Social media strategies are rapidly gaining favor in Corporate America. Platforms like Facebook, blogs, and community Websites play an increasingly important role in a variety of functions ranging from marketing to customer support.
Yet there’s a considerable gap in social media use between big companies and small. According to communications firm Burson-Marsteller’s second annual survey of social media use at the 100 largest global companies, 84% used some form of social media, up from 79% last year. (For U.S. companies, the adoption rate remained unchanged at 85%.) Those companies mainly use Twitter and Facebook, with corporate blogs about half as popular.
By contrast, only about half of companies in the small and midsize business universe use any form of social media, and only between a quarter and a third use it in any structured way, according to a recent study of 750 executives at companies with between 1 and 1,000 employees by SMB Group, a market-research firm. For smaller companies, Facebook sites and postings are by far the most used format, followed by industry-specific community groups. Fewer than 20% are using Twitter regularly, and a full 31% of small businesses and 26% of midsize ones say they have no plans to use social media in the near future (see chart below).
Why the great divide? In general, it’s not the cost of entry, which is low, but rather a lack of time and creativity, says Sanjeev Aggarwal, founder and partner of SMB Group. Starting out with social media is “very company-specific,” he says, “and companies need to engage with their customers to find out what might be right for them.”
Businesses that sell to consumers have some of the most obvious opportunities to use the platforms. One example: Johnny Cupcakes, a $4 million producer of iconic T-shirts, tweets near-daily blog posts from founder Johnny Earle to more than 48,000 followers. The posts are mainly a way of brand-building, ranging from pictures of new products or speaking engagements to Earle’s family videos.
Business-to-consumer companies can also use tools like coupon services, such as Groupon, to reach customers, a tactic that generated high levels of satisfaction from users in the SMB survey. “Coupons are easy to do and you see immediate results, whereas building a Facebook community takes time,” says Aggarwal. (Still, fewer than 10% of the businesses surveyed are using the services, indicating that smaller companies are taking their time even on the easy plays.)
But businesses selling to other small businesses can find creative ways to use the media as well. About 20% of companies buying spots on iwearyourshirt.com, which does a social media blitz for a different sponsor every day, are now B2B companies, says Jason Sadler, founder of the site. Recent examples include Scribendi, a professional proofreading service, and e-online data, a payment-processing firm.
Meanwhile, Cortera, a $10 million commercial credit monitoring service, has tried out a number of social media functions, including setting up a free online community for smaller businesses to rate their customers’ payment patterns. The approximately 25,000 online members can also set up their own subgroups to discuss customers for a particular industry, or even within a single company. (To protect itself and clients, a Cortera product manager and an attorney check the site regularly for inappropriate postings.)