IBM claims 0.0 percent traffic referrals from Twitter on Black Friday, but retailers say otherwise

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For all their efforts, Twitter and Facebook remain big question marks when it comes to their marketing reach, and an IBM’s Black Friday report you likely heard yesterday says it’s worse than you may have thought. According to IBM, Twitter was responsible for 0.0 percent of referral traffic, while Facebook referred just 0.68 percent this year the day after Thanksgiving. Dismal numbers; so how accurate are IBM’s findings?

There’s no doubt about it that this year’s Black Friday was successful, driven by an increase in online sales, which grew year over year 20.7 percent for the weekend according. A report by Market Watch on a study by ShopperTrak corroborates the increase of in-store retail sales as well, which edged out last year by 2.7 percent. The Thanksgiving weekend as a whole (not including Cyber Monday), drove a record $59.1 billion in sales, and 40.7 percent of this came from online sales according to the National Retail Federation.

And if Facebook and Twitter aren’t driving sales like they’ve been promising they can, then business may start rethinking their social media strategies. While social in general is an unproven resource, it all seemed a little suspect, so we decided to dive a little deeper into the report. 

Admittedly we can’t tell you what IBM’s methodologies were when the company decided to publish these metrics, and we’ve reached out to them for some answers – but you might not want to read too deeply into that 0 percent number attributed to Twitter. If you go back to November 23 on Twitter, you’ll immediately see users tweeting, retweeting, and favoriting deals published on the social network. While this doesn’t indicate conversions, nor does it mean that tweets have been driving traffic, it’s some evidence that Twitter was successfully encouraging some users to click on ads published on the platform on Black Friday. And clicks are a big part of what Internet marketing is all about. 

Cory Huff, a digital strategist, tells me that from his experience working with clients that include mom-and-pop shops, artists, and Fortune 500 companies in retail and media verticals, he’s skeptical about IBM’s findings. While he can’t tell me what the figures looked like on Black Friday, he says that “Twitter and Facebook have been definitely responsible for conversions.”

It’s fairly well known by social media strategists that Twitter and Facebook aren’t significant drivers of referral traffic. Pinterest, for that matter, fairs far better – even excels – here. “Click-to-conversion has been a long time goal for social marketers, and an area of both challenge and opportunity,” says Jason Weaver, CEO of Shoutlet a social media management software company. Weaver, however, declined to comment about the IBM study.

While we reached out to major retailers including Macy’s, Walmart, Kohls, Costcos, for their findings, these companies have remained mum. Mid-sized retailers like SellCell.com, the Kayak of the phone trade-in world, on the other hand supported IBM’s figures. “Our figures back up IBM’s statement. We see few actual referrals from Facebook and Twitter, but Facebook and Twitter are only two of many touch points we have with our customers. They give us a wonderful opportunity to interact with our customers on a regular basis and to share content that they value,” says Colin White, managing director of SellCell.com.

But Huff says that he’s confident that the referrals are better than the abysmal numbers IBM reported. I asked him for a ball park figure, if possible, and based on his experience he told me generally between five and 10 percent of referrals come from social networks depending, on the client. 

Adobe Digital Index tracked social traffic share from Black Friday and found that Facebook and Twitter accounted for 77 percent of referral traffic among social networks, an increase of one percent year-over-year, while Pinterest’s share grew 115 percent, giving it 15 percent of social traffic. However, citing Monetate, AllThingsD reports that Facebook traffic has been on the decline. In Q1 2011, Facebook made up as much as 88 percent of social traffic for retailers, while Pinterest amounted to one percent at the time. 

What’s worth noting from my conversation with Huff is that he’s found that enterprises have more of a challenge than the small businesses in engaging with its fans. The local factor of small vendors tends to translate into sales thanks to social interaction much more easily than it does with enterprises. Enterprises are dealing with a larger volume of sales and a more diverse clientele. 

Target declined to comment on their sales figures and social data coming out of Black Friday, but a spokesperson confirmed with me that social media was a channeled used specifically for Black Friday. “We know Target guests used social media to plan their Black Friday shopping, learn about great deals, redeem Facebook Offers as well as share feedback during their shopping experience.” Target offered some additional insight into how its Facebook platform may have performed during Black Friday. “We first revealed our Black Friday deals in an interactive Facebook App and had nearly a million users in just four days.” Of course this doesn’t answer how the referral traffic from Facebook and Twitter was for the company, simply how well it was able to connect with users via the network. 

Melissa Salas, Director of Marketing at Rakuten Buy.com told me that during Black Friday, the e-commerce retailer, which serves 18 million customers, saw a significant increase in social traffic this year that in part fueled an increase of 74 percent year-over-year in transactions and sales. While Salas declined to offer exact numbers about their social media referrals, she informed me that leading the way by “a lot” among social networks was Twitter. She added that social media was an integral part of Buy.com’s marketing strategy. “It allows us to create an exciting and entertaining shopping experience that includes informative video reviews,  gift suggestions and social media contests. Our customers know they are getting a great deal and are willing to share the news with their friends and family via social media channels.”

DataSift, one of three Twitter partners for syndicating the Firehose, who we reached out to earlier about this article conducted a cursory study about Twitter and Facebook activity on Black Friday and its spokesperson told us that IBM’s results might be giving retailers the wrong impression. While DataSift’s study was a quick turn around, even the cursory look at Black Friday on Twitter was evidence that IBM might have missed the mark. DataSift found “50M tweets relating to Black Friday/Cyber Monday, with peaks of almost 100 tweets a second.”

Coming out of the study, offline retailers were benefiting significantly from online coupons published to social networks. “There were  several million posts worth of coupons,” and most surprising of all is that DataSift found that out of all retailers, “Radio Shack even beat both Apple and Amazon as far as DataSift could tell in terms of virality around coupons.” DataSift concludes by saying that it’s possible that  IBM underrepresented the impact of social on retailers by focusing on just online retailers, when many deals that were being shared were for offline retailers. 

It could be, as Josh Constine of TechCrunch suggests, that Twitter doesn’t have downstream conversion tracking so the results were underreported. And Twitter just a week ago reported on a study where Compete analyzed over 7,600 user’s shopping habits with 700 retail outlets during the back to school shopping season. This doesn’t go without mentioning that the study is food for thought and should be taken with a grain of salt considering that it was conducted during a busy shopping season, and um … commissioned by Twitter. But the important take away from the report is that Twitter users made purchases 33 percent of the time when “exposed to a tweet,” compared to the 27 percent that made purchases from a retail site.

The IBM report isn’t without merit, the main point being that social media traffic is just a fraction of total referrals. Really, the study just emphasizes the idea that social marketing is a mixed bag that we’re navigating. But amid the confusion there’s a clear winner emerging, and it’s Pinterest.

BizRate Insights study shows that Pinterest is the fourth largest driver of traffic, which we mentioned earlier, and 70 percent of users will browse Pinterest to find out what to buy. Only 17 percent of people would use Facebook for the same purpose. The study by Monetate showed that nearing the end of Q2 2012, Pinterest’s referral traffic skyrocketed 2,535 percent year-over-year, while Facebook saw just a 2.7 percent increase during the same period. There was also speculation that on Black Friday, Pinterest had reportedly blocked Amazon temporarily due to too much traffic and malicious activity. Pinterest did respond to reports through VentureBeat with a statement explaining that someone was scraping Pinterest, which was what spurred the blockage. But Pinterest is turning out to be the shining star that retailers might want to jump on, if they haven’t done so already.

The big picture here? Don’t get too swept up in reports claiming social doesn’t work – it does, it just works differently. It plays a longer tail game by communicating and connecting with consumers and building relationships there. The direct ad click to buy isn’t necessarily how many retailers are using social media – although, it’s something that site’s like Twitter and Facebook are certainly trying to ad to their arsenal. But don’t count social out of the holiday shopping quite yet – the season, and social networks, are just getting started. 

Edit: Updated the article with comments from DataSift

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