Conducted By: Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D.
The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth recently conducted a new in-depth and statistically significant study on the usage of social media in fast-growing corporations. This new study revisits the Center’s study of Inc. 500 social media usage for the fourth consecutive year, making it a valuable and rare longitudinal study of corporate use of these new technologies.
The new study compares adoption of social media among the 2010 Inc. 500 with previous years. The Inc. 500 is a list of the fastest-growing private U.S. companies compiled annually by Inc. Magazine. For details about the 2010 Inc. 500 and the complete directory of the included companies, please visit Inc. Magazine's website at www.Inc.com.
In 2007, the Center’s first study of this group and their use of social media was released and revealed that the Inc. 500 was outpacing the more traditional Fortune 500 in their use of social media. For example, at that time, research showed that 8% of the Fortune 500 companies were blogging compared to 19% of the Inc. 500. This difference continued in 2008 with 16% of the Fortune 500 blogging vs. 39% of the Inc. 500. This trend held in 2009 with the Inc. 500 blogging at a rate of 45%, while the Fortune 500 had 22% of its list with corporate blogs. The new data shows adoption of blogs leveling off in the Fortune 500 but continuing to grow among the Inc. 500 companies.
As in the earlier studies, the 2010 study, under the direction of researcher Nora Ganim Barnes, is the result of a nationwide telephone survey of those companies named by Inc. Magazine to the Inc. 500 list. All interviews took place in October and November of 2010. The 2010 list was released in the September issue of Inc. Magazine. In this fourth iteration, thirty-four percent (171) of the Inc. 500 participated, making this research statistically valid at +/- 6%.
This research proves once again that social media has penetrated parts of the business world at a tremendous speed. It also indicates that corporate familiarity with and usage of social media within the Inc. 500 has continued to grow in the past 12 months. We are now seeing the incorporation of new platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
The respondents in this study, as in the previous studies, are diverse in industry, size and location. They include 2 of the top 10, 4 of the top 25, and 28 of the top 100 companies from the Inc. 500 list.
Changes in the industry composition of the Inc. 500 are reflected in our sample and have impacted our statistics in ways we did not anticipate. An increase in companies providing Government Services (a result of some of the Obama initiatives) and those in the Financial Services Industry on the 2010 list has affected the overall statistic on adoption of social media for the Inc. 500, as these companies are less likely to use social media tools. While the Energy Industry did not see an increased number of companies on the 2010 list, they are also over represented in the non-user group. Companies from these three groups make up 54% of the companies that do no use any social media in their business strategy.
The 171 companies who responded were asked the same detailed questions concerning their usage and measurement of social media that were asked of the Inc. 500 in earlier years with minor exceptions. The original 2007 questions probed the familiarity of respondents with six prominent social media tools (blogging, podcasting, online video, social networking, message boards and wikis). Changes over the years include dropping wikis (used more as a collaboration tool than a communications/engagement tool) and changing the social networking category into more specific platforms including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Foursquare. With the 2010 data we are able to look at changes related to each of those platforms.
In addition to questions about current usage, the responding marketing executives were asked about their intention to adopt the social media technologies they were not currently using and about their perceived level of success with tools they were using now. The research question concerning the importance of social media to each responding company’s marketing strategy was also repeated in this year in order to gain important trend data.
The study also includes questions on the use of social media tools for recruiting and evaluating employees as well as for communicating with stakeholders other than consumers. More detailed questions about the responding companies’ corporate blogs and social media policies were also included.
A few findings worth highlighting:
Social networking continues to lead the way. The platform most familiar to the 2010 Inc. 500 is Facebook with 87% of respondents claiming to be “very familiar” with it. Another noteworthy statistic around familiarity is Twitter’s amazing “share of mind” with 71% percent (up from 62% in 2009) reporting being familiar with the relatively new micro blogging and social networking site. Forty-four percent say Facebook is the single most effective social networking platform they use.
Blogging remains an important tool for the Inc. 500. Fifty percent of the 2010 Inc. 500 has a corporate blog, up from 45% in 2009 and 39% in 2008. Beyond the actual adoption of this tool, there is clear evidence that companies are using blogs effectively.
There is a strong propensity to engage consumers through accepting and replying to comments and providing a vehicle for subscriptions. Thirty-four percent have developed policies to govern blogging by their employees. (Approximately 20% of the Fortune 500 has such policies.)
New communications tools are changing the way successful businesses operate. Forty-three percent of the 2009 Inc. 500 reported social media was “very important” to their business/marketing strategy. That number jumps to 56% in 2010. In addition, 57% report using search engines and social networking sites to recruit and evaluate potential employees (also an increase from 2009). Social media is not only used for communication between business and consumers, but for communicating with vendors and partners as well.
Social media adoption varies among the Inc. 500 Industries.
Despite the fact that 83% of the 2010 Inc. 500 use at least one of the social media tools studied, adoption is skewed by industry. Government Services companies make up 12% of the 2010 Inc. 500, but 27% of those who do not use social media tools. Energy companies comprise 3% of the 2010 Inc. 500 but 17% of the non-users. Financial Services companies follow the same pattern holding 5% of the Inc. 500 slots, but 10% of the companies who have not yet adopted social media.
An executive summary of the data follows with more detailed information.
To be added to the Center’s email distribution list and receive notification of the most recent research and writings concerning social media, please email Nora Barnes.
In 2007 the results of a groundbreaking study into the adoption of social media within the Inc. 500, an elite group of the fastest-growing companies in the United States, were released. As one of, if not the first studies of corporate social media adoption with statistical significance, it proved conclusively that social media was coming to the business world and sooner than many anticipated. Since then, the Inc. 500 has been studied each year in an effort to look at longitudinal change in the adoption of these fascinating digital communication tools.
The companies who responded were asked the same detailed questions concerning their familiarity with, usage of and measurement of social media. The survey used since 2007 asks a range of questions with regard to six prominent social media (blogging, podcasting, online video, social networking, message boards & wikis). Given the frequently uncertain definitions of these media, common understanding of each form was achieved by providing definitions from Wikipedia.
In 2009 the survey was expanded to include new tools that have emerged as popular channels for many businesses. For example, the social networking category was examined more specifically and data was collected on use of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Linkedin. Wikis were dropped as it became obvious they were being used more for internal collaboration than to communicate with consumers, partners or vendors.
Thirty-four percent (171) of the Inc. 500 participated, making this research statistically valid at +/- 6%.
As in the past, respondents were asked to rank their familiarity with each technology from "very familiar" to "very unfamiliar." The social media that has been most familiar to the Inc. 500 in all previous studies is social networking. This trend continues with Twitter and Facebook leading as the tools marketing executives are most familiar with.
It is interesting to note that platforms that are relatively new have already garnered significant attention. The bottom line is that the Inc. 500 continues to learn about social media at a very quick pace (see graph below).
From familiarity, the survey moved into the companies' actual usage of social media. The companies were asked in 2007, 2008 and 2009 if they were using popular social media tools and, if yes, for how long they had been using them. They were also asked if they planned to adopt tools they were not currently using.
While familiarity is generally related to adoption, there are platforms where that does not apply. Forty-four percent of executives surveyed are familiar with MySpace, but only 6% report using it. This pattern continues with 19% being familiar with Foursquare but only 5% using it and podcasting with 36% familiar but 16% using the tool.
The addition of Twitter (considered by respondents as both a micro blogging site and a social networking site) in the latest study shows that 59% of the Inc. 500 are using this tool for their business (71% are familiar with it). Overall, 83% of the Inc. 500 report using at least one of the social media tools studied in 2010. (See graph below).
The companies in the Inc. 500 continue to use corporate blogging more than the companies on the Fortune 500 list. From 2009 to 2010 blogging increased 1% among the Fortune 500 to 23%, while the Inc. 500 increased their adoption of blogging by 5% (to 50%). Blogging is now considered a mature tool in the social media arena. We might expect slower growth than that which we documented in 2007 or 2008. The Fortune 500 however, has never embraced this tool to the extent the Inc. 500 did. Blogging may have topped out in the Fortune 500, while the 5% increase in adoption among the Inc. 500 appears to show a continued interest in adopting this tool. (See graph below)
When the 2010 Inc. 500 was asked if they plan to adopt any of the social media technologies that they are not currently using, they affirmed their intend to continue immersing themselves in these tools. In virtually every instance where the tool has been examined over time, responses are fairly consistent. Since 2007, approximately 40-44% percent of those without corporate blogs intended to have one. Twenty-seven percent who did not have a business presence on Twitter in 2009, planned to move into that space. Even though the use of online video appears to have dropped slightly, the intent to adopt appears strong. Only MySpace garnered very little interest for these companies (See graph below).
When asked if the use of social media has been successful for their business, the overwhelming response is that it has. Last year Twitter users reported an 82% success rate while every other tool studied also enjoyed high success levels. The lowest success rate in 2009 was reported with Facebook. Fifty-four percent characterized their use of Facebook as successful. This year, that jumped to 84%. Perceptions of success with Twitter remained virtually the same as last year. Most interesting is that only 5% of businesses are now using Foursquare and 6% use MySpace but of those using these tools, 36% say MySpace is successful for them and a whopping 75% see Foursquare as a successful tool. (See graph below)
Not only is this widespread adoption being driven by strong familiarity but also from the recognized critical role of social media to a company's future success in today’s online world. When queried on the importance of social media, 26% of respondents in 2007 felt that social media was "very important" to their business and marketing strategy. That figure rose to 44% in approximately one year. It remained virtually the same in 2009, but jumped to 56% in 2010. It is clear that this group of fast-growing companies considers the use of social media as a central part of its strategic plan (see graph below).
All executives were asked if their company monitors its brands or company name in the social media space. Seventy percent report they actively monitor, up slightly from 68% last year, 60% in 2008 and 50% in 2007. Clearly, the Inc. 500 are becoming more sophisticated in the use of social media both for joining conversations and for listening to them.
Last year was the first time in this series of studies on the Inc. 500 that executives were asked if their company uses social media tools to communicate with other companies like vendors, suppliers or partners. They did report using social networking along with blogging to communicate with vendors and partners. This year, thirty-one percent report using Facebook for B2B communications. Twitter is now being used by 27% (up from 26% in 2009) for this purpose. It is interesting to note that 1 in 3 consider Facebook and 1 in 4 of these companies consider Twitter appropriate vehicles for B2B communications. This could signal an important change in the popular conception of both platforms and how they are being used. Blogging appears to be growing as a means of communication with vendors, suppliers and partners. In 2009 18% used blogs for this purpose, while 22% are using them now (see graph below).
In 2009 a question was added on the company’s use of search engine and/or social networking tools to recruit and evaluate potential employees. With the ease of access to information on people, it is no surprise that over half of the Inc. 500 are now using search engines to assist in the recruitment and evaluation process (see graph below). Google was the most popular search engine cited by executives (57%). Fifty-seven percent indicated using social networking sites such as Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter to recruit and evaluate potential employees.
From familiarity to usage to importance, social media has expanded rapidly within the Inc. 500. For the first time, 4-year trends in familiarity, adoption and importance to strategy have been documented in a statistically significant, longitudinal study. In addition, this latest study begins to shed light on exciting new social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and Foursquare along with new uses of social media for recruitment and hiring. With 83% of responding companies using at least one form of these exciting new technologies, social media is clearly an important part of how successful businesses operate. It will be interesting to see if those who have yet to adopt these new communications tools become social media enthusiasts over the next 12 months.
About the Author
Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph. D.
Nora Ganim Barnes earned a Ph.D. in Consumer Behavior from the University of Connecticut and 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 including the National Pharmaceutical Council, the National Court Reporters Association, and the Board of Inquiry of the British Parliament, Scotts Lawn Care Co, Distilled Spirits Council of the US and others. Business Week, Inc. Magazine, Computer World and other business media as well as the Providence Journal, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times and NY Daily News have covered her work. She has been named a Senior Research Fellow and Research Chair by the Society for New Communications Research. Nora can be reached by email.
About the Center for Marketing Research
The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research provides high quality, affordable marketing assistance utilizing Center staff, faculty, students, and expert practitioners. The Center offers focus groups, market analysis, customer satisfaction studies, feasibility studies, new product development, branding, promotion/packaging and customized projects and interdisciplinary studies. The Center also has state-of-the-art online survey capability.
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 also owed to Associate Director, Ava Lescault and the staff and students from the University of MA Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research for their endless enthusiasm and dedication to this project.
- The 2010 Inc. 500 Update: Most Blog, Friend And Tweet But Some Industries Still Shun Social Media (PDF)
- The 2010 Inc. 500 Update: Most Blog, Friend And Tweet But Some Industries Still Shun Social Media (DOC)