Love it or loathe it, social media is now a firm fixture in many people's lives, with analysts saying that a full 25% of all online activity today occurs on social media channels.
From Twitter to LinkedIn, the web today is awash with users collaborating, researching and even making purchasing decisions on social networking sites.
However, there is a marked difference between the approach taken to social network engagement between larger organisations and small to medium businesses (SMBs). The latter appear to be taking to the new channels with gusto, whereas research just out from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) found larger organisations could not disagree more.
The CIM survey of almost 1,000 marketers at larger organisations, located mainly in the UK and Western Europe, found that one-third do not believe social media is at all effective. The research reveals that large businesses are not using social media on a daily basis, which suggests that many are unaware of how social media engagement really works, or how to leverage it to see positive return on time and investment.
Nearly 40% of businesses surveyed reported that they use Twitter and Facebook once a day or more, but an average of 37% said they use them several times a week to once a week. One-quarter reported using the social media platforms even less frequently.
These findings show that marketers are struggling to understand the benefits of frequently and consistently engaging on social media platforms.
The reasons businesses cited for using social media were varied within the study. Nearly a third said that in 2011 their use of social media was 'just experimenting'. This raises doubts if businesses really know about the basics of social media as the four social media platforms used in the survey - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube - are all well established globally.
LinkedIn and Twitter were ranked among the highest social media platforms for sourcing new customers, generating inquiries, performing market research and intelligence as well as promoting brand and reputation.
The top reasons businesses reported as to why they use social media were supporting aspects of a campaign, regular communication with current customers and adding value to the company's reputation.
Yet larger companies still felt that social media does not provide commercial potential. The idea that the use of social media can help in attracting new customers was met with doubt.
The marketers' overall view of the effectiveness of social media channels was quite low, with fewer than one in five rating highly any of the four channels, while significantly more said using social media platforms was 'not effective' rather than 'effective'.
Less than 10% of marketers believe their skills are optimal for 2012, and 20% of businesses acknowledge they are ill-equipped in the area of social media. According to the survey, a quarter of those interviewed have yet to address the lack of competency in their social media interactions, suggesting social media-savvy staff are few and far between, particularly in the large enterprise group.
The CIM research also revealed that many marketers do not believe that social media could help with gaining new customers, preferring to stick to traditional marketing methods. Businesses preferred to use social media only to interact with existing customers.
Social media is an investment that requires continuous attention. The level of engagement needed for it does not typically accompany that of traditional media, and it is rather different from more traditional communication and marketing channels.
UK head of display for YouTube, Dara Nasr, tells CBR that social media marketing within businesses is essential. "25% of all online activity is social media," he says. "If more and more people are spending time online in social media, that's where they're spending their leisure time. That's the whole point of marketing: to hit people where they're spending their time."
It's a very different story, however, in the SMB segment, where research suggests businesses are finding that social media interactions can bring in business. A 2011 study by Constant Contact revealed that 45% of SMEs in the UK and US believe that social media worked well when interacting with customers and promoting their brand.
The Constant Contact and CIM research findings reveal that large businesses and SMBs have different approaches to utilising social media.
Further research from Constant Contact as we went to press revealed that while social media use among SMBs is actually under 50% today, only four out of 10 firms in this category said they feel they need to know more about how to use social media marketing.
The Constant Contact study also saw an increase of 24% in the number of SMBs reporting that social media was easier to navigate than the year before, and a 45% rise in businesses saying it worked well with customers. Some 81% of UK and US SMBs reported that they dedicate a significant amount of time to social media, up 8% from the year before.
The general manager of Constant Contact, Mark Schmulen, says small businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the power of social media. "They are still learning how social media marketing can help them grow their customer relationships," says Schmulen. "Just six months ago they were learning the ropes and finding out what social media marketing tools were available, now they are beginning to understand more about what social media marketing can do for them."
SMBs have started to become aware of the growing consumer desire to communicate across social media platforms, with 60%saying they have started consistently speaking with consumers in this way.
"Plain and simple, customers want small businesses to interact with them, whether that's on email or via their social media platform of choice, be it Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn," says Schmulen. "It's a great example of how small businesses are taking advantage of their smaller scale to make a huge impact with these tools."
The Constant Contact report supports a recent study by Deloitte, which estimated that social networking site Facebook supports the UK economy to the tune of £2bn a year.
Meanwhile, the founder and CEO of freelance job site PeoplePerHour.com, Xenios Thrasyvoulou, believes sites such as Facebook should be regarded as much more than just a social network.
"There's a perception that Facebook is almost exclusively used for personal relationships, but that couldn't be further from the truth," says Thrasyvoulou. "As our survey findings demonstrate, Facebook is an increasingly crucial technology for businesses as well."
The COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, argues that social media increases business growth. In a statement on Deloitte's findings about Facebook's impact on the economy, Sandberg says: "Increasingly, social media means growth and jobs. Social media is proving particularly valuable for small and medium-sized businesses, which form the backbone of the European economy."
So why are large businesses finding social media ineffective? Debby Penton, managing director at public relations firm EML Wildfire, believes that brands need to understand that social media marketing is completely different from traditional marketing.
"To be truly effective, social media requires a different mindset entirely to traditional 'push marketing'," Penton says. "Brands haven't factored this into their thinking when using social media. With correct foresight and planning, social media can be a wonderfully effective and cost-efficient way of developing relationships with end users and achieving bottom-line returns."
The majority of marketers believe that 'doing' social media is more important than listening when engaging on social media platforms, according to CIM's research.
One of the biggest benefits in social media is the ability to see what large amounts of consumers think about a brand, and listening on social media platforms is a vital way of knowing what consumers want. The fact that most marketers think listening on social media platforms is unimportant shows that large businesses have a long way to go in terms of understanding how to leverage these new channels.
Businesses may also need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable on social media platforms.
"Social media is like teenage sex - everyone wants to do it. When they do they're a bit disappointed, but they practice and it gets much better," says LinkedIn's EMEA marketing solutions director, Josh Graff, in response to the research released by the CIM.
Graff's telling analogy means that businesses should be investing ample time on social media platforms, trying new methods and generally familiarising themselves with social media sites and the social landscape.
The best way to get to know social media is to encourage staff to use it and understand its nuances, while planning a social media strategy rather than simply attempting one-off campaigns is also sensible. The usual preparation that you would expect in other fields - for example staff training, setting a social media policy for the group and monitoring activity for success and failure - all apply to social media.
Investing ample time in social media platforms while engaging on a frequent basis could be the key to helping larger organisations see positive returns from social media presence. After all, if SMBs can make social media work for their businesses it seems counter-intuitive that their larger counterparts should not be able to find their own value from social media engagement.