Most companies maintain a presence on social media. By doing so, they hope to gain more exposure to their target audience, build brand loyalty, attract talent and drive revenue. All this takes effort, though, and you may wonder whether your time is better spent somewhere else. To help you decide, we looked at new research that sheds light on how the fastest-growing companies in America are using social media, whether they find it effective, and what changes, if any, they’re making to their strategy. Then, we tapped a social media expert to help us translate the findings into practical advice for startups.
Every year for the past 13 years, researchers at the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth have studied how corporations tackle social media. Under the direction of Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, the team collects data on the Inc. 500’s use of six tools: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and blogs. The team then interviews a random sample of company executives to better understand their concerns regarding social media use, its effectiveness and whether it positively impacts sales.
Social Media Platforms: What the Research Revealed
This year’s research found that nearly all (95 percent) of the companies studied use at least one social media platform, up 1 percent from 2018. LinkedIn, the most popular platform used by the Inc. 500—Inc. magazine’s annual compilation of the fastest-growing, privately owned companies in the U.S.—and Facebook were deemed the most effective, despite the fact that the latter has increasingly come under fire for the way it collects user information, its role in various data breaches, and its perceived lack of diversity, to name just a few grievances. Consistent with last year, respondents ranked Twitter and YouTube as the least effective social media platforms, though the former was the only platform that did not experience an increase in usage from last year. This makes sense, when you consider that the executives said they didn’t find the service effective. What makes less sense? It was the third most popular social media tool among the group, with 68 percent reporting that they’re active on the microblogging and social networking platform.
Does this mean you should focus on LinkedIn and Facebook, and deactivate your Twitter account? Not so fast, says Neal Schaffer, author of multiple books on social media, including his latest, The Age of Influence: The Power of Influencers to Elevate Your Brand. “Twitter has become very noisy and hasn’t really innovated its platform, so you’ve seen people flock to LinkedIn. You’ve seen people flock to Facebook groups. You’ve seen people flock to Instagram or TikTok. But Twitter accounts for more traffic to my website, which is primarily B2B, than Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram combined. A lot of companies don’t understand Twitter, but it can be a powerful platform, especially in B2B tech. People are there. People are using it. You just need to have the right strategy, a combination of publishing your own content with curated content and proactively engaging, reaching out, following and DMing.”
In contrast to Twitter, Instagram has risen steadily in popularity among the Inc. 500 since 2014, except for 2018. Over the past year alone, the research showed a 5 percent increase in adoption of the Facebook-owned photo and video-sharing social network. Should you focus your efforts here? That depends, says Schaffer. “Instagram is best reserved for B2C companies,” he said. “B2B companies might find some success, but startups have limited resources. Don’t worry about Instagram for now. Don’t worry about TikTok or Snapchat. Get going on LinkedIn. Extend the Twitter experiment [above] with Facebook. If you’re doing well on these platforms and you have been able to create a lot of great visual content that your fans are engaging around, that’s when you want to consider Instagram.”
What if your startup isn’t yet active on any social media sites? Start slowly, says Schaffer. “For insurtech, fintech, medical device and healthcare IT [startups], by far LinkedIn is going to be your number-one platform,” he says. “From an engagement perspective, LinkedIn has been quite good of late not just for individual profiles, but also for company pages, where we’re seeing greater engagement than from, say, a Facebook page. If I were in those industries, I’d have a LinkedIn-first approach. I would also dabble in Twitter because Twitter is where the media likes to hang out. It’s where the news breaks. And like I said, once you have the right strategy in place, you might find Twitter to be a great traffic generator. Outside of that, Facebook is interesting because not everybody is on LinkedIn or Twitter, but everyone’s on Facebook. It’s hard to engage with people on Facebook, but from a social ads platform, you’ll be able to promote what you do to a lot more people. And if you understand how custom audiences work on Facebook, you might be able to get your company in front of a lot of people very inexpensively. Obviously, people are not on Facebook to do business versus LinkedIn or even Twitter, where they’re searching for news. I wouldn’t put it ahead of LinkedIn or Twitter from a strategy perspective, but as a paid social network, it is quite attractive. And then obviously, Instagram is huge. But if your product or service is not visual, I don’t think [Instagram] is going to do a lot of good.”
So, start small—and experiment. “I recommend starting with two platforms and A/B testing. After 30, 60, 90 days of doing the same thing on both platforms, look at how things are going, and then pick a third platform and do an A/B/C test,” says Schaffer. “At the end of the day, you’re going to spend time on a few different platforms, and you’re going to have to weigh which are helping you reach your goals, and which aren’t.”
UMass Dartmouth’s study seems to confirm that the Inc. 500 are doing just that. For the past two years, many have switched up the platforms they focus on, leading the researchers to speculate that these companies are reevaluating their choices.
What’s the Word on Blogs?
For the second time since UMass Dartmouth began studying social media, more revenue-based Fortune 500 companies are using blogs than the Inc. 500 (54 percent vs. 51 percent, respectively), although both groups experienced an increase from 2018. Schaffer is surprised the number isn’t higher. “A blog gives your company a social voice. A blog is also critical. If you’re going to share something on social media, what are you going to share that’s going to bring people back to your website? Right. A blog post. If I go further with that [concept], if you’re trying to rank for keywords to improve your SEO [search engine optimization], how are you to do that? When you only have a few pages of product-centric content on your website, you do it through blogging. I recommend that [entrepreneurs] consider [blogging] for these reasons.”
Key Findings: Executives’ Top Social Media Concerns, and Paid vs. Free Social
Most of the Inc. 500 are active on social media. But are their efforts paying off? UMass Dartmouth researchers found that the executives they interviewed are most concerned about their return on investment, followed by privacy issues. (Less of a concern were analytics, as well as ethical and legal issues.) Almost all respondents said that building brand awareness is the most effective use of social media, but only 84 percent agree that it’s an effective lead/sales generator. What’s more, nearly half reported that the value of free social media has leveled off, and indicated that they’re looking for alternatives, with 53 percent predicting they’ll spend more on paid ads next year—a 14 percent increase from 2018.
Schaffer agrees with this strategy. “I don’t work with clients unless they have a paid social [strategy] in addition to an organic social strategy. Once we get into paid ads, we then begin to look at: Should we instead work [with] and invest money in influencers? Should we invest that money into creating lead-generation-type content like webinars or white papers or e-books? Should we invest in Google advertising, or should we invest in content creation? You really need to start A/B testing and getting some benchmarks to understand what works best for you based on your KPIs [key performance indicators]. But at this stage, when I work with clients, we just lump organic social with paid social. We consider social media to be pay to play. If you don’t do paid social, you can still monitor how you do organically. But if you do that, it’s going to look like you’re spending a lot of time and not getting much in return. A more realistic way to look at it is that you need to have an organic social presence to be successful in paid social. [If a user] sees an ad and goes to your profile and you only have 10 likes, what’s that going to say about your company? You need both.”
Social Media Policies
If your company is like most companies using social media strategically, one of your biggest challenges is managing your efforts. A whopping 34 percent of the 2019 Inc. 500 don’t have a written social media plan, a number Shaffer finds “quite shocking.” “Where are companies going to look for marketing opportunities? They’re going to go digital. It’s become a critical part of marketing strategy, especially for startups. You should have a written plan, knowing that it will change over time. You need to understand who you’re targeting, where they hang out on social, and what types of content they consume so you understand what types of content you can create to engage with them. You need to know what news sources they go to so that you understand what content to curate and share if you don’t have enough information of your own. You need to know their demographics for social ads to better target them, and you need to have some guidelines as to what your voice is going to sound like. When people engage with you, how are you going to respond? You need to consider all this in a written strategy, even if it’s just a few pages long.”
According to Dr. Ganim Barnes and her research team, America’s fastest-growing companies have established a presence on popular social media platforms and seem to see the value in blogging. They wonder, though, if their efforts are providing a return beyond building brand awareness and creating relationships with customers. Even so, 81 percent said that being active on social media is essential to their business success.
What if you’re among the 19 percent who aren’t sure if these tools are critical? “Social media deserves a seat at the table,” the researchers concluded, “but ROI can only be realized if businesses invest in what works and move away from what does not.”
Our expert agrees.