The Fortune 500 adapt to the sudden and unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic.

How the Pandemic Impacted Social Media Use Among the Fortune 500

How the Pandemic Impacted Social Media Use Among the Fortune 500

Conducted by:

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D.

Shannen Pavao, MBA

Bethany Fernandes, MBA Candidate

 

Introduction

 

Fortune Magazine annually compiles a list of America’s largest corporations, aptly named the “Fortune 500” (F500) given their size and wealth. Due to the hugely influential role that these companies play in the business world, studying their adoption and use of social media tools offers important insights into the future of commerce. These corporations provide a look at emergent social media trends among America’s most successful companies.

Each May, the list of the top 500 corporations is released in a special issue of Fortune Magazine. The F500 list includes publicly and privately held companies for which revenues are publicly available. For more information on the methodology used to select the F500 corporations, please visit https://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/global500/2013/faq/.

In 2008, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research released one of the first studies on social media adoption among the F500 and has repeated that study every year since. Initially only focusing on the use of blogs, the study has been expanded over the years to include the use of Twitter and Facebook, two popular mainstays in social media, as well as other popular social media platforms and tools like new emergent Tik Tok. Social media platforms have been added or deleted as the study attempts to reflect current trends. In addition, the study includes business networking platforms (LinkedIn) as well as indicators of engagement such as the number of Twitter followers, Facebook “likes” and Instagram followers.

It should be noted that the data for this study was collected during the summer of 2020, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic.  It uniquely offers a look into how these exceptional companies changed their use of social media during one of the most challenging times for businesses in America.

 

Methodology

 

The following definition was used to locate 2020 F500 corporations with a social media presence: A company was counted as having a presence on each platform studied if the primary corporation had an active account. This was determined by examining both the date of the last post and the patterns of posting. Typically, a post in the last 30 days qualified for an active account, but in rare cases there were patterns of posting every 45 days. These were considered active as well.

It is worth noting that there is evidence of usage of social media tools such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. inside branches of these corporations. This research did not look at that subject, but instead focused on public-facing corporate blogs and social media tools as a barometer of social media usage to engage the public.

Due to the complexity of corporate legal structures in this group and no clear methodology on how subsidiaries have been located or analyzed by others, the research presented here continues to focus on the primary/listed corporation. While we acknowledge that mergers and acquisitions along with expansions have resulted in segments or subsidiaries with social media, our focus has consistently been at the corporate level.

All corporations were analyzed using multiple steps. First, working from the published 2020 F500 list, all corporate home pages were examined for links to, or mention of, social media accounts. If a link wasn’t found on the company’s home page, a search was performed using search engines. Any links resulting from these searches were followed and evaluated using the established criteria. This proved to be an effective method since additional social media accounts were located. The process was repeated for each social media platform.

 

Important Notice:

 

In the 2020 F500 there is one company not using any of the social media platforms or tools examined in this study.

  • Old Republic International, Rank: 427, Industry: Insurance, Property & Casualty (Stock)
  • Blogs: Corporate blogs became a lifeline for consumer and business communication during the 2020 pandemic. There are now 387 or 77% of the Fortune 500 currently using this tool for an array of reasons described later in this report.
  • Twitter: 89% of Fortune 500 companies are actively using Twitter, a 7% drop from last year. The decline may be attributable to companies suspending their activity on Twitter during the pandemic, and presenting as an “inactive account” in accordance with our methodology.
  • Facebook: 86% of the F500 companies are actively using Facebook, which is down 10% from 2019. As with the decline in Twitter use, Facebook accounts that did not show activity were classified as inactive.
  • Instagram: Instagram also has declined usage, with 65% of F500 companies using the platform, a 9% drop from last year. Though Instagram has proven to be an important marketing tool for companies, many corporate accounts were found to be inactive. This decline is likely due to the forced closures of corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic, since Instagram has traditionally seen an increase in usage over the past five years.
  • YouTube: 78% of the F500 have a YouTube account, a 13% decline from last year. Content creation may also have been impacted by pandemic-related restrictions.
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn continues to keep its #1 spot on the social media usage chart for the seventh year in a row with 99% using the platform, the same percentage as last year. Our studies suggest that LinkedIn will maintain its popularity as a business networking and recruiting tool, despite adversity, going forward.

 

Highlights:

1a.Corporate Blogs

Traditional blogging has had its ups and downs since we began tracking corporate blogs in 2008. This year, public facing corporate blogs have demonstrated an increase in use for the fifth time since 2015. In fact, blog usage has more than tripled since its all-time-low was recorded in 2015 at 21%.

This year 387 (77%) of the Fortune 500 are using their blogs during the 2020 pandemic.

Although blogging has shown a big increase, it is important to note that many companies are adopting different methods to showcase their announcements of new products or services, news reports, philanthropic involvement, etc. by placing this information in press releases or “newsroom” sections of their website. At times, blog and newsroom posts often appear quite similar, and are being used interchangeably. For the scope of this study, the focus was placed on corporate “blogs”, which totaled 77% usage among the 2020 Fortune 500. This increase in blogging activity may have been stimulated by the pandemic and addressing consumer issues.

 

 1b.Level of Interaction on Corporate Blogs

The range of topics of these blog posts varies among corporations. Posts usually revolve around new and updated company products or services, news reports regarding the corporation or its products/services and reports on the industry at large.

Many companies like Amazon have blogs dedicated to how they are helping with the COVID-19 pandemic.  Their blog is simply called “Amazon responds to COVID-19”.  Like Amazon, companies can use their blogs to create value by educating their audience.  Posts on how their brand is helping during the pandemic, tips for working from home, staying healthy and other useful content that positions the company as socially responsive and caring will pay dividends going forward.  In addition, blogs can help grow an email list and improve a website’s SEO.  2020 was a year to use blogs to help consumers through a challenging time.

All blogs were examined to determine the level of interactivity the blog allowed. This was done by looking at the blog to see if comments were accepted and checking the date of the last post to determine how current it was. In 2019, 49 (18%) of active corporate blogs allowed readers to make comments on their posts, down 22% from 2018. This year, 15% of blogs allow comments.

Many of the blogs which allow comments have little to no interaction on the comment threads, which could explain why companies are increasingly doing away with the comment feature on their blogs.

 

 1c.Corporate Blogs by Rank

Since our first study in 2008, it has been documented that rank influences adoption of blogging in the F500. Those corporations ranked in the top 200 have consistently out blogged those in the bottom 200. Perhaps the top companies are effectively demonstrating a strong consumer or B2B engagement attitude that impacts their bottom line.  In 2020, the companies ranked in the top 200 made up 49% of those with blogs, 29% of those ranked in the bottom 200 of the Fortune 500 list had active blogs.

 

 1d.Corporate Blogs by Industry 

Some of the top industries using blogs in 2020 include:

  • Food Consumer Products
  • General Merchandise
  • Insurance: Life, Health (stock)
  • Internet Services and Retailing
  • Information Technology Services

In contrast, some of the Fortune 500 industries without corporate blogging include:

  • Automotive Retailing Services
  • Motor Vehicles and Parts
  • Securities
  • Utilities: Gas and Electric
  • Mining, Crude Oil Production
  • Pipelines

 

2a.Corporate Twitter Accounts

Four hundred and forty-six companies (89%) in the 2020 F500 have active corporate Twitter accounts, which is down 7% from 2019. Each of the top ten corporations on the Fortune 500 list (Walmart, Amazon, Exxon Mobil, Apple, CVS Health, Berkshire Hathaway, UnitedHealth Group, McKesson, AT&T and AmerisourceBergen) consistently post on their Twitter accounts even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

2b.Corporate Twitter Followers

The main measure of Twitter popularity is the number of followers an account has. Facebook, in its seventh year on the F500 list, continues to dominate with 13.3 million followers, followed by Starbucks, Netflix, Microsoft, Discovery, Nike and Tesla. It is interesting to note Netflix’s continued growth of Twitter followers, moving up from the sixth most followed company on the F500 to the third. Contrary to Netflix’s growth in followers, Starbucks experienced a negative growth rate, losing over 400,000 followers since 2019, along with Facebook ( down 200,000 followers).

Having a large following on Twitter can lead to or reflect an increase in sales for a company. This holds true for Netflix’s growth on Twitter, likely caused by the large influx of users who took to using the popular streaming platform while in quarantine during the global pandemic.

 

 

Corporation

2020 Twitter Followers

Facebook

13,3000,000

Starbucks

11,000,000

Netflix

9,100,000

Microsoft

9,000,000

Discovery

8,700,000

Nike

8,200,000

Tesla

6,200,000

 

 2c.Corporate Twitter Accounts by Industry

 Seventy-four of seventy-five industries represented in the 2020 F500 had at least one company with a corporate Twitter account (the exception being the Forest and Paper Product Industry). The percentage of corporations with Twitter accounts varies by industry. There are 35 industries that did not have 100% of their corporations with an active Twitter account. A sample of those 35 industries is represented below.

 

 

Corporate Twitter Accounts by Industry

Number of Corporations with Twitter Accounts

Percent

Utilities: Gas and Electric

21/22

95%

Insurance: Life, Health, (Stock)

13/14

93%

Chemicals

12/13

92%

Food Consumer Products

12/13

92%

Diversified Financials

11/12

92%

Automotive Retailing, Services

9/10

90%

Wholesalers: Diversified

9/10

90%

Internet Services and Retailing

8/9

89%

Computers, Office Equipment

7/8

88%

 

3a.Corporate Facebook Pages

Four hundred and twenty-seven (85%) of the 2020 F500 have active corporate Facebook pages.

As in 2019, 100% of the top ten corporations on the Fortune 500 list (Walmart, Amazon.com, Exxon Mobil, Apple, CVS Health, Berkshire Hathaway, UnitedHealth Group, McKesson, AT&T and AmerisourceBergen) have active Facebooks. While corporate Facebook usage is down 10% in the F500 compared to 2019, the decline is likely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

3b.Corporate Facebook “Likes”

The main measure of engagement on Facebook is the number of people who “like” the company. Facebook took a major dive in likes, plummeting from the number one most “liked” company on the 2019 Fortune 500 to the 22nd most “liked” in 2020. McDonald’s replaced Facebook’s spot as the most liked company on the F500 list, followed by Netflix, Walt Disney, Discovery, Intel, Starbucks, and Nike. Netflix, as on Twitter, is growing in popularity on Facebook at a rapid rate, up 9.5 million likes since 2019. For the third consecutive year, Netflix moves up a spot on the top “liked” companies on the Fortune 500. Following suit is Walt Disney, who went from the fourth most liked company on the Fortune 500, to the third.

 

Corporation

2020 Facebook “Likes”

McDonald’s

80,562,452

Netflix

69,210,325

Walt Disney

52,487,853

Discovery

39,361,278

Intel

37,458,651

Starbucks

36,728,885

Nike

34,445,204

 

3c.Corporate Facebook Pages by Industry

Seventy-four of seventy-five industries represented in the 2020 F500 had at least one company with a corporate Facebook account (the exception being the Forest and Paper Product Industry).

The percentage of corporations with Facebook accounts varies by industry. There are 38 industries that did not have 100% of their corporations with an active Facebook account. A sample of those 38 industries are represented below.

 

Corporate Facebook Pages by Industry

Number of Corporations with

Facebook Pages

Percent

Utilities: Gas and Electric

21/22

95%

Commercial Banks

19/20

95%

Insurance: Life, Health, (Stock)

13/14

93%

Chemicals

12/13

92%

Semiconductors & other Electronic Components

11/12

92%

Aerospace and Defense

10/11

91%

Wholesalers: Diversified

9/10

90%

 

4a.Corporate Instagram Pages

Instagram is used both as a means to advertise a company’s products and services and as a call to action to purchase. A link can be included with a specific image, leading users to more information and a means of buying. Companies will also post images of products and representations of services without links, of their location(s) and of their employees; often participating in charitable events, business-related conferences and meetings, or receiving some form of recognition. Instagram helps to build a company’s brand and goodwill with consumers.

Instagram’s use by the F500 is down 9% in the year 2020, decreasing from 367 (73%) active users, to 321 (64%). One hundred percent of the top ten F500 companies are using Instagram, including Amerisource Bergen, who did not have an active Instagram account in 2019.

 

 4b.Corporate Instagram “Likes”

 The main measure of engagement on Instagram is the number of people who “follow” the company. Nike remains the top followed F500 company on the platform by a landslide with 122 million followers (up 35% since 2019). Netflix continues to grow in popularity on Instagram as well, moving up one position from the fourth most followed F500 company on Instagram to the third, along with Apple who moved from the fifth to the fourth.

 

Corporation

2020 Instagram Followers

Nike

122,000,000

Walt Disney

26,100,000

Netflix

24,700,000

Apple

23,700,000

Starbucks

18,300,000

Discovery

12,900,000

Ralph Lauren

12,000,000

 

4c.Corporate Instagram Pages by Industry

Seventy of seventy-five industries represented in the 2020 F500 had at least one company with a corporate Instagram account (the exceptions are Building Materials/Glass,Forest and Paper Products, Metals, Publishing/Printing, and Tobacco).

The percentage of corporations with Instagram accounts varies by industry. There are 62 industries that did not have 100% of their corporations with an active Instagram account. A sample of those 62 industries are represented below.

 

Corporate Instagram Pages by Industry

Number of Corporations with

Instagram Pages

Percent

Specialty Retailers: Other

16/17

94%

Aerospace and Defense

10/11

91%

Information Technology Services

7/8

88%

Telecommunications

7/8

88%

Apparel

6/7

86%

Food Consumer Products

11/13

85%

Household and Personal Products

5/6

83%

 

5a.Corporate YouTube Accounts

Three hundred and ninety-one (78%) of the 2020 Fortune 500 have an active corporate YouTube account, down 13% from last year. All of the top ten companies on the F500 list have active YouTube accounts. Some of the many ways businesses are utilizing this video-driven platform are to reach their target audience, boost engagement, acquire new customers, and to build brand awareness.

 

6a.LinkedIn (Business-Oriented Social Networking Site)

LinkedIn continues to remain the top used platform among the 2020 F500. Businesses have set up shop on the site to tell their story, network, stimulate word of mouth and recruit. Four hundred and ninety-two companies (99%) on the F500 list are using LinkedIn in 2020.

 

7a.Corporate TikTok Accounts

TikTok, a social media platform made up of short one minute or less videos, has become popular due to its huge user base, not limited to Gen Zers, and a vast amount of content. It was added to this study for the first time this year.

TikTok is so attractive because it optimizes the user experience by letting the user be both the producer and consumer. Even as the newest social media platform on the rise, 8% of corporations on the Fortune 500 list have a corporate TikTok account. This percentage is likely to grow as companies look to target TikTok’s primary user demographic (Gen-Z and Millennials).

Major corporations in the F500 top 5 like Walmart, Amazon and Apple are some of the most notable corporations who have TikTok accounts. With algorithm technology based on big data and enhanced user loyalty, TikTok is a niche social media platform for corporations to reach a particular audience. These listed corporations above have large target markets that overlap with TikTok’s demographic.

 

Conclusion

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the F500 are using their social media platforms. Since 2008, this study has chronicled social media use by counting “active” accounts.  In 2020, “inactive” accounts became far more prevalent as companies dealt with the impacts and restrictions of the COVID-19 virus.  It is not surprising that platforms characterized by almost daily postings like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would decline in usage. It is the increased use of blogging that once again points to this very mature tool as a unique communications vehicle. Blogs have long been touted as the only form of social media that provides ownership, freedom from oversight and restrictions in length or content and an opportunity for long form storytelling or thought leadership. It appears that more companies turned to their blogs during the pandemic to provide useful content, demonstrate social responsibility and improve SEO.

Ultimately, we are seeing the F500 adapt to this sudden and unprecedented global pandemic.  Perhaps retreating to older, more familiar tools is a form of comfort on a corporate level.  For 2020, there is simply less activity on the most popular platforms.  Only time will tell what the post-pandemic landscape will look like when it comes to social media and the Fortune 500.

 

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 and teaching awards. 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 at the Conference Board.

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

 

Shannen Pavao, MBA

Shannen Pavao graduated from The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing and Management. She went on to obtain her MBA from The Charlton College of Business at UMass Dartmouth with a Marketing concentration. Shannen has worked on numerous research projects from various industries ranging from banking to fraternal organizations. She is a published author and has conducted multiple studies on college-aged Millennials and Generation-Z. Her areas of expertise include: SPSS analysis, database management, Qualtrics, survey development, and social media.

She can be reached at spavao2@umassd.edu

 

Bethany Fernandes, MBA Candidate

Bethany Fernandes works as a Graduate Assistant in the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where she obtained a BS in Marketing with a minor in Management. She is continuing her education at the University in pursuit of a Master’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing. She has conducted both qualitative and quantitative research for a range of business clients. 

She can be reached at bfernandes3@umassd.edu.



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