Social Media Audiences Are Great, But Email Audiences Are Better

Which would you rather have: 3,000 email newsletter subscribers or 30,000 social media followers?

Choose carefully … it’s a trick question.

It’s a trick question because I bet you know the answer. You opted for the subscribers because you’ve been around the block. You know that while social media represents a vast potential audience, the engagement rates are awful.

Social media and email marketing compared: Four steps to conversion:

To compare email marketing and social media in the closest apples-to-apples way, let’s walk through all the steps it takes from getting someone to notice your message to getting them to convert.

Step one: Organic reach on social and deliverability for email

As you know, “Organic reach” on Facebook is in the low single digits. It’s not a whole lot better on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Compare that to email’s version of “organic reach”: deliverability rate. Email marketers would be committing hari-kari if deliverability rates were in the low single digits. Heck, we’re unhappy with 80% deliverability (a rough estimate – your mileage will vary).

Second step: Beyond reach and deliverability

Let’s take it a step further. Or a click further, if you will, to open rates for emails, and then to social media’s version of that measurement: “engagement rate.”

For email, we have a bit of murkiness on open rates. Some email clients (like Gmail and Outlook) automatically open emails, blurring the measurements for purists. But a good open rate – again, your mileage will vary – is roughly 10–15%.

That’s perhaps a bit low, but let’s lean conservative for a moment. Because given how bad the engagement rates are for social media, we can afford to be downright measly with email’s stats.

Average engagement rates on social? They’re a joke compared to email. The exact stats vary widely, but here’s what Forrester reported early last year. These may have declined even more since.

Step three: And on to click-through rates…

We’re not done yet. Social media engagement rates don’t accurately count the people you get to your site. Engagement rates do include click-through rates, but they also include shares, likes, and comments. All good stuff – absolutely. But not the sort of thing that directly drives business results like a click-through to your site does.

In fact, the closest thing I could find to a click-through rate average on social media was from advertising. According to Smart Insight’s recent post about Facebook marketing, Across all ad formats and placements, Ad CTR is 0.17%.” And that assumes all those ads are sending people off Facebook (which they’re not).

Email’s click-through rates may not sparkle, but generally, a click-through rate of 2% is considered about par. That’s more than ten times the Facebook ad CTR above.

Fourth and last step: Finishing up with conversions

Can you bear one more step? Because we’ve still got conversion rate to go. Once again, the statistics vary widely from industry to industry, and company to company. But here’s one hard data point about conversion rates across the different channels. It’s from Monetate’s 2013 Q4 Holiday Roundup, as recounted by Smart Insights (with interesting commentary) and Convince and Convert (with thoughtful analysis).

So what does it all mean?

If we were evaluating marketing strategies just based on those studies, it might look like social isn’t worth the hassle. But, of course, it is.

Social media may not have the engagement rates of email, but you start out with a huge group of people – everyone on social media. It isn’t really like email marketing. There, you’re working with just the subscribers on your list. So while we’d all love a proper apples-to-apples comparison of the two channels, we’re not ever going to get a true one. Social and email are different. Not even apples and oranges. (And social’s really good at things email is lesser at, such as brand awareness. Maybe it’s horses for courses.)

Those differences are important, too. So while I don’t want to bash social too hard, here are a few other reasons social is at an inherent disadvantage compared to email:

Disadvantage #1: Control

Email’s primary advantage over social media is control. You can control when you mail to people, how you mail to people, and what you mail to people.

Not so of social media. It’s easy to forget, but we don’t really own our followers on social media. They may like us once, then spend their time elsewhere. Or they may engage on the channels we use, then flit off to a new channel entirely.

Disadvantage #2: Social media increasingly requires advertising to reach your audience

It costs money to send emails, too, of course. But the cost to advertise is usually higher than the cost to send an email. Even if you’re enough of a social advertising whiz to get clicks for pennies, actual conversions typically cost more on social media than they do via email.

And even when we’re advertising on social, we still have to get those ads past the reviewers. Facebook, for example, often rejects ads, especially if you’re in a niche they’re not entirely comfortable with.

Part of the disadvantage here is a mindset issue. Which brings us to the next point.

Disadvantage #3: People just aren’t usually in shopping (or B2B research) mode when they’re on social.

People expect a different experience from social media than they do from their email inbox. Largely, they’re looking for light entertainment – a few cat photos – or some family news. Even on LinkedIn, where most B2B networking goes down, people just aren’t in the same mindset as they’re in when they’re working through their inbox.

There’s research to back this up. In early 2015, Marketing Sherpa asked 2,000 American adults, “In which of the following ways, if any, would you prefer companies to communicate with you? Please select all that apply.”

As you can see, email won by a country mile. Social media came in at #6. So if we’re going to send a commercial message, people overwhelmingly say they want it via email.

You can also see this in B2C retail stats, too. For instance, according to Custora’s analysis of last year’s Black Friday,

“…email marketing was the primary channel, driving 25.1% of orders. Beyond email, 21.1% of sales originated through free search, and 16.3% through paid search. Social media (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest) drove only 1.7% of sales.” 

But not every study shows such a difference. For example, what about order size? Do social shoppers place smaller orders, or just place orders less often? According to Monetate’s 2016 Q1 Ecommerce Quarterly Report, the average order sizes for social and email are actually pretty close.

So while email may be driving most of the ecommerce sales, when people do buy via social, they buy just as much as if they ordered from emails. This might change in the future, too. All those “buy” buttons on social media sites are eventually going to start affecting this.

Disadvantage #4: Person for person, email beats social media for promoting content.

We get so focused on getting more shares on social media that we sometimes forget how good email is at promoting content. It’s also great for sharing content, too, but we have a harder time tracking those actions.

Here are two very interesting examples of email’s mighty content promotion powers:

  • Neil Patel gets similar results for his promotion efforts. Here’s a table showing the results he got after trying several different tactics for content promotion. Hour for hour, email marketing – emailing his subscribers – got him more than three times the traffic of any other tactic.

In the table below, “email outreach” is sending personalized emails to individuals (usually influencers) to ask them to share your content. “Emailing subscribers” is the standard “announce the new post to your list”.

“So, wait – why am I doing social media marketing?”

Okay, I’ve done quite the job on bashing social media here. But that’s really not my intent. I don’t recommend that any company, anywhere, should skip social media. It’s a fantastic way to get in front of new people, for one thing. And a great way to build your list. And a great way to test content. And – even with single digit organic reach – a good way to stay in touch with your audience.

Ascend2 has three good, recent studies that offer a bit more information about email marketing vis–à–vis social. Here’s what they report.

  • First, social media has about the same amount of people who say they’re “somewhat successful” with it as email marketing does.
  • Second, email still wins for effectiveness and how easy it is to execute.

However – 41% of marketers said social media is effective. That’s a much sunnier picture than what we were seeing just a few years ago. Even two or three years ago.

What does this say about inbound vs. outbound marketing?

Social media is still a ways off from catching up to email marketing in terms of conversion effectiveness. In some situations, the volume of sales from social is still pretty low, but as new technologies develop (like social media buy buttons or the 11,000 company bots chatting it up on Facebook Messenger), the gap might narrow a bit.

If we consider social media as the main pillar of inbound marketing, and email as the main pillar of outbound marketing, what are we to make of this? Should you scale social back?

No. Emphatically, no. Social is irreplaceable for brand building, and it can be a very good tool to build your email list. Both of those factors are required in order for your email marketing to be its most effective. The best bet? Get really smart… and combine forces.

Back to you

How does email marketing compare with social media marketing for your company? Are you tracking each channel? Are you one of the marketers who’s getting better results with social media? Leave a comment – we’d love to know what you think about all this.

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