In today’s always-online, globally connected marketplace, is there still a place for traditional selling?

Or has the new emphasis on social media marketing made person-to-person prospecting an anachronism, like a dial-up modem in a broadband world?

Without a doubt, 21st century communication technologies have reshaped how people buy and sell. Products and services that used to depend on the personal touch—from cosmetics to life insurance—these days can be found, compared and purchased online without any interaction with another human. Customers can choose to be anonymous for as long as they wish while demanding complete transparency in return. Uncovering their needs is as simple, and as bewildering, as wading through comments on your brand’s Facebook page.

A strong social media presence can yield substantial rewards, of course. The Girl Scouts represent one of the more venerable sales forces in the United States. During the recent recession, they saw sales of their iconic cookies grow steadily, due in part to embracing modern marketing channels like email and Facebook to connect with a broader customer base.

Mirroring that strategy, many companies in the non-cookie sector have added a chief media officer to their executive suite. The CMO’s function, like
the Brownies’, is to raise brand awareness and loyalty, a function that is increasingly accomplished via online social media platforms rather than print or broadcast advertising.

Although technology continues to change the sales game, you may not want to ditch that landline just yet. The underlying assumption of the social media revolution is that greater exposure, awareness and immediacy translate into more sales. But that assumption comes primarily from statistics that measure mouse-clicks, “shares” and comments—not actual sales figures. To get a clearer view of the link between so-called computer-mediated communication and real-world results, we went to the people who know best.

The underlying assumption of the social media revolution is that greater exposure, awareness and immediacy translate into more sales. But that assumption comes primarily from statistics that measure mouse-clicks, “shares” and comments—not actual sales figures. To get a clearer view of the link between so-called computer-mediated communication and real-world results, we went to the people who know best.

We recently surveyed nearly 4,800 salespeople from a variety of industries and with an average age of 40. In addition to assessing their general attitudes toward prospecting, we asked them to name which specific client communication medium they found most effective.

In response, almost 70% indicated that traditional methods of contact—face-to-face and telephone prospecting—are the most effective means of generating new sales. Only 10% claimed that email was the most effective, and even fewer preferred social media platforms.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between sellers’ ages and the contact methods they preferred. Seasoned sales veterans who remember rotary phones are just as likely as wired-in Gen X sellers to see conventional prospecting as the more effective driver of sales.

We did, however, uncover an important difference among salespeople in this survey. Those who considered social media a superior means of generating sales also tended to have higher levels of sales call reluctance. They experienced greater conflict and hesitation to engage in traditional prospecting activity, whether face-to-face or on the telephone. Whatever their stated reasons for gravitating toward modern, Internet-based methods of contacting customers, psychological assessment indicated they were less comfortable with initiating personal contact.

In that regard, social media aren’t much different from older forms of “alternative” prospecting methods like brochures and snail-mail advertising campaigns. Rather than being a new selling tool, the brave new online world of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other means of social networking has become simply a more modern crutch. To salespeople suffering from contact-related discomfort, they represent one more way of avoiding the most direct and effective means of finding new customers.

Even social media gurus tend to agree that computer-mediated communication, for all its other benefits, may not be an effective sales tool. A 2012 survey revealed that CMOs believe so-called “social efforts” increase brand awareness more effectively than they translate into sales, and nearly one in four thought social media did not have a measurable effect on sales figures. And the Content Marketing Institute, which recently published its 2013 white paper on social media marketing, admonished its audience, “We applaud you for doing more and trying more tactics, although we must say we are pretty sure that throwing more content at customers is not the answer.”

We think the answer is the same as it has been for generations of salespeople: The more prospective customers you contact, the more sales you close. And the sellers who feel most comfortable consistently getting in front of those prospects—regardless of sales support in the form of websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, and online promotions—experience more success than those who can’t, don’t or won’t.

Bottom line: Social media can be great for keeping tabs on old friends, supporting your political party of choice, or sharing pictures of cats doing funny things. But most salespeople believe that, to get their job done, old-school prospecting beats the “Like” button. Even in the 21st century, conventional person-to-person contact is still the best way to generate new sales.