A recent study by Custora (and reported here in Wired) tells us what a lot of social media “gurus” (or shamans, or champions, or rockstars, or…) would rather not hear.

Social media doesn’t generate sales. Email and search do.

The hoary, dowdy online marketing twins of search and email still dominate when it comes to putting food on the table:

Despite the hype that inevitably clings to the newfangled, however, it’s relatively antique tech that appears to be far more important for selling stuff online. A new report from marketing data outfit Custora found that over the past four years, online retailers have quadrupled the rate of customers acquired through email to nearly 7 percent.

Facebook over that same period barely registers as a way to make a sale, and the tiny percentage of people who do connect and buy over Facebook has stayed flat. Twitter, meanwhile, doesn’t register at all. By far the most popular way to get customers was “organic search,” according to the report, followed by “cost per click” ads (in both cases, read: Google).

After building and managing the online presence for a couple of organizations, I’ve come to a similar conclusion.

Social media offers the potential to keep a target audience informed, but when response is needed (sale, sign a petition, contact a congressman, etc), email is my first choice.

Gathering response data and refining a campaign based on that data isn’t new; I’ve been doing it since my B2B work in the early 80s.

The difference now is my clients’ staggering focus on social media — even when confronted by data suggesting they focus elsewhere. One client simply can’t shake the conviction that accumulating Facebook “Likes” should be at the center of our marketing strategy.

I tell that client the amount of time visitors spend on Facebook continues to fall, and the value of a “Like” isn’t at all clear. And should Facebook fade over the coming years, all those “Likes” will become less valuable — something unlikely to happen to email.

The amount of hype surrounding social media is astonishing. It’s not going away — and it’s likely going to remain a part of every organization’s integrated marketing strategy — but it’s nice to see at least a little reality creeping into the conversation.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.