Social media: Are you on top of it?

Sometimes business surveys come through that we can't seem to reconcile with our own experience and anecdotal evidence. New research from Sage falls squarely into that camp.

Apparently, just six per cent of small and medium-sized businesses are currently monitoring social media to gain an insight into their customers' wants and needs. What's more, while 83% agreed that the current economic climate makes delivering stellar customer service and encouraging repeat business even more important, only 1% thought that engaging with customers on social media sites was key to achieving this.

Can this really be the case? Research conducted towards the end of last year by Virgin Media Business painted a slightly different picture. This poll found that a third of SMEs (firms with 250 employees or less) use social media to interact with their customers. Twitter has now overtaken Facebook as the most popular social network among businesses, the research suggested, used by 33% of firms. Some 32% have used Facebook to connect with customers, closely followed by MySpace, which has been used by 29%. However, just 19% have blogged and only 17% have posted videos on YouTube.

And, when asked 'Do you believe social media is or will become an important way for you to communicate with customers?' almost two thirds (64%) answered no. There were significant regional splits - for instance, while 47% of London-based businesses rate social media, just 28% of small firms in Yorkshire feel the same way.

Andrew McGrath, executive director, commercial at Virgin Media Business, believes that when placed into context (given the fact that, relatively speaking, social media as a medium is still in its infancy), the Virgin research suggests adoption rates are growing fast.

"As a medium, television took 13 years to reach 50 million viewers, yet we've seen here that social media has penetrated a third of UK businesses in just a few years. British businesses have been quick to see the opportunities that lie within social media and are helping lead the world in targeting this new form of media."

Even so, given the uptake of social media among consumers, your customers are increasingly expecting to communicate and interact with you in this way. And the speed with which news can travel through this medium (both good and bad) makes it harder and harder to ignore.

Taking on board and responding to customer feedback is paramount to managing your online reputation; often a prompt response can stop a mildly disgruntled customer from going on a mission to tell anyone who'll listen about your customer service shortfalls. If handled correctly, you could even convert them into a brand evangelist.

As McGrath says: "Social media offers businesses across the UK a huge variety of ways to get to know their customers better and promote their products and services in new and innovative ways."

What's more, customers are being increasingly influenced by what they read about businesses on the web. More than half of consumers have decided against making a purchase after reading a review or recommendation online, while 50% said online reviews influenced their buying behaviour more than any other form of online advertising.

Do the statistics ring true to you? How important is social media to improving your customer experience? Tell us your thoughts below.

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