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Social Referrals

Martin Shaw examines the data behind social referrals — which networks are big, and how significant social is compared to other sources

1. Inbound Traffic

HOW DO CONSUMERS find their way to different websites? Working with Knowledge Partner SimilarWeb , we analysed how web users navigate to the 29 top-performing retailers in the IRUK 500 research. It’s research that reveals the importance of social media in helping retailers to reach new customers.

The traffic was separated into six types of origin: search, direct, mail, social, display ads, and other websites. The retail sites were monitored over a one-month period at the end of 2014. The assessment focused on desktop users, excluding those on mobile devices. The research incorporates data generally hidden to third parties.


The numbers below show the average portion of desktop traffic from a source:

Social, mail and display ads contribute a small portion of retailers’ referrals traffic at any one time, but are the chief means of incremental growth. Data researched in partnership with SimilarWeb
    • Search: 48%, including customers searching for the retail brand in particular, but also highlighting the huge importance of SEO to help retailers stand out.
    • Direct: 27%, including customers with the retailer bookmarked in a browser
    • Social: 2%, both user-generated content and retailers’ posts
    • Mail: 1%, the promotional emails that all retailers use
    • Display ads: 1%, a small but important source of new customers for many retailers
    • Other websites: 21%, a catch-all term for traffic which doesn’t cleanly fit into the other categories including, for example, shoppers from coupon sites and marketplaces.


The results here appear clear. For everyday sales, search is most valuable to retailers, followed by users who go direct. However, it’s crucial to realise that retailers’ existing audiences – those customers who are searching specifically for the retailer or have it bookmarked in their browsers – skew these figures. To gain new customers or invite back those who have lapsed, retailers have to use other tools, notably mail (newsletters), social media and display ads. In numbers, these tools are relatively insignificant, but they do have the potential to solicit new customers who return to the retailer directly next time. Of these, social is most significant, at 2%. Finally, ‘other websites’ constitutes traffic sources that don’t fit into the other categories. For our top retailers, these referrers are very significant, making up an average 21% of inbound traffic.

2. Which networks count?

The relative significance of social networks was gauged by monitoring Elite and Leading companies within the Top500. Collaborating with SimilarWeb, the 28-day study identified the share of referrals from each social network, which we then averaged across all retailers in the study to arrive at the figures illustrated in the diagram above. The statistics below were captured for the same 29 websites as our research into how consumers navigate to sites, and refer to exclusively UK non-mobile users.


Facebook remains the most valuable social network for retailers, accounting for an average of 65% of social referrals to the 29 Elite and Leading brands assessed. YouTube follows with 11%, Twitter with 9%, Reddit and Weibo on 5% and Pinterest on 3%. Surprisingly, Weibo, a social network most popular in China, was the source of 5% of UK-based social media referrals. Drilling deeper into the numbers, we found:

Facebook provides the lion’s share of social referrals but our study, which focused on desktop users, found that YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and Weibo are also significant. Data researched in partnership with SimilarWeb
    • Facebook was most significant to M&S during the four weeks monitored, making up more than 90% of social media referrals among desktop users
    • Reddit is a relatively significant traffic source to Urban Outfitters, providing almost 30% of social media referrals
    • YouTube supplied more than 25% of Argos’ social media referrals, a higher portion than for any other retailer
    • No retailer received a higher portion of its social referrals from Twitter than Waitrose, at roughly 25% Bathstore received approximately 15% of inbound traffic from social networks from Pinterest, more than for any of the other retailers involved in the study
    • Clarks received top referrals from Weibo, which made up more than 30% of its total social traffic from desktop users.

In the preceding pages, we have focused repeatedly on social media as crucial to retailer performance; and as an area where adaptability is necessary and growth is incremental. Every potential customer who navigates to a retailer because of what a friend or thought leader said may well return to the site directly or through search the next time. It’s worth noting this means it’s difficult to quantify social media’s impact or potential on referrals data over time. Nevertheless, it’s clear that mastering Facebook, YouTube or Pinterest can increase any retailer’s audience, gradually bringing in new shoppers, some of whom will return to the store directly next time.

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