In fall 2011, 81 percent of more than 1,500 small businesses surveyed across the U.S. reported using social media as a marketing tool, up from 73 percent just six months prior, according to Constant Contact's Fall 2011 Attitudes and Outlook Survey.
However, Dan Kraus, president of Leading Results, a Charlotte, N.C.-based marketing consultation company for small businesses, said that while almost all of the 250 small businesses it's worked with over the past three years are using social media, the term "use" can be broad.
"For some people it's simply a matter of 'I have a LinkedIn profile, and I'll try to keep it up to date;' they might have a Facebook, but they don't really do anything with it; they might have thrown a few videos on YouTube, but that's it," Kraus said. "I think the percentage of small businesses actively using social media as part of their marketing strategy is about 10 percent."
The reasoning behind this lower percentage in small businesses stems from two places, Kraus said: the amount of time required to actively maintain a social media presence and the uncertainty behind its results.
"Part of the challenge of social for a small business owner is that it takes a lot of time and they don't know what they're going to get out of it," Kraus said. "The ones that are doing it actively are spending time on LinkedIn, participating in groups, and are doing things that get people involved."
In the company's exploration of different social media sites, NWN's Linder also cited LinkedIn as a good way to reach out to customers in the business-to-business market.
"There are people looking at us on Facebook, and we can track that, but LinkedIn is a better [forum for customers]," Linder said. "It's hard to quantify the other side, but you know as a whole all those [marketing] touches and that rich communication with our customers makes a difference."
Despite the challenges of social media use for small businesses, Constant Contact's Schmulen said they are beginning to see the value of the two-way communication available through social media.
"[It] is a great way to connect and build deeper relationships with existing customers, and it's a great way to meet new customers through sharing," Schmulen said. "When they engage with you, their friends see that engagement, [and] it's that peer-to-peer recommendation that has such a big influence on consumer behavior."
David Ryan, marketing director at Chesapeake Systems, a Baltimore, Md.-based Apple VAR, said that although it may not be a priority for some small businesses, social media is an important aspect of doing business in the 21st Century.
"I'm very much a believer that online marketing is essential these days. Unless you have more clients than you can handle, then you need to be involved in online marketing," Ryan said. "I believe that there needs to be an in-sync strategy to make online marketing successful. There's nothing new here. ... You have to make a value proposition and answer the questions of the customer."
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