In an ideal world, every marketing team would have time to pursue every possible angle — but this isn’t an ideal world, and you’re often faced with choosing which avenue to prioritize.
Two common options are email marketing and SEO, and each has its distinct advantages. Email marketing offers outstanding scalability and reach for a low initial investment, while SEO provides vital SERP success with compounding results that keep offering value after you’ve finished your campaign work.
But what really matters to most businesses trying to budget smartly is ROI — so which of these marketing approaches delivers the most reliable returns? Let’s break it down to see which one comes out on top.
How they compare for driving relevant traffic
A solid level of relevant traffic is vital for bringing leads through your sales funnel, so it’s a good place to start when taking an in-depth look at ROI. Email and SEO both have the ability to massively increase traffic, but in different ways. Let’s directly compare them:
SEO is directly linked to search, obviously — the clue is in the name. As you might expect, it’s the broadest and most consistent tool for boosting organic traffic. Here are just some SEO-focused actions you can take to bring in more visits:
- Regularly post engaging and relevant content to your site. By meeting your audience’s needs, it will reinforce your brand value and get you ranking for a wider variety of terms, thus bringing in more traffic. Blogging is one of the best (and cheapest) ways to do this.
- Optimize your existing content with relevant keywords. If you already have valuable content that is lacking in some big SEO areas, just a small amount of work could significantly increase its ranking potential.
- Get your brand name out there through distributing authoritative content and building associations with experts in your field. As your brand name starts to be linked to relevant terms and positive remarks (aim to build up some strong reviews), it will be given more priority by search algorithms.
As long as you focus on the right terms and stay patient, SEO work will pay off, and the results will stick around long after you’ve implemented the changes.
Email marketing has a far more direct effect on traffic, since you send out your emails with CTAs and many of the clicks you’ll get from them will occur within a fairly short span of time. The big advantage of email is that you can exercise a lot of control over the process and the targeting, allowing you to make rapid adjustments. Here’s what you can do with email:
- Drip-feed useful emails based on where customers (or prospective customers) are in your sales funnel. This will not only get more of them to stick around, making the traffic you receive more consistent, but it will also provide traffic opportunities that can bring back visitors after they’ve ended their initial visits.
- Personalize your marketing emails based on user data. While SEO-driven traffic will invariably be generic, email traffic can be keenly personal, based on a user’s specific circumstances and preferences.
- Get a more granular idea of your traffic sources. SEO referrals are often unclear because search engines don’t want to release too much information, but you can be as detailed as you want with email CTAs, resulting in traffic streams that can clearly be attributed to particular actions.
Email marketing produces faster and more targeted traffic, but the moment you stop doing it, you lose the effects. As such, it’s something to be done periodically when needed.
How they compare for affordability
Now we know how suited they are for driving traffic, we should look at their affordability. How much does it cost to bring in visits through marketing emails, or through SEO improvements? Let’s find out.
One of the most obvious benefits of email marketing is that it’s cheap, particularly in comparison to other forms of marketing. There are no posting or printing costs, and no hosting fees. But you will have to invest in some good email marketing software or a CRM to help you scale and automate. Often, you will be charged monthly fees to use an email marketing platform, with fees spanning a wide range depending on subscribers and features. Choosing your email software can be a lengthy task, so scope out your options before you dive in.
Any business, large or small, can implement email at little cost, but with potentially substantial returns. In fact, email marketing has consistently been identified as one of the key motivators for business revenue. As email grows in popularity (the number of email users is expected to hit 251.8 million by 2019), brands will be able to reach even wider audiences, which means more potential sales.
SEO, on the other hand, is virtually free – at least initially. Your keyword research can be conducted online for free using tools like UberSuggest or Keyword Tool. Similarly, your content production can be handled in-house, though it will require a lot of time to create good content and optimize your landing pages. In truth, you will probably have to invest in both copywriters and SEO strategists if you’re going to make the most of SEO.
SEO is always a worthwhile investment, but it’s particularly valuable if you have a limited budget and unoptimized content. Instead of investing in PPC ads to boost visibility, you can simply optimize your site and focus on your content output. The results won’t be as fast, but they’ll be cheaper and more stable — plus you’ll have a better website to produce more conversions in the event that you pursue PPC advertising down the line.
On the other hand, true SEO expertise (especially of the technical kind), is expensive. It’s worth paying for though — big sites especially benefit from SEO housekeeping and audits, and the ROI can be immense.
How they compare for conversion consistency
Good email CTAs are clearly actionable, well crafted, and offered to viable customers in the most appropriate circumstances — that’s a recipe for conversions. In addition, email marketing allows for very targeted work in steadily improving sales funnels, so it makes it possible to achieve some potent conversion rate optimization (CRO) results.
As part of the email marketing package, you have superlative access to important metrics that can give you vital information about when, how and where conversions occur. This puts you in a position to rapidly discontinue any campaigns that aren’t converting at a strong rate and experiment until you find the magic formula.
For all of these reasons, email marketing is excellent for conversion consistency. You just need to put in the work on a consistent basis.
Since it’s much harder to glean when SEO work has produced conversions, it’s standard to value search engine rankings themselves — securing a position in the top three options on the first page of results for an actionable term is considered very valuable. But then you must factor in the likelihood that a given term will produce a conversion on your site specifically.
For instance, agencies often make the mistake of thinking that ranking for short-tail keywords that get a lot of traffic will be great for revenue, but such terms often lead to high bounce rates (users clicking and then quickly clicking away). This is because the more broad the term you rank for, the less relevant the average visit will be.
Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, tend to appear in more specific searches. Someone searching for “shoes” might just want to look at some shoes, while someone who searches for “white Adidas trainers mens” is far more likely to have the intention of placing an order. While long-tail keywords don’t get as many searches, you face much less competition in trying to rank for them, and the visits you do receive from them will be valuable.
Consequently, a thoroughly-researched SEO strategy with targeted long-tail keywords can provide a lot of value — but as we’ve seen, it will take time. Search engines crawl pages slowly and assess them even more slowly, so it can take months for SEO changes to be recognized. Patience is a virtue.
So which is better for ROI?
Deciding between email marketing or SEO for return on investment is tricky. These two methods aren’t mutually exclusive, focusing as they do on very different things. One reaches out to bring traffic in, and the other aims for internal improvement. Overall, if used correctly, each one can bring in a level of ROI that far exceeds what can be achieved through paid options like AdWords or social ads.
Neither is without its downsides, though. Email marketing can get lost in spam filters or simply deleted, and relies on well-crafted strategy with highly-polished content, while SEO requires a lot of time to become effective and can be difficult for small businesses to understand.
Having considered everything, the only sensible conclusion to reach is that neither method is inherently superior for ROI. If ROI is your main objective, you should use email marketing and SEO in tandem, focusing on basic SEO improvements first and bringing in email marketing later.
By bringing in more relevant traffic and providing the visitors with a superior website experience, you’ll achieve a level of ROI that you couldn’t get by focusing on just one.