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A new study shows eight out of 10 U.S. companies are present on Facebook, 48 percent are on LinkedIn, 45 percent are on Twitter and 31 percent use YouTube.
But in their efforts to connect with customers in a digital relationship, many might not be employing effective strategies to get the most out of social media, while others lack the commitment required to make the undertaking pay off.
The study by InSites Consulting surveyed 1,222 managers and concluded that a digital gap might be forming in the corporate world between companies who use social media, and those who don't, with the latter in peril of being left behind. But beyond that, even though companies might be active on the most popular sites, industry experts say that doesn't guarantee success.
Jeff Larson, assistant professor of marketing at Brigham Young University, said many business owners are still unsure of how to use social media.
"The parameters are up in the air," Larson said. "You have to attract customers to the Facebook page and then ask, 'What do we do with it?' It's very ill defined.
"I would differentiate between being on Facebook and using it. I would wager that 50 percent of companies are merely on Facebook and not posting on it. It requires a lot of resources. It's a very difficult endeavor."
Business-to-consumer companies are believed to benefit most from social media. Interacting directly with customers over Facebook or Twitter can foster the feeling of a relationship between the two parties, said Evin Catlett, a social media director for Salt Lake City marketing company, Richter7.
"The number one thing companies should be doing is listening," Catlett said. "Facebook gives an opportunity for a deeper conversation, and getting a bigger collection of followers. It allows companies to go a little bit deeper in terms of engaging an audience."
Catlett said companies should not be dictating conversations, but rather letting consumers drive conversations and then responding to appropriate inquiries.
She believes a comprehensive advertising strategy is needed, or companies can fall behind other market leaders.
"[Social media] is integration as opposed to favoring one platform over another. The most successful businesses are hitting their customers in so many ways."
Larson takes it a step further, cautioning businesses not to rely too much on social media advertising. He said a goal should be to interact with consumers on a smaller level, and not overstate efforts to make a broader connection.
"A lot of times companies overestimate the want for consumers to be connected with the company," Larson said. "The vast majority of customers want to buy the product, and be done with you."
The Gastronomy restaurant chain, for one, is taking that tack.
The efforts it takes to monitor the social media realm is a large undertaking, said Steve Field, marketing director for the Salt Lake City-based group.
"[Social media] is so overwhelming. Our budget, as far as marketing, is lean and mean. For us to be involved with social media, we'd have to hire on two or three more people."
There are, however, benefits that can sometimes justify the costs. Companies watching their Facebook or Twitter profiles can read what consumers are saying about their products. Instead of guessing what consumers buy, advertising can focus on certain products.
But that's only if businesses use social media in a productive way.
Field said his restaurants and markets, including Market Street Grill and New Yorker, use Facebook to post upcoming deals and specials. Although Market Street Grill has almost 1,000 "likes," an email list of about 17,000 is still the primary advertising method. Field said his company doesn't often discuss social media in the overall corporate strategy, nor does it devote significant time and energy.
"We will bring [social media] up at our weekly meetings, but it's not our main focus," he said. "A lot of businesses put a lot of investments into social media and don't see a return."
Zions First National Bank, on the other hand, has committed itself to social media, hiring a three-person team to handle its Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn sites.
"We've integrated the overall corporate fabric with the marketing group, so we're not a silo," said Mario Colosimo, Zion's social media manager. "We try to adapt the traditional marketing initiatives and come up with cool uses for social media."
Social media and U.S. businesses
80 percent • Use Facebook
48 percent • Use LinkedIn
45 percent • Use Twitter
31 percent • Use YouTube
83 percent • Said they respond to questions via social media
11 percent • Are integrating social media into corporate strategy
Source • InSites Consulting
Business social media tips
Engage in comments on Facebook and Twitter
Use social media to conduct contests or advertise deals
Integrate social media into an overall corporate advertising strategy
Email lists are good. But successful companies are using all platforms