Mapping Social: The Importance of Social Media for Irish SMEs in 2016

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have all taken up residency in Ireland in recent years, but as we move into 2016 have Irish SMEs embraced social media as a business channel?

A recent survey carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of Virgin Media Business, has provided fresh insight into whether or not small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Ireland perceive social media to be an effective business tool.

As part of the survey, questions were asked across a number of topics relating to information and communications technology (ICT) including: e-commerce suitability, broadband download and upload speeds, whether or not a business had a dedicated website and perceived reliability of a broadband service provider.

A close examination of two of the biggest sampled locations in the survey, Cork and Dublin, reveals a fascinating insight into how SMEs are using digital channels to achieve their business goals in the 21st century. However, the most interesting data can be found in the survey’s key focus on the effectiveness of social media for Irish SMEs.

Achieving business growth from social media

One of the most encouraging findings of the survey is the fact that 60% of Irish SMEs believe that social media has contributed to their business growth. The exciting thing about this positive declaration by SMEs is that this growth has occurred at a time when organic reach (reach generated from likes, comments and shares) on platforms, such as Facebook for example, has been somewhat reduced. This could mean that the surveyed businesses are adapting to the, perhaps exaggerated, suppression of organic activity and are still managing to promote their business online, or more likely, they have embraced paid social activities. Paid social activities refer to everything other than organic activity. They require businesses to invest their money behind Facebook ads, promoted tweets and LinkedIn ads, not dissimilar to investing in paid search via Google AdWords.

Paid social gives businesses of any size the power to advertise directly to their customer base with the added benefit of exact campaign reporting. Advertising on a billboard on the street may be an impressive statement for any brand, but how does one measure the exact number of customers that viewed it? John Wanamaker’s famous quote comes to mind;

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The reporting capability that comes with digital and social media advertising makes Wanamaker’s problem a thing of the past. Social media advertising can provide valuable data to businesses that can be used to efficiently optimise future campaigns. However, as we’ll discuss later, whether that reporting capability is utilised properly by SME advertisers is another question.

Although one might think it’s difficult to pry SMEs away from advertising on traditional advertising platforms such as TV and radio, Facebook’s recently announced milestone of 2 million advertisers globally shows that firms of all sizes are coming around.

“Where am I going wrong?”

Although it’s great to see a high percentage of SMEs witnessing business growth from social media activities, the minority on the other end of the scale who have not had success can’t be ignored. Some in this group, might ask: “Where am I going wrong?” when witnessing the success of others. Aside from ensuring that your business’s e-commerce functionality is in order, there are a few things that need to be marked on the social media checklist:

  1. Know your customers

It’s fundamental that you know who exactly you are trying to reach, where this audience is located and what social media channels can facilitate this reach.

  1. Know yourself

Set the goals that you want your business to achieve via social media and define KPIs that will enable you to measure your progress towards achieving these aims most accurately. Are you only interested in online sales? Is website traffic of equal importance to your business? Do you wish to be regarded as an authority in your field? All of these factors can contribute to business growth.

  1. Set up a dedicated business page

It might sound obvious but if your business does not have a dedicated presence on social media, you are already making things too difficult for your customers. You must be easy to find.

  1. Analytics

Whether it’s getting to grips with certain propriety software to analyse your data or simply getting into the habit of checking the same metrics on a regular basis, data is king.

  1. Optimise

There’s no guarantee of overnight success when you first flick the social media switch. Set long and short-term goals and be sure to change up your strategies if you feel they are not working. Paid social is designed to be changed, there is an undo button.

The big social picture for Irish SMEs

The survey conducted by Amárach Research reveals that throughout Ireland, 62% of SMEs have a social media account for their business with 55% of this group operating a Facebook page. Straight away, this is encouraging considering that data from IPSOS MRBI’s Social Networking Quarterly review revealed that 59% of adults in Ireland had their own Facebook account. Not only does this correlation put further faith in the figures, it also represents the Irish SMEs’ understanding of the importance of maintaining a social media presence in order to reach their customers. Or does it?

Online reviews: The whole truth and nothing but the truth

Fascinatingly, it appears that a number of Irish SMEs are not practicing what they preach when it comes to using social media for business. 51% of the Dublin businesses surveyed declared that they recognise the importance of monitoring online reviews on social media, but one question later in the survey and only 35% of Dublin SMEs admit that they actually take the time to actively monitor such comments and reviews. In contrast the Cork respondents have an edge over the businesses from the capital, with 40% admitting that they keep a close eye on what their users are saying about them online.

Social media man hours

As social continues to play an increasingly important role in a company’s marketing mix, it can certainly be argued that these activities should be treated as a specialised area for a business. This being said, it’s understandable that SMEs with a small staff roster may not have the resources to assign a full time role or even many full time hours to manage social. The survey found that, on average, Irish SMEs only dedicate four hours to social media for their business per week. 13% said they dedicated 6-14 hours a week and only 5% could spare 15+ hours.

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Hours dedicated to social media

For some of the world’s largest and most famous brands, there is often a whole team of people, trained in the company’s own style of communications preferences, posting and providing customer service to the masses. For SMEs it could be a matter of social duties being shared out among a small number of staff or even just the manager alone.

The research indicated that in 69% of Irish SMEs’ social media accounts are being managed by the survey respondent (largely managers, owners and MDs) or a current employee.

A worthy investment?

Understandably, it can be difficult for a small business to devote dedicated resources to managing the company’s social media accounts, especially if it does not directly generate revenue for the company. The phrase “you can’t afford not to” may sound clichéd, but in the case of customer service for SMEs it’s true. Unanswered posts from customers sitting unattended on a company’s social media page have the potential to cause great damage. Whether they are simple questions about a service, or an unfounded allegation designed to cause distress or poke fun, they must be dealt with swiftly and professionally. When making your strategic decisions on social media channels, always remember, a neglected social media presence will likely be more damaging than no social media presence at all.

Facebook is the most popular platform for Irish SMEs, with LinkedIn taking second place and Twitter taking third. Given that product promotion and reaching new customers are the two most prominent uses of social media for the respondents, this makes sense. Considering customer service was cited as the third most important use of social media for Irish SMEs, this could explain Twitter’s bronze medal in the platform race. All data considered, the most surprising fact coming from the survey is that in this day and age 38% of Irish SMEs do not have any social media presence at all.

This article includes data extracted from a recent SME Research survey conducted by Amárach Research on behalf of Virgin Media Business.

200 interviews were conducted in the Republic of Ireland. 50 of these were with Dublin based companies, 50 were from Cork and 100 were from the rest of the country.