2017 Inc 500

Time for Reevaluation?

Social Media and the 2016 Inc. 500

 

Conducted by:

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D. (nbarnes@umassd.edu)

Caroline Daubitz, MBA Candidate (cdaubitz@umassd.edu)

 

Introduction

As social media becomes increasingly important to business success, the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth continues to monitor its use. Each year, the Center conducts an in-depth study on the use of social media among Inc. Magazine’s top 500 companies. The names listed represent the fastest-growing, privately owned companies in the United States. The most recent findings build on the past 10 years of data on social media use in order to determine trends over time and across industries. This study is a valuable tool in understanding the most utilized channels of communication between companies and their customers. For the complete list of the 2016 Inc. 500 companies, including details and selected data, please visit Inc. Magazine’s website at Inc.com.

The study presented here focuses on the 2016 Inc. 500 and was conducted under the direction of researcher Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes. The findings are a result of both secondary data review and random telephone interviews of companies on the list. All data collection and interviews took place in the fall of 2016. The companies on the Inc. 500 list include a wide range of industries from Government Services, Health, and Food and Beverage.

 

Methodology

The research presented here was collected in two stages. The first stage investigated which of eight social media tools are being utilized. These tools include: blogging, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google Plus. The number of followers and likes were also recorded where appropriate. This data was collected primarily via the company’s website where most companies provide a link to the platforms they use. If no link was found on their website, search engines were used in an attempt to capture all accounts. The Inc. 500 ranking, revenue and industry were recorded from the Inc. 500 website. This data was collected on all 500 companies.

The second stage of research involved interviewing a random sample of executives from the Inc. 500 list to gather information about their specific focus on issues such as their concerns regarding social media use, perceived effectiveness, and the relationship between social media use and potential sales. One hundred and twenty-eight companies (26%) were interviewed in this stage.

Those executives responding were a diverse group, representing 23 of the 24 industries on the 2016 Inc. 500 list. Twenty-three percent of the companies that participated in the interview portion were ranked in the top 100. Respondents reported annual company revenues ranging from under $3M to over $100M with 48% of them falling between $3M-$10.9M. Fifty-seven percent of the companies were launched between 2008 and 2011 while 23% were launched in 2012 or later. The most prominent industries were, Health (11%), IT Services (9%), Software and Advertising and Marketing (8%).

 

Key Highlights:

  • 94% of the Inc. 500 have a LinkedIn account, 88% have a Facebook account (up 6%) and 79% have Twitter accounts.
  • Use of blogs increased for the first time since 2013, currently at 42%.
  • 50% of Inc. 500 companies have a written social media policy incorporated into their business plan (up 17%), 21% have a stand-alone social media policy, (up 9%).
  • 39% have a strategy in place in the event of an online crisis/firestorm, (up 12%)
  • Instagram is the fastest growing social media platform with a 14% increase in adoption in one year.
  • The top 3 concerns regarding the use of social media are the return on investment, time allocation and resources devoted to social media. The top benefit is building brand awareness.

 

Detailed Findings

1a. Inc. 500 Usage of Social Media

Social media has developed rapidly, and companies continue to search for which platforms best fit their needs. It is evident that certain platforms best fit the needs of certain industries. Chart 1 depicts social media usage for the last three years among Inc. 500 companies. Eighty-two percent of the companies use at least one form of social media.

Of those using social media, LinkedIn remains the most popular platform for the 5th consecutive year with 94% adoption. The second most utilized platform is Facebook (88%), a 6% increase from 2015. Twitter remains at 79% adoption for the third consecutive year. The most notable change from 2015 is the rapid increase in adoption of Instagram. Instagram jumped from 32% in 2015 to 46% in 2016, making it the fastest growing social media platform among the Inc. 500. Pinterest gained 1%.  The following saw decreases in adoption:  YouTube (down 2%) and Google + (down 11%).  As in previous years, Googe+ has the highest percent of inactive accounts.

Chart 1

Chart 2 compares the social media usage of the Inc. 500 to the usage of the Fortune 500. It is interesting to note that the rate of use for LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest are similar among both Inc. 500 and Fortune 500 companies. The Inc. 500 continues to use Facebook and Google + more while the Fortune 500 prefers Twitter and YouTube. Both have shown double digit increase in their use of Instagram.

The data appears to indicate a plateau with the use of major platforms. It may be that companies established their social media presence years ago and have made little movement in leaving platforms. The only notable change in the data is the dramatic growth of Instagram. It is possible that businesses are not evaluating the effectiveness of their presence on each platform or debating if certain platforms are necessary for their objectives. As platforms become less distinguishable in terms of the options they offer or support (communities, video, blogging etc.) businesses might think about consolidation of their online efforts.

Facebook is the platform with the most users, the biggest reach, and the largest cultural impact.

Facebook drives the largest share of social media referral traffic, has the highest conversion rate for e-commerce traffic, and has an enormous influence on user purchasing decisions.

But if your audience skews younger, you may want to focus on Snapchat, with over 100 million active users on the platform or Instagram with over 400 million monthly users.  Pinterest is predominantly populated by women and is effective in targeting that group.

Chart 2

 

1b. Inc. 500 Continue Outpace Fortune 500 in Blogging

Since the Center’s first study of these two segments in 2007, it was revealed that the Inc. 500 were outpacing the revenue-based Fortune 500 in their use of blogs. Chart 3 below depicts the use of blogs in both segments from 2010-2016. While the frequency of blogs has fluctuated within each segment over the years, the Inc. 500 have consistently higher percentages.

Both groups decreased their use of blogs from 2013 to 2015. 2016 marked the first year since 2013, that the Inc. 500 and Fortune 500 companies have experienced an increase in their use of blogs. Of the 210 Inc. 500 companies that actively blog, executives reported the main goal of their blog was to be informational (34%), to establish thought leadership (32%), to support product promotion (10%), to encourage engagement/interaction. The following is a description of each option as presented to the executives interviewed. (See Chart 3)

  • Informational – Posts include up to date information about the company and its goods and services.
  • Thought Leadership – Posts consist mainly of new ideas and innovation within their industries.
  • Product Promotion – Posts consist of features and emphasize the product/service being sold.
  • Engagement/Interaction – Posts prompt responses and interaction from followers. Often targeted toward a specific group of followers or consumers.

Chart 3

 

1c. Instagram continues to gain in popularity

Based on the 2016 research, Instagram has become the fastest growing social media platform in the Inc. 500 and Fortune 500. In both segments, it has increased in growth since its introduction to the Center’s studies in 2013. It experienced a large jump in popularity from 2015 to 2016 with an increase of 15% and 14% for Fortune 500 and Inc. 500 respectively. (See Chart 4)

Chart 4

 

1d. Top 5 Inc. 500

Companies Based on Facebook Likes

The 440 companies (88%) with corporate Facebook pages come from all industries represented in the Inc. 500. Table 1 represents the top 5 Inc. 500 companies based on their Facebook likes. Leading is ipsy, with 4,640,182 likes (ipsy is a beauty company that sends subscribers cosmetics samples monthly). Based on their ranking and Facebook likes, ipsy relies heavily on social media to connect with their customers and promote their products.

In second place, is The Penny Hoarder with 3,188,777, in third place is Dollar Shave Club with 2,804,315 likes. Fourth is Loot Crate with 2,499,766 and fifth is Nine Line Apparel with 1,531,174 likes. They are among the most active of the Inc. 500 on social media and show up in the top spots across platforms based on likes, fans and followers.(See table 1)

Table 1

Company

Facebook Likes

ipsy

4,640,182

The Penny Hoarder

3,188,777

Dollar Shave Club

2,804,315

Loot Crate

2,499,766

Nine Line Apparel

1,531,174

 

1e. Top 5 Inc. 500 Companies Based on Twitter Followers

As one of the most popular social media platforms, Twitter thrives on engagement with its followers. Of the 395 (79%) with active corporate Twitter accounts, Gamma Labs has the largest following with 897,000. Loot Crate is next with 590,000 followers, Food 52 with 433,000, ipsy with 416,000 and Pluralsight with 218,000 followers. (See Table 2)

Table 2

Company

Twitter Followers

Gamma Labs

897,000

Loot Crate

590,000

Food 52

433,000

ipsy

416,000

Pluralsight

218,000

 

1f. Top 5 Inc. 500 Companies Based on Pinterest Followers

In 2016, Pinterest was used by 150 companies (30%), up 1% from last year. Making the top 5 on a third platform is ipsy with 534,400 followers, Axe Wellness with 22,500 followers. Food 52, Makeup Geek and The Penny Hoarder makeup the remainder of the list. (See Table 3)

Table 3

Company

Pinterest Followers

ipsy

534,400

Axe Wellness

322,500

Food 52

214,200

Makeup Geek

127,600

The Penny Hoarder

96,600

 

2.  Effective Social Media/Strategies for Sales Growth

Executives were asked which social media tools/platforms they felt were the most effective for their business and 40% reported Facebook as their choice. This trend has been consistent over the past 4 years.

According to the executives interviewed, Twitter has become a less effective channel for sales growth, even though the adoption rate remains consistent. These executives continue to have and use their corporate Twitter accounts but do not believe this tool is as effective to achieve their sales goals.

Executives were also asked about potential options to increase sales over the next year. Chart 5 represents the responses from 2014–2016. In 2014, online advertising was the preferred strategy (40%) while social networking platforms were favored by 14%. Over the last two years these two options have become inversely related. 

Online advertising continued to decline in 2015 and 2016, while social networking platforms experienced a large jump in popularity from 14% in 2014 to 38% in 2015 and maintained the lead with 41% in 2016. Based on this pattern, social networking platforms can be expected to continue to play a central role in the sales effort. While social networking platforms continue to be the favored option, companies will be forced to consolidate their platforms and resources in order to be more effective in meeting objectives.  More promotion on fewer sites might optimize ROI.

Companies are also using business directory listings and traditional print/broadcast media less as the customer management relationship that social media provides becomes increasingly important. The “other”option that accounts for 19% of respondents included using trade shows, networking, direct mail, and personal outreach as strategies. (See Chart 5)

Chart 5

 

3.  Tracking Conversations and Sales via Social Media

All executives were asked if their company monitors its brands, products or industry information on social networking sites. Sixty-two percent of the executives interviewed indicated that they are tracking online conversations about their brands, products or industry using a monitoring tool. This is up 14% from last year. Inc. 500 companies understand how important it is to be aware of the opinions and perceptions their customers share online. Their brand identity and potentially their sales are dependent on having a positive online presence. A lack of monitoring could have consequences for companies given the potential for viral communications now possible through social media.

When asked to estimate the percentage of total annual sales that come through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or other social networking sites, 25% of 2016 executives reported sales of less than 1%. Twenty percent reported 1-5% of total annual sales came through social networking sites, 14% said 6-10%, 11% said more than 10% and 30% said they did not know (or they did not respond). In comparison, it is interesting to note that 41% of executives felt that social media has the most potential for increasing their sales. (See Chart 6)

Chart 6

4.  Assessment of Social Media Effectiveness

Executives were asked to agree or disagree with statements about the effectiveness of their social media efforts. As they did in 2015, almost all of them pointed to building brand awareness as the most effective use of social media. (See Table 4)

 

Table 4

Statements

% Agree (2015)

% Agree (2016)

Social media is effective in building brand awareness.

98%

94%

Social media is effective in creating relationships with consumers/customers.

88%

85%

Our company’s efforts in social media have been effective for us.

79%

83%

Being active on social media is essential for our business success.

76%

81%

Social media is effective in generating leads/sales.

74%

78%

 

5.  Social Media Policies

Because social media became so relevant so quickly, companies are continually adapting to the challenges that arise in regard to policy. One of the biggest challenges companies are facing is how to manage their social media efforts. We continue to see written social media policies, strategic planning for social media and monitoring tools becoming more common.

Twenty-one percent of the 2016 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan. Fifty percent have a social media plan incorporated into their marketing/business plan. This trend has become more common as social media has become a main function of business plans. Twenty-three percent still do not have any form of a written social media plan.

Executives were asked if their company has a strategy in place in the event of an online crisis (negative attack online).  In 2014, 34% reported having a crisis plan. That dropped to 27% in 2015. In 2016 we see a significant increase in concern about negative attacks as 39% of Inc. 500 companies now have a strategy in place.

It appears that companies are attempting to adapt to social media as quickly as it is evolving. While companies have control over their own social media accounts, they do not control the social media accounts of their employees. In 2015, 23% of Inc. 500 companies had a policy to guide online communication for employees. This percentage increased to 38% in 2016. This may be attributed to the realization that employees have the potential to be social brand ambassadors. Employee advocacy programs will grow as new platforms emerge that help create and share content with employees, measure the results and assign rewards.

 

6.  Concerns Using Social Media

Executives interviewed were asked about threats to their business. In 2016 there was a shift in concerns about social media. When asked to indicate concerns they may have about using social media, the biggest concern is their return on investment (59%) a 23% jump from last year. Resources devoted to social media and time allocation to social media was 52%. Concern about resources devoted to social media increased by 21% while time allocation to social media efforts increased by 11%. Companies are relatively less concerned with privacy, analytics, legality and ethics as they relate to social media. (See table 5)

Social media ROI is a central concern among CEO’s with 52%-59% reporting some degree of concern about resources and time devoted to this channel, and if the returns warrant the effort. As platforms become more and more alike in their capabilities, some consolidation might be in order. Studies report as many as 76% of U.S. adults with internet access, use Facebook. This could become a primary platform while others may provide niche access. (Pinterest for women, Instagram for youth etc.)

 

Table 5

Concerns regarding Social Media

% Concerned

(2015)

% Concerned

(2016)

Return on Investment

36%

59%

Resources devoted to social media

31%

52%

Time Allocation

41%

52%

Privacy Issues

33%

42%

Analytics

28%

41%

Legal Issues

28%

36%

Ethical Issues

22%

32%

 

Conclusion

The dramatic increase in the adoption of Instagram suggests that businesses are still exploring new platforms while holding onto all previous accounts. That coupled with reservations about the ROI of social media, points to a need to reevaluate and possibly consolidate social media efforts. All companies need to take a hard look at each platform and decide if their presence is necessary. They must focus on employee advocacy as a critical online tool.

We may be entering a period of great reflection, reevaluation and realignment of how new communication tools enhance not only brand awareness but sales. Going forward, the Inc. 500 and all those looking to the for inspiration, need to consider how to harness the power of these new tools and make critical decisions about the possibility of consolidating efforts.  With the ability to target using platforms that attract either mass markets, or niche markets, social media efforts can become more efficient and possibly more effective in generating sales or easing concerns about the return on investment.

 

About the Authors

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D.

Nora Ganim Barnes is a Chancellor Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Nora has worked as a consultant for many national and international firms. Working closely with businesses in the Northeast US, Nora and her students have provided marketing research assistance to hundreds of small businesses.

She has published articles in academic and professional journals and proceedings, has contributed chapters to books, and has been awarded numerous research grants. Her work has been covered online and in print by Business Week, the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Computer World, Time Magazine and the Harvard Business Review among others. She has been named Co-chair of Research by the Society for New Communications Research.

Dr. Barnes is a frequent speaker at corporate meetings and keynote at conferences. She can be reached at nbarnes@umassd.edu.

 

Caroline Daubitz

Caroline Daubitz is a 2016 graduate of UMass Dartmouth after receiving her B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Management. She continued her education at the University in pursuit of a Master’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing. Currently, she works as a Graduate Assistant in the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  She had conducted research for local businesses and has studied the 2015 and 2016 Inc. 500. She can be reached at cdaubitz@umassd.edu

 

Acknowledgement

The authors would like to thank those that made this report possible.  The Inc. 500 companies who responded to this survey were candid and generous with their comments.  They represent all the qualities that make the study of new communication channels for businesses so exciting.  Special thanks are owed to the students from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research for their endless enthusiasm and dedication to this project.

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