Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D. (email@example.com)
Minh Dai Trang Tran, MBA Candidate (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Nadia Khalil, MSF (email@example.com)
Shannen Pavao, MBA Candidate (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kylie Maloney, MBA Candidate (email@example.com)
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 11 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 2017 Inc. 500 companies, including details and selected data, please visit Inc. Magazine’s website at www.Inc.com.
The study presented here focuses on the 2017 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 2017. The companies on the Inc. 500 list include a wide range of industries from Government Services, Health, and Food and Beverage. A total of 25 industries are represented on the 2017 list.
The research presented here was collected in two stages. The first stage investigated which social media tools are being utilized. These tools include: blogging, 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 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 companies (24%) were interviewed in this stage.
The 2017 Inc. 500 executives responding are a diverse group, representing 25 industries. They have annual company revenues ranging from under $3M to over $100M with 60% of them falling between $3M-$10.9M. Fifty percent of the companies were launched between 2012 and 2017 while 39% were launched between 2008 and 2011. The most prominent industries were, Business Products and Services (9%), IT Services (9%) and Advertising and Marketing (8%).
- Consistent with the past four years of research, 92% of the Inc. 500 have a LinkedIn account, 90% have a Facebook account and 79% have Twitter accounts.
- LinkedIn and Facebook are reported as their most effective social media platforms while Twitter and YouTube are ranked among the least effective platforms for these companies.
- Use of blogs increased for the third year in a row, currently at 55%.
- 50% of Inc. 500 companies have no written social media policy.
- 30% have a strategy in place in the event of an online crisis/firestorm, (down 9%).
- Instagram continues to grow in adoption with 49% now using the platform.
- The top 2 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 while the benefit rated lowest is generating leads/sales.
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. Ninety-six percent of the companies use at least one form of social media. This is an increase of 14% and confirms a belief that being active on social media is simply essential for a business today.
Of those using social media, LinkedIn remains the most popular platform for the 6th consecutive year with 92% adoption. The second most utilized platform is Facebook (90%). Twitter remains at 79% adoption for the fourth consecutive year. The most notable changes from 2015 are the continued resurgence of blogging and continued growth in adoption 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 continued growth of blogging and of Instagram.
While companies continue to use LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, they don’t evaluate them the same in terms of their effectiveness. LinkedIn and Facebook are considered very effective for their companies while Twitter and YouTube are considered among the least effective. In spite of this, companies continue to maintain all of these accounts.
1b. Most Effective Social Media Tool/Platform
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 five years of this research. What may be a surprise is that the tool rated third most effective is blogging. It is the resurgence of blogging that demonstrates the desire of many companies to distinguish themselves in the area of thought leadership. Blogging is now used by 55% of the Inc. 500. This represents an increase in the adoption of blogs for the third year in a row and puts the use of this tool at the highest level since 2010. In contrast with this mature tool, a much newer platform has emerged as a favorite since our first look at it in 2014. Instagram was mentioned as the 4th most effective social media tool for their company. Those considered least effective are Twitter and YouTube.
1c. 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. Figure 2 below depicts the use of blogs in both segments from 2010-2017. 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. 2017 marked the second year since 2013, that the Inc. 500 and Fortune 500 companies have experienced an increase in their use of blogs. Of the 275 Inc. 500 companies that actively blog, executives reported the main goal of their blog is to establish thought leadership or expertise. (See Figure 2)
1d. Instagram continues to gain in popularity
Based on the 2016 research, Instagram had 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. That growth continues albeit at a slower rate. This year 49% of the Inc. 500 have adopted Instagram, a 3% increase over last year. (See Figure 3)
1e. Top 5 Inc. 500 Companies Based on Facebook Likes
The 450 companies (90%) with corporate Facebook pages come from all industries represented in the Inc. 500. Figure 4 represents the top 5 Inc. 500 companies based on their Facebook likes. Leading is Pop Culture Media, with 6.5m likes. Based on their ranking and Facebook likes, Pop Culture Media relies heavily on social media to connect with their customers and promote their products. In second place, is Penny Hoarder, a blog for savings advice, with 5.7m likes followed by iHeartDogs.com with 3.7m, Axe Wellness with 2.5m, and Adore Me with 1.8m likes. It is interesting that those most liked on Facebook are different from those with the most followers on Twitter. This is unique to the Inc. 500. Companies like Nike dominate both platforms among the Fortune 500 list where it is more common for a company to top both Facebook and Twitter lists. (See Figure 4)
|Pop Culture Media||6.5m|
|iHeartDogs.com/Home Life Media||3.7m|
1f. Top 5 Inc. 500 Companies Based on Twitter Followers
Twitter is one of the most popular platforms in terms of active accounts, only slightly behind LinkedIn and Facebook. 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 FabFitFun with 152k, Adwizar with 152k, Untapped with 119k, Domo with 84.8k, and MeUndies with 74.4k followers. It is interesting to note that the Facebook likes above are reported in millions while the Twitter followers are reported in the thousands. (See Figure 5)
2. 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. Forty-four percent of the executives interviewed indicated that they are tracking online conversations about their brands, products or industry using a monitoring tool. 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.
Executives were asked which, from a list of channels and strategies, they felt held the most potential for increasing sales. Email marketing was the most popular response followed by Google AdWords. The least effective options included instituting loyalty programs and using traditional print or broadcast media.
3. 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 and 2016, almost all of them pointed to building brand awareness as the most effective use of social media. Last year executives were least likely to agree that social media is effective in generating leads/sales. This year that distinction went to the statement indicating that their social media efforts have been effective. It may be that both statements point to a belief that social media use does not necessarily result in increasing the bottom line. (See Figure 6)
|Statements||% Agree (2015)||% Agree (2016)||% Agree (2017)|
|Social media is effective in building brand awareness.||98%||94%||95%|
|Social media is effective in creating relationships with consumers/customers.||88%||85%||86%|
|Our company’s efforts in social media have been effective for us.||79%||83%||71%|
|Being active on social media is essential for our business success.||76%||81%||78%|
|Social media is effective in generating leads/sales.||74%||78%||78%|
4. 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 being the subject of debate.
Twelve percent of the 2017 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan. This is a decrease of 9% from 2016. Thirty-eight percent have a social media plan incorporated into their marketing/business plan (50% in 2016). Fifty percent still do not have any form of a written social media plan. It appears that dedicated social media policies are still not the norm.
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 saw a significant increase in concern about negative attacks as 39% of Inc. 500 companies now have a strategy in place. This year 30% reported having a crisis plan.
5. Concerns Using Social Media
Executives interviewed were asked about concerns in their company regarding their use of social media. For the past 3 years, return on investment and resources devoted to social media were the top two concerns. Legal and ethical issues are relatively less concerning.
Social media ROI is a central concern among CEO’s with more than half reporting some degree of concern about resources 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.) It may be time for some evaluation and perhaps limiting resources that go into tools or platforms that are less effective in achieving company goals. (See Figure 7)
|Concerns Regarding Social Media||% Concerned (2015)||% Concerned (2016)||% Concerned (2017)|
|Return on Investment||36%||59%||55%|
|Resources devoted to social media||31%||52%||38%|
6. Future Spending
Executives were asked what their company might be spending more on in the next year. Websites are the spending target of choice for more than 2/3’s of the Inc. 500, followed by online marketing. The least targeted area for increased spending is print or direct mail.
In the early years of this study, the highlights were 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 2017 Inc. 500 appear to have a similar profile in terms of social media usage as they have had for the past few years. The only exceptions are the rise in blogs and continued growth of Instagram. The most interesting findings come from our interviews with Inc. 500 executives. Their conversations paint a picture of a changing relationship between business and social media.
There are 377 companies with active Twitter accounts yet 4% of our executives described Twitter as the most effective social media tool/platform for their company. These accounts continue to be maintained with all 377 having recent posts. This might be a contributing factor to the concern with ROI and resources 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 generate sales. They are quick to say that social media is effective in building brand awareness but are less likely than in the past to create written social media plans or policies. When asked about plans for spending in the next year, they cite website improvements as their number one target.
These fast growing companies have established themselves on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Instagram. They know which 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. Social media may not have turned out to be the silver bullet for businesses. It appears to be time for reevaluation of the role of social media in business. Where do these tools fit in the marketing mix? Which accounts should be supported and which should be closed? 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.
It is also time to reexamine metrics for ROI. Social media may generate positive reviews, electronic word of mouth support, help reputation, promote brand awareness, and contribute in ways that are more difficult to measure than sales. These contributions may be equally valuable and need to be captured in our analytics and factored into our strategic marketing decisions.
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.
Barnes is a frequent speaker at corporate meetings and keynote at conferences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minh Dai Trang Tran, MBA Candidate
Minh Dai Trang Tran is a 2018 graduate of UMass Dartmouth with a Master in Business Administration degree with a concentration in Business Analytics and Marketing after receiving her BS in Banking at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. She is a Graduate Assistant in the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She has conducted qualitative and quantitative research with a range of business clients.
She can be reached at email@example.com
Nadia Khalil, MSF
Nadia Khalil holds an MSc in Finance from the London School of Economics and a BSc in Economics from the Kuwait University. She has her own creative consultancy – Opus Eternum – and is currently working as a Marketing Research Assistant at the Center for Marketing Research, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Shannen Pavao, MBA Candidate
Shannen Pavao works as a Graduate Assistant in the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where she obtained a BS in Marketing and a minor in Management. She is experienced in both quantitative and qualitative marketing research. She has also conducted research for local businesses and has studied the social media use of the 2017 Fortune500.
She can be reached at email@example.com.
Kylie Maloney, MBA Candidate
Kylie Maloney is a graduate student at UMass Dartmouth after receiving her A.B.A from Bristol Community College, and BS in Marketing from UMass Dartmouth. She is continuing 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 both qualitative and quantitative research for a range of business clients. She also assists in producing graphics/promotional material for the Center.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.