Reassessing Both Social Media Tools & Paid vs. Free Social Advertising: The Evolving 2018 Inc. 500

The study presented here focuses on the 2018 Inc. 500 and was conducted under the direction of researcher Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes.

Conducted by:

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D (

Nadia Khalil, MSF (

Shannen Pavao, MBA (


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 12 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 2018 Inc. 500 companies, including details and selected data, please visit Inc. Magazine’s website at

The study presented here focuses on the 2018 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 2018. 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 2018 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. 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 twelve companies (22%) were interviewed in this stage.

The 2018 Inc. 500 executives responding are a diverse group, representing all 25 industries in the Inc. 500 list. They have annual company revenues ranging from $2M to over $400M with 46% of them falling between $3M-$10.9M. 73% of the companies were launched between 2012 and 2017 while 20% were launched between 2008 and 2011. The most prominent industries were software (11%), advertising and marketing (10%), and consumer products and services (8%).

Key Highlights

  • 94% of the Inc. 500 use at least one social media platform vs. 96% in 2017.
  • For the second 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.
  • LinkedIn and Facebook both experienced double-digit declines in use in 2018 among Inc. 500 companies compared to 2016 and 2017, with Facebook replacing LinkedIn as the most utilized platform.
  • For the first time in nine years, a greater proportion of Fortune 500 companies use blogs compared to that of Inc. 500 companies.
  • 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.
  • Instagram adoption declined from 49% to 47% in the past year – the first decline since 2013.
  • 21% of the 2018 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan, nearly doubling from 2017 (12%).

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. Figure 1 depicts social media usage for the last three years among Inc. 500 companies. Ninety-four percent of the companies use at least one form of social media. This is a decrease of 2% indicating that the use of social media among high-growth companies has tapered off or that the current mix of companies on the list has impacted usage. 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 the government services industry have an active social media presence vs. 94% for the entire cohort.

Figure 1

The data appears to indicate declines of varying degrees in the use of major platforms between 2017 and 2018. It may be that companies established their social media presence years ago and may now be reevaluating their presence on these platforms. Blogging has seen a similar decline.

In spite of any declines in overall social media use, companies continue to use LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. However, the effectiveness of the platforms are evaluated differently. 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. Therefore, companies have not changed their perception of the relative importance and unimportance of different social media platforms.

For the first time since 2010, LinkedIn is not the most utilized platform among the Inc. 500. Its adoption dropped from 92% in 2017 to 78% in 2018. Facebook usage also declined over the past year from 90% to 80%. 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. Given the double digit decreases in the use of these once omnipresent tools, there is clearly some reevaluation taking place.

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 six years of this research. Blogging is the third most effective social media tool, as it is now adopted and maintained by 50% of companies.

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 constantly increasing adoption of Instagram whereas the Inc. 500 companies appear to have leveled off in Instagram adoption within the last year.

Figure 2

1b. Fortune 500 Overtakes Inc.500 in Blogging

For the first 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 2010 to 2018. The frequency of blogs has fluctuated in each year for both segments, and until 2018, the Inc. 500 consistently had higher percentages. Currently, 53% of the Fortune 500 and 50% of the Inc. 500 use blogs to engage their audience.

Figure 3

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

The 397 companies (80%) 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 SleekEZ with 3.3 million likes. As the only pet product to make it to the Inc. 500, SleekEZ relies on reaching consumers to promote its product through its Twitter account (on which it has 242,000 followers) and its Facebook page in addition to maintaining its LinkedIn account. In second place is Bustle Digital Group with 1.8 million likes. Bustle Digital Group is a digital content publisher geared towards millennial women, and it uses social media to share its content with its intended demographic. In third place is Saved By The Dress, followed by Mindful Health and Yoga International. In 2017, no overlap existed between top five most popular companies on Facebook and the top five most popular companies on Twitter. However, in 2018 two of the five most popular companies are common between both platforms: SleekEZ and Yoga International.

Figure 4

CompanyFacebook Likes
SleekEZ 3.3m
Bustle Digital Group 1.8m
Saved By The Dress 1.7m
Mindful Health 1.4m
Yoga International 1.2m

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 Mesosphere with 439k, SleekEZ with 242k, Udacity with 201k, Whistle Sports with 154k, and Yoga International with 154k followers. It is interesting to note that the Facebook likes above are reported in millions while the Twitter followers are reported in the hundreds of thousands.

Figure 5

CompanyTwitter Followers
Mesosphere 439,000
SleekEZ 242,000
Udacity 201,000
Whistle Sports 154,000
Yoga International 153,000

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. Fifty-six percent 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 29% increase 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 now possible through social media. As big data grows in importance, companies are 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 2015 through 2017, 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, and that social media is effective in generating leads/sales. This again reinforces the belief that social media does not automatically result in increasing the bottom line.

Figure 6

Statements% Agree (2015)% Agree (2016)% Agree (2017)% Agree (2018)
Social media is effective in building brand awareness 98% 94% 95% 96%
Social media is effective in creating relationships with consumers/customers 88% 85% 86% 92%
Our company’s efforts in social media have been effective for us 79% 83% 71% 78%
Being active on social media is essential for our business success 76% 81% 78% 84%
Social media is effective in generating leads/sales 74% 78% 78% 80%

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  that 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.Twenty-one percent of the 2018 Inc. 500 have a stand-alone social media plan. This ratio has nearly doubled from 2017 (12%) indicating a sudden growing need to explicitly address social media on its own. Forty-three percent have a social media plan incorporated into their marketing/business plan (38% in 2017). Thirty-five percent still do not have any form of a written social media plan, a decline from fifty percent in 2017. 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). In 2014, 34% reported having a crisis plan, which dropped to 27% in 2015. 2016 saw a significant rise in concern about negative attacks as 39% of Inc. 500 companies set a strategy in place. In 2017, 30% reported having a crisis plan. This year, 41% of companies reported having a crisis plan. The perceived importance of maintaining an online reputation as well as the integrity of their social media accounts has increased as the incidence of online hacks and attacks have become more prevalent.

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 2018, the top two concerns are return on investment and privacy issues. Analytics and ethical issues are relatively less concerning. This change reflects the spotlight put on online privacy issues in 2018.Social media ROI is a central concern among CEO’s with slightly less than half (a 15-point decline from 2017) reporting some degree of concern about resources devoted to this channel, and whether the returns warrant the effort. As platforms become more and more alike in their capabilities, some consolidation might be in order. Studies report that as many as 76% of U.S. adults with internet access use Facebook. Facebook could become a primary platform while others may provide niche access (e.g., Pinterest for women or Instagram for youth). It may be time for evaluation and limitation of resources invested in tools or platforms that are less effective in achieving company goals.

Figure 7

Concerns Regarding Social Media% Concerned(2015)% Concerned(2016)% Concerned(2017)% Concerned(2018)
Return on Investment 36% 59% 55% 48%
Resources devoted to social media 31% 52% 38% 37%
Privacy Issues 33% 42% 33% 38%
Analytics 28% 41% 35% 31%
Legal Issues 28% 36% 28% 35%
Ethical Issues 22% 32% 24% 28%

Future Spending

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

Figure 8

Website Improvements 66%
Email Marketing 46%
Software for Tracking Customers 44%
Paid Ads on Social Media Sites 39%
Public Relations 38%
Print Advertising 21%

Potential for Increasing Sales

The intention of social media use for many companies is often to ultimately reach potential and existing customers in order to increase sales. Of the most popular social media tools, LinkedIn was selected by 40% 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 (23%) than having a Facebook account (21%) 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, 48% are considering alternatives to free social media. As popular free social media tools become more congested with users and businesses, nearly half (49%) of the companies believe the value of social media has leveled off. Over the last several years, the use of free social media among Inc. 500 companies had increased. In 2018, however, the ratio had 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 may have been directed towards paid tools instead of free platforms.

Employee Engagement

Social media initiatives are developed, run, and managed by a company’s employees. Eighty-eight 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. Furthermore, fifty-five 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, 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 2018 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 369 companies with active Twitter accounts, yet only 5% of the executives described Twitter as the most effective social media tool/platform for their company. The 369 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 generate sales.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.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 to that the role of social media in business has been 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.

Center for Marketing Research, Research