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I’ve been a search marketer for 13 years now – for those of you counting, that’s longer than Google’s history in paid search marketing. Selena Gomez was just 8 years old when I started dabbling in PPC on GoTo.com (which then became Overture, then Yahoo Search Marketing, then Microsoft/YSM, then BingAds, and finally AdWords-Seattle – OK, that last one isn’t true . . . yet).

My deep history in SEM has been indelibly etched into my brain, causing me to instinctually conjure up SEM strategies for every potential client that I encounter. Trust me, I could think up an SEM plan for your daughter’s lemonade stand as easily as I could create one for a Fortune 500 company.

So I shocked myself recently when I launched a campaign for a new client that was almost entirely dependent on Facebook and Twitter advertising. Sure, I tried the Google Display Network, but 95% of the budget went to Facebook and Twitter. And the results supported this decision. Check out the stats for the campaign’s most recent week of performance:

channel comparison marketing

CPA on Facebook is 10% of the Google performance and volume is almost 30X! And no, this wasn’t FBX; this is straight Facebook advertising.

This sort of campaign demonstrates the power of social media to drive targeted demand generation. AdWords is awesome for demand fulfillment – that is, when a consumer already knows what he/she wants – but does not perform as well as social media when you are trying to reach a consumer who either doesn’t know that you exist or doesn’t yet realize he wants to buy your product.

In the example above, I was marketing an online class from a famous instructor. Sure, there were some people who did searches on AdWords for the instructor’s name or typed in the course topic, but the volume of these queries was very small compared to the number of people on Facebook or Twitter who “liked” this topic or person and could be marketed to. Moreover, because the AdWords auctions – both in search and on the Google Display Network (GDN) – have been around for years, the pricing is very efficient (read: expensive). Imagine trying to buy the word “business class” on Google. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it at all – here’s the approximate volume and cost of such a keyword:

keyword business class

Assuming an incredible 20% conversion rate on this term, the CPA would be $35 – still more than 5X what we paid for a similar conversion on Facebook. And let’s not forget that a term like “business class” might apply to an online course, or a seat on an airplane, or even a Comcast cable package. With Facebook or Twitter targeting, you can market to people who have self-selected themselves into a particular behavioral pool based on either their interests on Facebook or the handles they follow on Twitter.

Of course, I’m not yet ready to entirely throw in the towel on SEM; we have dozens of clients spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a month on SEM and driving great profit as a result. The rise of social media advertising, however, has created alternatives to AdWords that are increasingly likely to outperform SEM campaigns. Search marketers who persist in the belief that SEM is the cure-all for every marketing problem will soon find this out the hard way.

– David Rodnitzky