Are America's fastest-growing companies shifting away from blogs as a primary social media platform? One might conclude, "maybe," based on new research examining the Inc. 500
from The Center for Marketing Research
at the University of Massachusetts.
For the first time in the five years that this research has been conducted, the use of blogging declined. Blogging had been steadily climbing as a corporate communications tool—19 percent of the Inc. 500 blogged in 2007, 39 percent in 2008, 45 percent in 2009, 50 percent in 2010, and just 37 percent last year.
There is an element of mystery here. Despite the decline, blogging was considered the most "successful" social media platform for the fourth consecutive year. Among those companies not already blogging, 62 percent are considering adding a blog.
How can we reconcile these seemingly inconsistent data? Is corporate blogging really declining? I have a theory that would conclude "no," but before I explain my rationale, let's look at a few other interesting trends from this study:
Facebook and LinkedIn lead the way. For the first time, the platform used most (74 percent of companies) by the Inc. 500 is Facebook. Virtually tied with it, at 73 percent, is the professional network LinkedIn. As you can see in the accompanying graph, video and podcasting use declined in this period. The researchers theorized that companies are spending more time on Facebook, at the expense of blogs and video.
Social media tools are seen as important for company goals. Ninety percent of responding Inc. 500 executives report that social media tools are important for brand awareness and company reputation. Eighty-eight percent see these tools as important for generating online traffic, and 81 percent find them important for lead generation. Seventy-three percent say social media tools are important for customer support programs.
Social media investments will rise. Twenty-five percent of respondents say they plan to keep their social media budget the same in 2012, and 71 percent plan to increase their investment by 20 percent or more. Just one company planned to decrease its social media marketing budget.
Monitoring the social media buzz levels off. The 2011 study shows 68 percent of companies are using social media monitoring tools, down from 70 percent in 2010, which was the highest percentage of the past five years. Only 24 percent of the companies have a formal social media policy.
Measurement is inconsistent. When asked how they measured the effectiveness of their social media efforts, executives reported using fans, followers, and supporters (26 percent); Web traffic (25 percent); lead generation (16 percent); reduced cost of customer support (10 percent); and the value of sales generated through social media programs (7 percent).
The work is being handled inside. Executives were asked how social media resource needs were filled in their companies. Two-thirds of the companies reported retraining or repositioning current employees to handle their social media efforts, 10 percent use external consultants or agencies, and 7 percent have made new hires specifically for their social media efforts.
Are company blogs really declining?
If you simply read the headline of this study and look at the graph at the top of this post, you might hear a death knell for blogging. But let's not bury blogging so fast. Let's apply a little critical reasoning to this study …
- It is important to consider that the data presented by the university researchers do not constitute an apples-to-apples comparison. There is a tremendous "churn" of companies on the Inc. list. From 2007, when the survey started, to 2011, the list of companies has almost completely changed.
- The authors admit these changes have impacted the overall statistics in "distinct ways." Most notable is an increase in companies providing Government Services (a result of "Obama administration initiatives"). The researchers state that Government Services companies are among the least-likely companies to blog. So in 2011, many traditional "blogging companies" were replaced on the list by companies that are unlikely to have blogs. If the researchers surveyed the exact same sample group, blogging levels may have even gone up in 2011.
- Also notable is that more than 60 percent of the companies on the Inc. 500 list did not exist in 2005. It is possible that these startups are not moving away from blogging to Facebook as the authors surmised. I think a more likely scenario is that these young companies are starting with Facebook, because the entry barriers there are so low, compared with blogging. This would reconcile the curious fact that the companies with blogs see them as successful (why would they quit?) and that most companies that are not blogging have plans to do so.
- Finally, another possible cause of the strange drop is sampling error. Only 34 percent of the Inc. 500 companies responded to the survey. Within the stated sampling errors, it is possible to conclude that the 2010 data and 2011 data are nearly identical.
It's also interesting to note that the UMass researchers also do similar studies for nonprofits, universities, and Fortune 500 companies. In these studies—which have a relatively stable group of comparison organizations from year to year—blogging rates are level or on the rise. Why would the Inc. 500 companies be so different? I don't think they are.
Is blogging dying? We can't tell for sure, but I would not draw that conclusion from this study. What do you think? What does business blogging look like where you work?
Mark Schaefer is the author of "Return on Influence," and he blogs at grow, where a version of this article originally appeared.