For the third consecutive year, the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has conducted a study that looks at the usage of social media among Inc. 500 companies. The 2009 results confirm that America's fastest growing private companies adopt social media marketing initiatives at much higher rates than other companies, and that interest in social media has grown since the first study was conducted in 2007.

Conducted by researchers Nora Ganim Barnes and Eric Mattson, this year's study looked at 148 of the 500 companies on the 2009 list. As was the case in each of the past two years, respondents were asked about their usage and familiarity with six types of social media tools, including blogging, podcasting, online video, social networking, message boards, and wikis. According to the study, social media usage by companies on the Inc. 500 has grown in the past year, with 91 percent of companies reporting that they use at least one social media tool, compared with 77 percent of companies surveyed in 2008. Of the six social media categories covered in the survey, the one that continues to be the most familiar to Inc. 500 companies is social networking, with 75 percent saying that they are "very familiar with it."

To account for the rise in popularity of newer types of social media, the researchers also asked managers at these fast-growing companies about their interaction on sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace. Not surprisingly, many of these entrepreneurs have already embraced these sites as part of their business strategy, with Twitter being the most widely used among them, drawing activity from 52 percent of the respondents.

While Twitter and other social networking sites have seen significant growth in comparison to previous years, interest in some older social media tools such as message boards and podcasting has declined. But despite a decline in interest in some tools in 2009, many companies that have not yet incorporated social media in their business operations say they intend to do so in the future. For example, 44 percent of companies without a company blog say they plan to start one, and 36 percent intend to use some form of online video.

Eric Mattson, CEO of a research firm named Financial Insite and one of the head researchers in the study, believes that the high reception to social media among Inc. 500 companies is significant for several reasons. "Inc. 500 companies are focused on doing anything they can to grow faster and social media is an innovative tool that may give them an edge over their competition," he says.

Additionally, he thinks it is meaningful that the sample group consisted entirely of private companies. "There is less implication for private companies using social media – they don't have to worry about the stock market going up or down based on someone's Tweet," Mattson explains. "And often in smaller organizations, there is more room for innovation because it requires less processes to adopt."

The specific ways in which the businesses surveyed use social media tools has also evolved. As in years past, respondents were asked if they were monitoring mentions of their company name or their brands on social media sites, and 68 percent said yes, compared with 50 percent just two years ago. Lastly, 34 percent of companies reported that they were using social media to communicate with vendors and suppliers; 26 percent cited Twitter in particular as an important vehicle for communication with outside partners. "From a big picture trend standpoint, these results show how prevalent and widespread social media is becoming in every aspect of business now," says Mattson.