OK, most website owners and marketing managers understand that it's not social media marketing versus SEO; the two really go hand-in-hand.
The content you create not only fuels your social media activity (keeping you connected to your social audience), it also creates valuable landing pages in the SERPs. This helps your website earn better quality links, which in turn helps build your online brand presence. But while social media and SEO work together, is traffic from social media channels better or worse (in terms of conversions) than traffic from Google?
Which traffic source is more important in the long term?
Social media marketing expert Michelle Stinson Ross points out:
Organic search traffic generally converts better as it catches people at the end or near to the end of their purchase cycle (investigation and make a purchase). Social, on the other hand, allows brands to connect with people even before they know they need or want the brand's product. A response to a social question (i.e. Do you know of a high quality reasonably price home painter?) with a link generally garners a similar if not higher conversion rate than organic search. It’s wise to maximize both search and social traffic with realistic expectations of the traffic.
Why organic traffic matters
People turn to the search engines for answers to all kinds of questions, both business and personal. In today's business landscape, people use the search engines to research possible vendors long before they ever pick up the phone and call your sales team. A strong organic traffic helps connect your website to potential customers right at the beginning of their sales cycle (when they are searching for broader solutions to their problems), and when they are nearer the end of their sales process (and are looking for very specific things).
You might connect with your organic visitors a bunch of times in the SERPs as they move through the buying process — a handful of blog posts, a white paper, an interview on another website, some services pages and so forth. The more content you have on your website the more doorways you can create organically to drive traffic.
For most websites, organic sources are the biggest traffic drivers. Businesses without a strong online presence cannot hope to keep up with the competition, even if their offline brand is powerful.
For example, one of our clients works in the commercial food industry, building and selling high-end restaurant equipment. For 60 years they have been the dominant brand in their industry, but in the last decade or so smaller, overseas competitors built up their online presence and were actually outranking our client for their own branded products (they resold used equipment).
With a lot of SEO work, our client managed to reclaim their brand online. Since then, traffic to their website has increased 100-fold, as have leads from their website.
Why social traffic matters
What if Google vanished off the face of the Earth tomorrow? Or, a more likely scenario, what if your website was penalized by Google tomorrow and you stopped getting organic traffic? Suddenly your social channels are the main (and possibly only) source of traffic to your website! It's very important that site owners and marketing managers not put all their eggs in one basket, and social channels are a great way to balance your traffic sources.
There is no denying the importance of organic traffic and the need for good SE, but businesses that rely solely on the search engines for visitors find themselves much more susceptible to the changing tides of the SEO industry. Google has made a lot of big changes in the last few years while trying to stop spammers, and many websites were caught (fairly or not) in the cross-fire. Those that had a solid social media presence in place may have lost a ton of organic traffic, but at least their social channels kept their websites afloat. I even have a few clients that actually get much more traffic from their social media profiles than they do from organic sources!
And as Michelle pointed out, social media can drive converting traffic to your website (albeit not usually as much as other channels). A mention or plug via social channels is like an online thumbs up, and people are much more willing to do business with brands that their friends/social connections approve up. A social mention from the right person can mean big business down the road! Keep in mind that one tweet does not mean one sale (usually), but a social interaction can be the starting point for driving new business to your website and building connections with your audience.
You really do need both organic and social traffic in order to have a successful business. The more places you can connect with your audience the better!
Social media marketing helps you connect with your target audience and build relationships. Meanwhile, SEO builds your online brand up and gives you more chances to position your website in front of potential customers. You want to build your online presence from all angles to give your website the best chance of success.