Companies are increasingly using leading social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to get their message out, but some recent research indicates many are going beyond the most popular brands both for marketing and customer support.
Social media writer and consultant Paul Gillin said the early returns from a survey he just finished across a mix of companies large and small shows some surprising consistency. Gillin said that on average, these companies are using eight social media platforms, compared to less than one in 2006. They also report near-unanimous satisfaction with the value and performance they're getting.
"These are preliminary results based on a small sample of 53 responses, but I was really surprised by how many social media platforms they're all using," Gillin told InternetNews.com. He said he placed particular emphasis on interviewing large, household brands including Coca-Cola, Ford Motor, Cisco, Dell and Sodexo.
"Companies are getting aggressive with these platforms because the down economy has forced them to be creative and cut back on some of their traditional media spend," he said. "They're trying new stuff and they're seeing a payoff."
But he admits the payoff is more subjective than a clear return on investment. "I didn't find anyone that was measuring ROI in any meaningful way," said Gillin. "For the most part, I think it's a feeling that being closer to the customer pays off."
For example, he noted that Comcast, which has weathered serious reputation problems for poor customer support, has garnered "tons of free publicity" for its presence on Twitter, where it has about 50 different accounts. A Comcast official told Gillin the company responds to between 400 and 500 customer comments per day.
"That number is small potatoes for a company like Comcast; it's a rounding error, but the PR from that and the perception that Comcast is trying harder is invaluable," said Gillin.
Among the top eight social media platforms companies surveyed reported using, microblogging -- Twitter, for instance -- leads in popularity. That's followed by Facebook fan pages, business blogs, YouTube or other video and a LinkedIn company page. Text or SMS-based social media comes next in popularity, followed by podcasting.
While Twitter, blogs and Facebook fan pages were well ahead of the rest of the pack in adoption, Gillin said LinkedIn was a particular favorite with business-to-business companies.
One interesting twist in Gillin's research was the experience of candy bar maker Mars. The company has one of the largest fan pages on Facebook for its Skittles candy, with almost four million fans. That number outstrips the number of fans for Mars's signature M&M brand by nearly seven to one.
"The group that markets Skittles is going whole hog with social media, and Mars seems happy to let them go after it and experiment," said Gillin.
But Mars is not alone. Gillin said nearly every company he interviewed is currently taking a decentralized approach to social media adoption, letting business units and even individuals choose the tools that make sense in their markets. "That may change as businesses seek to better leverage customers who land on their blogs or Facebook fan pages, but for now, experimentation is still the rule," he said in the report.
To date, IT departments generally don't have a big involvement in this use of external, public social networks (as opposed to internal use of social networking, which raise a number of IT-related issues, such as resource planning, security, identity, and so on.)
"There are policy issues like what people can say -- how they express themselves in online communities -- where I think you're seeing more IT involvement," Gillin said. "And on the receiving end, it's a big IT issue because over half of the big companies in the U.S. block access to sites like Facebook and YouTube."