It pays off in actual business, not just buzz, says a new survey. And the more time you use it for (and the more experienced you become), the better the results.
Forget the endless speculation about whether and how and how much money social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn can make. The key question is: Can they show you the money?
The answer appears to be yes, according to a new report. One in three business owners say that social media helps them to close business. That percentage may yet improve – 74 percent of small business owners who were early adopters, and have been using social media for years, say it's helped them close business, according to the 2010 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, which surveyed 1,898 small business owners.
What's more, a resounding 85 percent of those surveyed say that the platform has created buzz for their businesses. (For the record, 91 percent of all respondents use social media.)
Other benefits (in the order in which they ranked): The medium increases web traffic and opens opportunities to build new partnerships. More than half of respondants said social media generates good sales leads. And a couple of fringe benefit: Some three-quarters (73 percent) reported a significant rise in search engine rankings, which feeds exposure. Nearly half (48 percent) said social media reduced their overall marketing expenses (up from 35 percent in the 2009 survey). Marketing expert Michael Stelzner, founder of SocialMediaExaminer.com, put together the report.
The median age of respondents was 40 to 49, and the respondent pool was 60 percent female. More than half (56 percent) said they currently devote six hours or more per week to social media, and 30 percent spend upwards of 11 hours. A hardcore 12.5 percent are spending more than 20 hours per week.
Yes, there is a relationship between weekly time commitment and length of time using social media: The longer someone's been using it, the more time he or she spends. For newbies the median weekly time commitment is an hour a week; for those doing it for just a few months or longer, the median is 10 hours per week. (If spending half your week on social media sounds daunting, take heart: even with a "minimal time investment" – less than five hours – 78 percent reported social media helped create buzz. Need more guidance? According to the 2009 report, around six hours seems to be the minimum requirement for serious results, with "nearly all" who spent six plus hours finding "exceptionally positive results.")
Which tools are they using? Though social media giant Facebook has 400 million users – and recently topped Google in directing web traffic – it's Twitter that topped the list, with 88 percent saying they tweet. Right on its heels was Facebook (87 percent), then LinkedIn (78 percent) and blogs (70 percent.) Those four were far and away the top choices, with the next closest tool – YouTube and other video – coming in at 46 percent. Facebook was in fourth place, with 77 percent using it in the 2009 report.
The report breaks down the use of tools among business owners who are new to social media, those who've been doing it for a few months, and those who've used it for years. Twitter is tops for the second two groups, although newcomers are more likely to opt for Facebook. The numbers: 80 percent of newbies are using Facebook, 71 percent are on Twitter, 67 percent are on LinkedIn, and 49 percent are blogging. Of the long-term users: 96 percent are on Twitter, 91 percent use Facebook, and 89 percent are LinkedIn, and 86 percent blog.
If you're still sorting out your social media options, consider these two trends the report suggests: MySpace may not be worth your time, with a whopping 80 percent of those surveyed said they have no plans to use it or will reduce their efforts. And plain old blogs were the top choice (81 percent of those surveyed) for where marketers planned to spend more time.
Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.