So says the SMB Group's latest annual social business study: 63% of mid-size companies (101-1,000 employees) and 53% of small businesses (1-100 employees) report using social technologies for business purposes, up from 52% and 44% respectively in 2011. Yet although adoption continues its rise, the number of SMBs using social as part of a strategic business plan has stagnated. In fact, ad-hoc usage has risen significantly among mid-size businesses while structured social strategies have ebbed.
"Most of them are still throwing spaghetti against a wall," said SMB Group partner Laurie McCabe in an interview.
The spaghetti sometimes sticks; the baptism-by-fire approach can produce results. McCabe notes that it's possible for smaller businesses to infer that social is working--what she called "ROI by gut feel." In some cases, SMBs can literally see it working in their daily operations, such as how social can transform a retail experience, or how sharing can turn something small into something massive overnight.
Of course, when it doesn't stick, you've just got a big, messy waste. More importantly, a lack of strategy might correspond to a lack of bottom-line impact: The study noted a link between strategic social use and higher expectations for revenue growth rates among SMBs. Strategic users were also much more likely to have already integrated social media with existing business applications and processes, such as CRM, customer support, and product development.
So what's standing in the way of better planning, measurement, integration, and bottom-line results? As part of its report, the SMB Group asked respondents to list the top five impediments to getting value from social business. Here's what SMBs had to say about their struggles with strategic social business.
1. Not enough time. A lack of time was the clear number-one issue for small businesses, with 62% citing it as a roadblock to effective social engagement. Mid-size businesses are similarly pressed: One in three said time was a problem, making it their second-largest challenge. "This is just one more thing these guys have to do, and they're probably already wearing several hats," McCabe said. "Most small companies aren't going to hire someone just to do this. A lot of [SMBs] are going to hit a wall because they just don't have the time [for social strategy]."
2. Too many social sites. The time issue compounds as the number of social platforms continues growing. Facebook still leads the pack of social sites used by SMBs, according to the study. But McCabe notes its lead is dwindling as more companies add Pinterest, LinkedIn, and others to their to-do lists. That in and of itself is a problem, and not simply one of time: Both small (24%) and mid-size (30%) companies said they're confused about which strategies and sites make sense for their business.
3. Too tough to measure. Nearly half of mid-size firms said they're "unable to accurately measure the value of our social media," making it their top problem. The same struggle ranks second among small businesses. Some of that might be a function of social's relative youth. McCabe notes that the study found relatively few SMBs using any of the existing free or paid tools for social monitoring management, though adoption has risen significantly since 2011. Still, just one in four mid-size businesses, for example, is using any free or paid social monitoring tools. "It's a legitimate problem," McCabe said. A lack of measurement is likely reinforcing a corresponding lack of strategy: There's little point in defining goals and processes if there is no good way to evaluate progress, the mindset goes.
4. Ill-fitting tools and services. There is indeed an emerging menu of social monitoring and management tools. But are they the right tools? "I don't really know if there are many that are really designed with SMBs in mind, especially small businesses," McCabe said. Moreoever, because of the problem of time--and in some cases technical or skill limitations--SMBs aren't likely to deploy a command-center approach that involves myriad tools and services operating simultaneously. They need something deployed in a single, easy-to-use format for all of their social activities, including metrics, McCabe said.
5. Confusing customer sentiment. When a customer tweets "you stink," it's pretty easy to grasp what they're saying. But SMBs have a tougher time understanding--much less acting on--more nuanced feedback from the social universe. Even complaints can take various forms, and there's no simple formula for handling all of them. "What [SMBs] are saying is, look, I see this whirlwind of information swirling around on these social networks," McCabe said. "But I can't really figure out what it means."
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