LinkedIn Dominates, Twitter Trends and Facebook Falls: The 2014 Inc. 500 and Social Media

Conducted by:

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D. (nbarnes@umassd.edu)

Ava M.  Lescault, MBA (alescault@umassd.edu)

Kevin D. Augusto, MBA Candidate (kaugusto@umassd.edu)

 

Introduction

The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth recently conducted its annual in-depth study on the usage of social media by the fastest-growing corporations in the US.  This new study revisits the Center’s work on the Inc. 500 social media usage for the eighth consecutive year, making it a valuable and rare longitudinal study of corporate use of new communication tools.

The Inc. 500 comes from the list of the fastest-growing private US companies compiled annually by Inc. Magazine.  For details about the 2014 Inc. 500 and the complete directory of the included companies, please visit Inc. Magazine’s website at www.Inc.com.

As in the earlier studies, the 2014 study, under the direction of researchers Nora Ganim Barnes and Ava Lescault, is the result of a nationwide telephone survey of those companies named by Inc. Magazine to the Inc. 500 list for 2014.  All interviews took place in the fall of 2014.  The businesses on the list include a wide range of industries from IT Services to Health as well as Environmental Services.

The research presented here was conducted using two approaches.  First, every company named to the 2014 Inc. 500 list was examined in order to determine which social media tools they were using.  Each homepage was reviewed in addition to the entire website (since some did not link to their accounts from the homepage).  Search engines were also utilized to find an online presence if none was obvious after reviewing the website.  All of the 2014 Inc. 500 were included in this part of the process.

Our second level of research involved interviewing a random sample of executives from the Inc. 500 list to ask questions with a specific focus on issues such as social commerce, mobile, online crisis management and social media policies.  One hundred ten interviews were conducted representing 22% of the Inc. 500.  All issues in this study were also examined using the same methodology in the 2013 study, allowing us to provide trend data.

The responding executives represent a diverse group, which consists of 21 of the 26 industries on the 2014 Inc. 500 list.  Eighteen percent of the companies surveyed made the top 100 on the list (9 are ranked in the top 25).  Respondents reported annual company revenues ranging from under $3M to over $150M with 46% of them falling between $3m-$10m.  Approximately two-thirds of the sample has 1-50 employees and 64% were founded between the years 2008-2011.

This latest iteration proves once again that social media has penetrated parts of the business world at a tremendous speed.  It also indicates that corporate usage of social media within the Inc. 500 has changed in the past 12 months.

 

Study Highlights:

  • LinkedIn continues to be the platform of choice (94%) among the Inc. 500 for the 3rd year in a row while Facebook presence drops to 80% and Twitter rises to 79% this year.
  • Blogging declined among the 2014 Inc. 500 for the first time in 8 years. (A decline in blogging was also recorded among the 2014 Fortune 500.)
  • 7% of the 2014 Inc. 500 have a stand alone social media policy (down 6%), 20% have a written social media plan (down 9%) and 34% have an online crisis management strategy (down 9%).
  • More than three-fourths of the 2014 Inc. 500 have made accommodations for mobile customers, including providing downloadable apps or optimizing websites for mobile.  The use of SMS/text message marketing dropped 5% from 2013.
  • GoPro (Cameras) and Refinery29 (US Fashion and Style Website) are among the top 5 in Facebook likes, Twitter followers and Pinterest pins of the 2014 Inc. 500. 

 

Detailed Findings

1a. Inc. 500Usage of Social Media

As companies continually develop an understanding of which social media platforms best fit their needs, we see the incorporation of new platforms and tools, as well as increasing or declining use of others.  Ninety-three percent of the Inc. 500 are using at least one of the tools studied (2% less than 2013).

Of those on social media, the use of LinkedIn by Inc. 500 companies grew to 94% this year (+6%), maintaining the number one spot for the third consecutive year.  The following also saw increases: Twitter (+5%), FourSquare (+6%) and Instagram (+7%).

After seeing a significant resurgence in 2013, Facebook dropped slightly by 4% to 80% this year.  Other platforms that experienced declines among the 2014 Inc. 500 companies were blogging    (-6%), YouTube (-5%), Pinterest (-3%) and Google+ (-15%).

In 2007, the Center’s first study of this group and their use of social media was released and revealed that the Inc. 500 were outpacing the revenue-based 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 trend held steady for the past 8 years with the Inc. 500 continuously out-blogging the Fortune 500.  The most recent data collected on both groups suggests that the pattern holds with 46% of the Inc. 500 currently blogging and 31% of the Fortune 500.  However, both groups have demonstrated decreases in their use of this mature but valuable tool in 2014 versus 2013.

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

The 373 companies with corporate Facebook pages come from all industries represented in the Inc. 500.  A partial list is presented showing those companies with the greatest engagement through Facebook “likes”.

Company

2014 Facebook Likes

GoPro

8,379,355

Tough Mudder

4,102,225

Refinery29

1,959,820

Quest Nutrition

1,022,000

Lolly Wolly Doodle

1,010,660

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

On Twitter, one measure of engagement is followers.  Of the 371 Inc. 500 companies with active corporate Twitter accounts, GoPro, again, is the most popular, followed by Refinery29, Dope, Alex and Ani and Tough Mudder.

Company

2014 Twitter Followers

GoPro

1,285,460

Refinery29

728,890

Dope

162,740

Alex and Ani

160,120

Tough Mudder

147,355

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

Pinterest has grown in membership since its public debut in 2010.  This year, 140 of the Inc. 500 companies (28%) are pinning.  The following are the most popular on the platform.

Company

2014 Pinterest Followers

Refinery29

353,070

PureWow

46,910

Alex and Ani

38,500

GoPro

28,960

Adore Me

15,660

 

2.  Social Media and Sales Growth

This year and last, executives were asked which social media platforms they felt have the most potential for sales growth for their business.  Those interviewed appear to feel less optimistic about Twitter and Pinterest in terms of their ability to generate sales than they did last year.

Fifty-five percent of the 2014 Inc. 500 executives interviewed felt that Facebook held the most potential for sales growth.  This year’s percentage is consistent with last year’s figure.

Twitter is viewed by 50% of executives as having potential for sales growth. This is an 11% decline from last year.  Twenty-five percent believe Pinterest will benefit them, a 6% decline from 2013.

Similar to last year, the majority listing “other” options cited LinkedIn as a platform that holds potential for sales growth.

 

3.  Tracking Sales through Social Media

Thirty-two percent of the executives interviewed indicated that they are tracking sales that come through their social media platforms, down from 36% in 2013.  Of those who said they are not currently tracking sales, 28% said they plan to within the next 12 months compared to 29% last year.

We also asked respondents to estimate the percent of total annual sales coming through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  Forty-four percent believe sales from social commerce are limited to less than 1%.  This is a decrease from 52% last year.  Some companies, however, estimated this channel to be more significant for them.  Four percent estimated that more than 10% of their annual sales come from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  Most estimates were similar to those made by Inc. 500 executives last year.  It is interesting to note that the percent of executive who could not estimate sales from social media has increased from 11% to 18% in one year.

 

4.  Likelihood of Purchases through Social Media

Companies were asked which of the three platforms (Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest) their customers would most likely use to purchase from them.  For the second year in a row, Facebook was mentioned the most, followed by Twitter then Pinterest.  Those that chose an alternative said LinkedIn was the most likely choice for their customers. 

 

5.  Promotional Strategies

Executives were asked to select a promotional strategy they feel has the most potential to help increase sales.  Similar to last year, online advertising (such as banners or sponsored ads) was the most often selected option with 46% believing it would benefit their company.  Seventeen percent chose listing the company in online business directories followed by social media platforms (13%).  Since many respondents considered traditional print/broadcast media to have the most potential last year, it was added as an option this year and chosen by 13% of respondents.

* Respondents who selected “other” specified word-of-mouth, referral marketing, and business-to-business networking as having the most potential for increasing sales.

 

6.  Mobile Features

Inc. 500 executives were asked if their companies have added mobile features to connect with their customers.  Seventy-nine percent of the companies said they have.  Of those, 76% indicated that their corporate website had been optimized for mobile, 17% have downloadable apps and 7% are using text message marketing.

Since a growing number of people are using smartphones to browse the web, it is not surprising that companies are focusing the most on optimizing their websites for mobile, primarily through the implementation of responsive designs.  As companies adopt more social media platforms to connect with customers, use of SMS/text message marketing appears to be declining, dropping 5% from 2013’s figures.

7.  Social Media Content Source and Goals

Another issue investigated had to do with how content was provided and the main goal of the content over different platforms.  Eighty-three percent of executives said they exclusively used original/reposted content on their social media outlets, an increase of 8% from 2013.  The remainder used a combination of original/reposted content and purchased content.

When asked to classify the goal of the content they posted, responses were predictable and similar to last year.  Those blogging sought to be informational or thought leaders in their industry.  Those using Facebook and Twitter were more focused on engagement and interaction.  Pinterest was most commonly used for product promotion.

 

8.  Social Media Policies and Tracking Software

We also continue to watch the existence of a written social media policy, strategic planning for social media and the monitoring of a company’s products and/or brands online. 

There have been a few changes in the ways companies plan their social media efforts.  Twenty-nine percent of companies have no plan in place, compared to 20% last year.  Down by 6% from last year, 7% now have stand-alone social media policies.  Similar to 2013, more than half incorporate their social media efforts into their overall marketing/business plan.

On a related topic, the executives were asked if their company has a strategy in place in the event of an online crisis (negative attack online).  In 2012, 54% of executives reported having such a strategy in place.  In 2013, that number dropped to 39%.  It has continued to decline to 34% this year.  There appears to be some thought that social media issues can be effectively managed as a part of an overall marketing or business plan. There has been little movement when it comes to having a written social media policy that guides online communications within the organization.  These documents typically speak to acceptable online behavior for all employees using social media.  Over the past 5 years, little has changed. In 2009, 36% had a written social media policy and in 2014, 40% do.  Despite well-publicized incidents of employee missteps on social media platforms, written policies are still not the norm.

All executives were asked if their company monitors its brands, products or company name in the social media space.  Sixty-two percent of companies do monitor, up from 59% last year.  However, 70% had reported to monitor brand-related conversations in 2010.  Regardless of how they choose to converse with their constituents online, the Inc. 500 will need to be aware of conversation about their company, their products and their brands.  A lack of monitoring could have consequences for companies given the potential for viral communications that social media presents.

 

Conclusion

These fast-growing US businesses are avid users of social media employing a range of tools to connect, engage, advertise and advocate.  They are incorporating social media into their strategic planning and are looking ahead to the potential of mobile social commerce.

While LinkedIn is the most utilized platform among these exceptional businesses, they have also increased their involvement with Twitter and Instagram. Despite year-to-year declines, many Inc. 500 companies continue to find success with Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest as well.

The use of blogging among these companies has seesawed from 44% in 2012 to 52% in 2013 and back down to 46% this year. Although many companies look to provide thought leadership in their industry through corporate blogs, the future growth of this maturing platform is questionable.

Facebook is seen as having the most potential for increasing sales growth with 55% of the surveyed executives acknowledging its potential. Twitter is not far behind with 50% of respondents also noting its potential. These two platforms in particular appear to be in a tight race in the minds of Inc. 500 executives as platform usage percentages have become almost identical this year (80% of these companies using social media are on Facebook while 79% are on Twitter).

The Inc. 500 companies are still trying to harness social networks and unlock their full potential.  For now, they accept the reality of these new communications tools and make strategic decisions about which ones to use.  Ultimately, the Inc. 500 are consistently turning to social media platforms to generate revenue, find new customers, create an identity and disseminate information.  It will be interesting to see where they go from here.


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.

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

 

Ava M. Lescault, MBA

Ava M. Lescault is Senior Research Associate and Associate Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Ava graduated from UMass Dartmouth with a BS in Marketing and a Master's Degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing Research. She recently completed a Certificate in Marketing Research from the University of Georgia.  Ava has worked on approximately twenty-five extensive research projects and is a published author. Her clients include the cranberry industry, the shellfish industry, a national juice manufacturer, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and a Fortune 500 company. She was the first person to hold the position of Senior Research Associate in the Center. Ava can be reached at alescault@umassd.edu.

 

Kevin D. Augusto, MBA Candidate

Kevin D. Augusto is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  Kevin graduated from UMass Dartmouth with a BS in Marketing and Management Information Systems. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration at the university. Kevin can be reached at kaugustot@umassd.edu.

 

Acknowledgement

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.

2014 Inc. 500 and Social Media

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