Small Business Owners Are Social but Not Self-Promoting

by Kevin Casey on December 10, 2010
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You like your social networks, but you’re not necessarily using them to pump up your business. That’s the message of a new survey, conducted by Discover, which shows the number of small business owners who belong to at least one social site has nearly tripled during the past three years. But while 59% of respondents said they’d joined a social network site as of October, only 29% have actually used social media to promote their business.

Discover’s poll, part of the credit card issuer’s Small Business Watch series, first asked business owners about their social media habits in 2007 — although at the time the question referenced use of a “popular general-interest online community.” Back in those olden days, 22% said “yes,” compared with 59% in the most recent survey. And there has been a significant spike just in 2010: In a similar survey in April, 48% of business owners said they belonged to a social site.

Some of the growth should simply be attributed to general adoption of social media. Just this week, for example, a new study by the Pew Research Center found that 8% of all American adults on the internet use Twitter. Pretty good for a site that just celebrated its fourth birthday in July.

What catches the eye here is the wide gap between owners who said they’re members of a social network and those who said they’ve used it to market their business. General use more than doubled business use. So what gives?

Discover’s survey, though it counts a decent sample size of 750 owners, only included those businesses with less than five employees. It could be that the smallest of small businesses simply don’t have the time or resources to devote to much in the way of social marketing, no matter how low the barrier to entry. On the other hand, social media’s low costs would seem particularly attractive to smaller firms looking to market on a shoestring.

It’s also possible that — gasp! — there is such a thing as work-life balance, even for owners who seem to pour their lives into their businesses. In other words: You’re using social sites to socialize, not to do business. Or it could simply be a matter of adoption — we’re just now seeing social media make its way into the small business mainstream.

Regardless of the reason behind the disparity, let’s not get carried away: It’s a valid study, but by no means comprehensive.

Of those who do use social media for their business, the runaway reason was to get new customers: 48% of owners listed finding new business leads as their primary goal on social sites, and 31% said online networking has had an impact on their bottom line. That stat is one of those fun little survey discrepancies: It’s a couple of points higher than the percentage who said they’d used social media to promote their business at all.

If you’re not using your favorite social site as a business tool,  the survey has a reason to start: Of the 3,000 consumers Discover polled, more than one in three said they would consider using a service or small business they heard about on a social or business networking site.

So how social are you? Or, better yet: How social is your business?

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