This can be debatable based on several factors...budget, vendor, client, target audience, product, etc. But what are the numbers? According to a survey done by eMarketer, SEO is the most effective form of online marketing!
eMarketer surveyed senior level marketing executives to find out what their business was experiencing in regards to online marketing success. Not surprisingly...at least to me, SEO, e-mail marketing and PPC (pay-per-click) were the top 3 most effective marketing strategies. 48% of all respondents claim that search engine optimization created the most conversions for their web site.
Why is this? As I said, several factors can vary this answer...but my general answer is, they are marketing where the users prefer. Most searchers prefer organic search results, therefore more clicks are being generated (unless you have a large PPC budget). People have access to email 24/7...email marketing and e-newsletters are being delivered directly to users through one of the most common forms of communication; of course conversions will be generated. Finally, the ability to target a specific audience through PPC is generating quality traffic that will convert sooner or later. The more advanced marketers and targeting abilities get, the more targeted PPC ads will become.
Brand perception tells a different story. Respondents claim that site or page sponsorship is leading the way as far as brand perception. SEO is second, but only 14% of respondents said that PPC was effectively building brand perception. Why is PPC not effectively maintaining or changing brand perception? My opinion is that these companies are not likely using PPC for brand perception. They are likely overlooking soft-conversions for hard-conversions when they are shoveling out money for PPC. I believe PPC can be an extremely effective way to build/maintain brand perception if that is your goal.
What does this mean for online marketing budgets? Only 8% of respondents are decreasing their SEO budget, while 40% are increasing their SEO budget. The majority (57%) of PPC budgets are going to remain the same. Not surprising, although, I was surprised that 42% of respondents are allocated a higher percentage of their budget to viral marketing even though they mostly agreed that it was not extremely effective in terms of brand perception or driving conversions.
I hope that eMarketer will survey the same group of people later this year or early 2010 to see how these numbers have changed.