Here are two article headlines I’ve seen in the past 24 hours:

LinkedIn Replaces Facebook as Top Social Tool

Facebook Wins In Social Media Time-Spend

Twitter Beats Facebook for B2B Lead Generation

OK, so you’re telling me that LinkedIn is the “top” social tool, but Facebook wins over LinkedIn and Twitter while Twitter beats Facebook. Sounds like a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” right? How’s a marketer supposed to know which is best?

Before we can address that, we need to [gasp] read beyond the headlines. Let’s examine each article and the underlying data.

LinkedIn Replaces Facebook as Top Social Tool

This article comes via MarketingProfs and takes a look at how the fastest growing private companies are using social media. Their headline is based on the fact that the number of companies using LinkedIn (81%) has eclipsed the number using Facebook (67%).

Growth in Social Media Tools

So what does this data tell us? Not too much, unless your marketing plan is to follow what everyone else is doing. Based on the inbound marketing evaluations I’ve been doing for the past few years, businesses are getting worse at social media, not better! So I’d be cautious about following the crowd.

Facebook Wins In Social Media Time-Spend

This article came courtesy of Business Insider. They cite data from comScore, which shows that based on share of time spent on social media, Facebook is the undisputed king, Big Kahuna and 800 pound gorilla all rolled into one.

Share of time spent on social media Dec-2012

This is one of the more lop-sided graphs you’ll ever see! So why are companies putting fewer resources into Facebook? Well, ostensibly they’ve tried it and did not see great results. So it must be because LinkedIn is better than Facebook, right? It couldn’t possibly be because the companies sucked at Facebook marketing, right?

Twitter Beats Facebook for B2B Lead Generation – or Does It?

This article from Graham Jones is finally looking under the right rocks and asking intelligent questions about the data. He’s talking about data from eMarketer that suggests Twitter is the king of lead generation for B2B:

social media B2B lead

social media B2B lead

Graham smartly points out that this is based on a small set of data and that it doesn’t provide conversion rates. Bingo! “What we do not know – and which is much more important – is the conversion rate of those leads. It may well be that none of the 82% of the leads generated by Twitter actually converted into customers, whereas it may be that, say, 10% of the leads from LinkedIn converted.”

So what’s the best social network based on these metrics?

I Hate to Say It, But…

“It depends.” Seriously, I hate to say that because it’s not an answer. So let me elaborate.

The “best” social network is the one that helps you meet your goals. If your goal is brand awareness, then you’re looking for exposure. If your goal is selling a good or service, then you’re looking for customers. Since the latter goal is the most common, let’s take a look at that.

Landing customers is a function of three variables; volume, conversion rate and quality:

  • Volume is the quantity of visits you receive from your social media activities.
  • Conversion rate is the percentage of those visits that convert to leads.
  • Quality is the degree to which those leads conform to your target marketing personae.

In my experience, each of these social media networks has different value to offer in all three of these areas. Here’s a very crude representation of what I’ve seen from dozens of campaigns I’ve run for my own projects and clients:

Social media marketing lead generation

Some important caveats need to be mentioned:

  1. This assumes that each channel is being used well and according to its strengths! Just robo-posting the exact same content on all three networks is exactly the wrong thing to do in most cases.
  2. Most (but not all) of this qualitative assessment comes from B2B marketing, which is the lion’s share of my experience.
  3. This is at odds with the chart from eMarketer, which showed a higher volume from Facebook than Twitter. But in my experience, that’s because companies do a slightly better job with Facebook than Twitter.
  4. Conspicuously absent is the sleeping giant, Google+. Ignore at your own peril!

So based on this chart, which social network is the “best?” You could just as accurately answer “all” as you could “none.” The final – and most important – caveat here is that your mileage may vary. There are many, many moving parts that will affect each of these variables and you need to use the proper strategies and techniques in each network.

But the key is not to rely too heavily on others’ data. Try your own experiments and find out what works for you!