
- Overall traffic
- Conversions (you need to decide what a conversion is — it could be filling out a form, joining an email list, or making a purchase.)
- Return on SEO investment (how much money are you generating from your SEO efforts compared to how much you’re spending on it.)
- Backlinks (how many links you’re generating to your website from other websites.)
- Keyword rankings
When to use SEO vs social media
SEO tends to be best for business-to-business (B2B) businesses while social media tends to work best for business-to-consumer (B2C) businesses.
The reason for this is that business customers are less likely to interact with a business on social media, usually preferring personal relationships that are made outside of the digital marketing arena or after connecting with a business through their website (that they found because your website ranks for a keyword they’re searching for).
However, they may have questions that you can answer on a blog post or a video. You can put out content that teaches them and answers questions on how to do things that are specific to what they need.
For example, let’s say you have a business that supports train manufacturers. There are only about two dozen train manufacturers in the entire U.S. Reaching them through social media is going to be exceedingly difficult unless you’re lucky enough to connect with them directly on LinkedIn.
Creating a regular amount of social media content for such a business is mostly going to be a waste of time because the audience is so small. You’ll end up putting a massive amount of effort into creating content that, in most cases, isn’t going to improve your bottom line.
SEO would work better for this type of business. Though it’s doubtful you’d be able to reach such an audience with a blog post, you might be able to reach them through a search-optimized website page for someone who is searching for a business that does what you do.
Social media, on the other hand, is great for B2C businesses. The reason for this is that B2C products are better-suited to social platforms, where bite-sized, visual content reigns and customers don’t need to do much research before purchasing a product. The mindset on social media also benefits B2C businesses, where buyers are much more likely to be browsing when they find a product.
On the other hand, B2B customers are more likely to be searching for a solution to a problem. They’re not likely, for example, to be browsing and come across a social media post from CRM company and think, “this product would be perfect for our business!” Instead, most CRM buyers will be businesses actively searching for a CRM solution.
That said, social media can work for B2B businesses, as long as you’re focusing on creating relationships that can ultimately lead to a sale. Rather than polls or giveaways, you’ll need to focus instead on direct interaction, on building a relationship with decision-makers or driving them to key pieces of content on your website. This can be a lot harder because the potential audience is smaller, and the fraction of that audience interested in what you sell is even smaller compared to a B2C audience.
How to use SEO and social media together
Of course, you don’t always have to make the choice between social media and SEO. Depending on your resources, business, and goals, you can combine the two strategies and they can reinforce each other.
Get SEO traffic to follow you on social media
For example, SEO is great for getting people onto your website, but what do you do once they’re there? You want them to convert in some way, whether that be making a purchase or just filling out a contact form.
But those are both actions that take place pretty deep down a marketing funnel. Without some method for your traffic to convert in a way that has a much lower barrier, you’ll likely lose that traffic forever. If you have content that’s free, many searchers will come to your website, get the information they’re seeking, and then leave without ever returning.
However, following you on social media is a low-barrier conversion. You can get people who might otherwise leave to follow you on social, and then, over time, you may end up getting them to contact you or make a sale. Social media advertising in the form of retargeting ads are perfect for this strategy.
Build relationships with other brands
Social media can also lead to opportunities that can boost your SEO. For example, you can form relationships with other brands with whom you might cross-promote or exchange guest blog posts.
You might invite them onto your podcast or make a video with them. Those relationships might also result in referrals or leads. You might even end up selling to them directly (or buying from them).
Boost your search rankings in Bing
Bing also uses social links as a ranking signal, and though Google does not, Bing holds the next largest market share of search engines, so it’s worth spending a little time investing in social media to help your content rank on Bing.
Better understand your customers
Search can also help you identify the mindset of your customers, which you can translate to better serving your social media audience. When you do keyword research, you’re able to find out what your potential customers are searching for, which can then help you create content for your social media audience.
The opposite is also true—social media can show you what your audience is interested in and help you find potential topics to create content about.
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For most businesses, a combination of social media and SEO is going to be the best marketing strategy. While some businesses will want to focus more on one or the other, ultimately, what you choose depends on your business, your audience, and your goals.
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