Research Research: Increases in Use of Instagram and Paid Social But Not Social Planning: Social Media Among the 2019 Inc. 500

Research Research: Increases in Use of Instagram and Paid Social But Not Social Planning: Social Media Among the 2019 Inc. 500
Increases in Use of Instagram and Paid Social But Not Social Planning: Social Media Among the 2019 Inc. 500

BayCoast Bank White Paper Series: The effects of Social Medias use in Business

Conducted by:

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D (

Ashley Mazzola, MBA Canidate (

Mae Killeen, MBA Canidate (

Nadia Khalil, MSF (


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 list represents the fastest-growing, privately owned companies in the United States. The most recent findings build on the past 13 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 2019 Inc. 500 companies, including details and selected data, please visit Inc. Magazine’s website at

 The study presented here focuses on the 2019 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 2019. The companies on the Inc. 500 list include a wide range of industries from Government Services, Health, and Food and Beverage. A total of 27 industries are represented on the 2019 list.


The data was collected in two stages. The first stage investigated which popular social media tools are being utilized. The tools studied include: blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. 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 classification 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 concerns regarding social media use, perceived effectiveness, and the relationship between social media use and potential sales. In this year’s study, additional information was collected regarding employee engagement and the value of free vs. paid social media use. One hundred and forty-nine companies (30%) were interviewed in this stage. 

 The 2019 Inc. 500 executives who responded are a diverse group, representing all 27 industries in the Inc. 500 list. They have annual company revenues ranging from $2M to over $400M with 48% of them falling between $3M-$10.9M. 77% of the companies were launched between 2012 and 2015 while 15% were launched between 2008 and 2011. The most prominent industries were Software (12%), Advertising and Marketing (10%), Health (8%) and Consumer Products and Services (8%). 

Key Highlights

  • 95% of the 2019 Inc. 500 use at least one of the social media platforms studied vs. 94% in 2018.
  • For the third year in a row, LinkedIn and Facebook are reported as the most effective social media platforms while Twitter and YouTube are ranked the least effective platforms.
  • Of the various social media platforms that were studied (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Blogs), Twitter was the only platform that did not experience an increase in usage from 2018 to 2019.
  • 2018 was the first year that a greater proportion of Fortune 500 companies (53%) use blogs compared to that of Inc. 500 companies (50%) and it has stayed consistent within 2019 Inc. 500 study as well with 54% of Fortune 500 companies using blogs and 51% of Inc. 500 companies using blogs.
  • The top two concerns regarding the use of social media are return on social media investment and privacy issues. Executives are less concerned about analytics, ethical, and legal issues.
  • Nearly half of the companies report that the value of free social media has leveled off and that they are seeking alternatives.
  • When asked about what they might be spending more on in the next year, 53% of companies chose paid ads on social media. This is a 14% increase from 2018.
  • 19% of the 2019 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan, a 2% decline from the previous year.


Detailed Findings

1a. Inc. 500 Usage of Social Media

Social media has developed rapidly, and companies continue to search for which platforms suit their needs. It is evident that certain platforms best fit the needs of certain industries more than others. Figure 1 depicts social media usage for the last three years among Inc. 500 companies. Ninety-five percent of the companies use at least one form of social media. This is an increase of 1% indicating that the use of social media among high-growth companies has reached significant saturation. Among the top five represented industries in the Inc. 500 is Government Services, an industry that has typically not had a strong social media presence. 89% of companies in the Government Services industry have an active social media presence vs. 95% for the entire cohort.

Figure 1

The data indicates some changes in the use of major platforms between 2017 and 2019. It may be that companies established their social media presence years ago and may now be reevaluating their presence on these platforms. In every case except Instagram and YouTube, usage has declined.

 Companies regard LinkedIn and Facebook as the most effective social media platforms whereas Twitter and YouTube are ranked among the least effective platforms, findings that are consistent with last year’s data. Companies have not changed their perception of the relative importance of different social media platforms. 

 LinkedIn is the most utilized platform among the Inc. 500. Its adoption increased from 78% in 2018 to 87% in 2019. Facebook usage also increased over the past year from 80% to 82%. Possible explanations differ for each platform. LinkedIn facilitates business networking and hiring but has not been shown to impact sales. Facebook has had a troubled year with privacy issues, breaches, and threats of government regulation, but is a valuable vehicle for paid advertisement.

 It is not surprising that Inc. 500 executives found LinkedIn and Facebook to be their most effective platforms.  Both have enjoyed that distinction for the past seven years of this research. Twitter is the third most utilized social media tool, as it is now adopted and maintained by 68% of companies, even though it is not viewed as an effective tool by the executives interviewed.

 Instagram is an important tool for reaching consumers. Among the top five represented industries in the Inc. 500 are Consumer Products and Services and Advertising and Marketing, both of which have a clear need to directly target consumers through the use of Instagram. Figure 2 shows the overall rise in Instagram use among Inc. 500 companies compared with Fortune 500 companies. Fortune 500 companies have seen a consistent increase in adoption of Instagram (up 10% from 2018) whereas the Inc. 500 companies have a 5% increase in Instagram adoption within the last year.

Figure 2

1b. Fortune 500 Overtakes Inc.500 in Blogging

For the second time, a greater share of the revenue-based Fortune 500 companies utilized blogs compared to that of the Inc. 500 companies. Figure 3 below depicts the use of blogs in both segments from 2011 to 2019. The frequency of blogs has fluctuated in each year for both segments, and until 2018, the Inc. 500 consistently had higher usage rates. Currently, 54% of the Fortune 500 and 51% of the Inc. 500 use blogs to engage their audience. Both Fortune 500 and Inc. 500 experienced an increase in companies with public facing corporate blogs from the previous year.

Figure 3

1c. Top 5 Inc. 500 Companies Based on Facebook Likes

The 409 companies (82%) with corporate Facebook pages come from all industries represented in the Inc. 500. Figure 4 ranks the top five Inc. 500 companies based on their Facebook likes. Leading is Saved By The Dress with 1.7 million likes. Saved By The Dress is a wholly online retailer that sells clothing and accessories for women. In second place is SetSchedule with 1.2 million likes. In third place is BoxyCharm (857k), followed by LadyBoss (815k) and NanaMacs Clothing (744k). In 2018, two of the five most popular companies were common between both Twitter and Facebook: SleekEZ and Yoga International. However, in 2019 only one of the five most popular companies were common between both Twitter and Facebook platforms: BoxyCharm.


Facebook Likes

Saved By The Dress








NanaMacs Clothing


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

Twitter is one of the three most popular platforms in terms of active accounts behind Facebook and LinkedIn.  At the same time, it is considered one of the least effective social media tools by the executives who participated in our interviews. It may be that companies feel other tools give them more return in terms of brand awareness, thought leadership, engagement or sales/leads.  Those Inc. 500 companies with the most Twitter followers include Untappd with 131k followers, Limited Run (115k), BoxyCharm (113k), Gametime (43k), and (42k).


Twitter Followers



Limited Run








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. Seventy-three (40%) of the executives interviewed indicated that they are tracking online conversations about their brands, products, or industry using a monitoring tool. This statistic is a 16% decline from 2018 and a 4% decline from 2017. 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 possible through social media. As big data grows in importance, companies should start ramping up their tracking and monitoring of (potential) customer opinions.

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 2016 through 2018, almost all of them pointed to building brand awareness as the most effective use of social media. Consistent with last year’s findings, executives are least likely to agree that social media efforts have been effective for their companies. This again reinforces the belief that social media does not automatically result in increasing the bottom line. There is a 4% increase in companies agreeing that social media is effective in generating leads/sales. Percentages shown in Figure 6 are composed of both ‘Strongly Agree’ and ‘Agree’.


% Agree (2016)

% Agree (2017)

% Agree (2018)

% Agree (2019)

Social media is effective in building brand awareness





Social media is effective in creating relationships with consumers/customers





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





Being active on social media is essential for our business success





Social media is effective in generating leads/sales





Social Media Policies

Because social media became so relevant so quickly, companies are continually adapting to the challenges that arise regarding policy. One of the biggest challenges that companies are facing is how to manage their social media efforts. Written social media policies, strategic planning for social media, and monitoring tools are still the subject of debate.  

Twenty-one percent of the 2019 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan. This is nearly double from 2017 (12%) indicating a growing need to address social media in organizations. Forty-three percent have a social media plan incorporated into their marketing/business plan (same percentage as 2018). Thirty-four percent do not have any form of a written social media plan, a 1% decline from the previous year. It appears that most companies believe that social media must be addressed either directly or indirectly, and fewer companies have yet to address social media in writing.

Executives were asked if their company has a strategy in place in the event of an online crisis (i.e. a negative attack online). Over the past five years, about 1/3 have reported having such a plan in place. This year, 29% report having a strategy in place for an online crisis, consistent with previous findings.

Concerns Using Social Media

Executives interviewed were asked about concerns in their company regarding their use of social media. From 2015 through 2017, return on investment and resources devoted to social media were the top two concerns. However, in 2019, the top three concerns are return on investment and a tie between both resources devoted to social media and privacy issues. Legal and ethical issues are relatively less concerning. This change reflects the spotlight put on online privacy issues and social media in 2019.

While social media ROI is a top concern among CEO’s with 44% reporting some degree of concern about resources devoted to this channel, the degree of concern has declined each of the last four years.


Concerns Regarding Social Media

% Concerned


% Concerned


% Concerned


% Concerned


Return on Investment





Resources devoted to social media





Privacy Issues










Legal Issues





Ethical Issues






Future Spending

Executives were asked what their company might be spending more on in the next year.  For the third consecutive year, websites are the spending target of choice for two-thirds of the Inc. 500. Email marketing, public relations, and paid social media are also priorities. The least targeted areas for increased spending are tracking software and print advertising.

Website Improvements


Email Marketing


Software for Tracking Customers


Paid Ads on Social Media Sites


Public Relations


Print Advertising



Potential for Increasing Sales

The intention of social media use for many companies is to reach potential and existing customers in order to increase sales. Of the most popular social media tools, LinkedIn was selected by 41% of Inc. 500 companies for providing the greatest potential in increasing sales. It is interesting to note that paid ads on social media was selected by more executives (53%) than using organic ads on Facebook (30%) in terms of potential for increasing sales. There may be a tipping point emerging between free and paid social media for businesses. 

Free Versus Paid Advertising

Of the companies surveyed, 64% are considering alternatives to free social media. As popular free social media tools become more congested with users and businesses, nearly half (46%) of the companies believe the value of free social media has leveled off. In 2018, the use of free social media slightly declined. One possible reason for the decline is the waning perceived value of free social media platforms. Because executives believe that a plateau has been reached, efforts are being directed towards paid tools instead of free platforms.

Employee Engagement

Social media initiatives are developed, run, and managed by a company’s employees. Eighty-five percent of companies responded that employee engagement in the company’s social media efforts is beneficial. By incorporating greater employee insight into a company’s social media effort, the company broadens its view of customer needs and how to satisfy them. Therefore, by utilizing the effort and opinion of employees, a greater and more successful effort can be made via social media platforms. Fifty-seven percent of companies encourage their employees to discuss the company on their own private platforms. By using employees as representatives for the company, exposure may increase through what may be perceived as organic marketing: humans discussing a company or product through word of mouth. The individuals who are most knowledgeable and in the best position to promote a company or product are those who are employed at the company.


In the early years of this study, researchers focused on the adoption and use of particular tools/platforms. Our reports cited trends in the use of some tools noting declines in usage and surges in growth. The 2019 Inc. 500 appear to have a somewhat different profile in terms of social media with some declines in the overall use of social media as well as with some social media platforms. Additionally, interesting findings come from the interviews with Inc. 500 executives. Their conversations paint a picture of a shifting relationship between business and social media.


There are 338 companies with active Twitter accounts, yet only 3% of the executives described Twitter as the most effective social media tool/platform for their company. The 338 companies with active Twitter accounts are all making a consistent effort in maintaining the accounts with recent posts. This might be a contributing factor to the concern with ROI dedicated to social media.  Some are dealing with the feeling that being on the major social media platforms is essential and at the same time their reality is that these media may not benefit the company.

Furthermore, the issue of privacy has surfaced this year as a growing concern. As companies become aware of the value of collecting customer data, they become subjected to consumer data privacy laws that vary in different regions of the world. They also become wary of their own company data being targeted in some sort of online attack. The loss of company data could prove extremely costly whether through malicious use or through a lawsuit. The interviewed executives insisted that social media is effective in building brand awareness and have acted accordingly by increasing their propensity for creating social media plans or policies. When asked about plans for spending in the next year, they cite website improvements as their number one target, and include budgets for paid vs. free social media.

When asked what they would be spending more on in the next year, 53% of companies cited paid ads on social media sites. This is a 14% increase from 2018. While paid social media efforts are on the rise, social media planning has decreased.  19% of the 2019 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan, a 2% decline from the previous year.

The fast-growing companies of the Inc. 500 have established themselves on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Instagram. They seem to have an idea of which platforms are effective for them and which are not. However, they continue to maintain even the least effective of them. They question if their social media efforts are providing a return. They believe that brand awareness is enhanced by these efforts, but sales may not be, particularly on certain platforms. It appears that the role of social media in business is being reevaluated. While companies are still active on social media, the majority believe that free platforms and tools have plateaued in the benefits they offer, thus requiring paid alternatives.  Social media deserves a seat at the table, but ROI can only be realized if businesses invest in what works and move away from what does not.