It has been a generally accepted rule that you have to spend money to make money. And for most businesses, the thing they were spending money on to get a solid return was PR and marketing. But as online options seems to multiply by the week, small businesses are becoming more familiar and open to the budget-friendly marketing offered by social media.
A Web survey, released Wednesday by the marketing specialist group Constant Contact, found that 81% of small businesses are using social media to market their endeavors -- that is up from 73% earlier this year.
The study looked at 1,972 businesses across multiple industries within the US -- and 81% of the companies had 25 or fewer employees.
Of the companies taking advantage of social media marketing, Facebook maintains the top choice for small businesses, with 96% using the tool. But, in its trademark viral fashion, Twitter is quickly gaining ground -- jumping from 60% this spring to 76% today.
This survey, however, showed that most small businesses still rely heavily on in-person interactions, events, email marketing campaigns and website marketing to reach their customers.
"Small businesses are still learning how social media marketing can help them grow their customer relationships," Mark Schmulen, general manager of social media at Constant Contact said in a statement. "Just six months ago, they were learning the ropes and finding out what social media marketing tools were available. Now, they are beginning to understand more about what social media marketing can do for them."
When asked why they have adopted and used social media, 83% of companies said it was because of the low cost -- up from the 72% that pointed to cost-effectiveness in the spring. Meanwhile 67% chose social media because it was easy to set up and maintain and just over half of the respondents chose to market with social media because those were the channels their customers were on.
One surprise that I found in the survey was that 45% of companies said that they chose to communicate with their audience via social media because it did not take up a lot of time (which is up from the 31% that felt that way in the spring survey).
One complaint I often hear from small businesses is how time consuming social media updates and campaigns can be, especially for companies where many people are wearing multiple hats. But perhaps some of these respondents are only using one or two outlets -- or perhaps they are using dynamic content management systems like Thismoment, Hootsuite, Buddy Media, Vitrue, Wildfire or Tweetdeck to streamline the process.
The effectiveness of such social efforts also showed great improvement in just six month. Currently, 60% of Twitter users found the platform effective for marketing their business, up from 47%. Users of LinkedIn and Facebook also saw at least a 5% improvement but also found effectiveness scores remained flat for review sites, video sharing and location-based services, and decreased for photo sharing and MySpace.
"Plain and simple, customers want small businesses to interact with them, whether that's on email or via their social media platform of choice, be it Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn," Schmulen said. "The great news for small businesses is that they already know all about providing a great customer experience, and they are showing that they can carry that over to the world of social media. It's a great example of how small businesses are taking advantage of their smaller scale to make a huge impact with these tools."
One thing that marketing firms can rest easy knowing is that even though social media marketing efforts are on the incline, it is not was not at the expense of other traditional marketing campaigns.
Mobile efforts remain as the big black hole where many small businesses have not yet penetrated -- no doubt because the technical and financial investments necessary to create mobile applications. Currently, 72% of respondents report that they have a mobile component, and only 13% have created a mobile-friendly website.
As more people gain access to the Internet via mobile tablets and smart phones, small businesses will need to find ways to offer their content on the devices that their consumers are using.