The recent SmartBrief and Summus report entitled The State Of Social Media For Business demonstrates the breadth and extent of the rush to fill the market niches in this new medium as well as the various challenges encountered.

A bare 25.3% of all businesses currently engaging their customers via social networks were doing so a scant year and a half ago, and the trend is accelerating at a dizzying rate. The social networking stampede is evidenced by the statistics that show that 18.9% of companies have been active on social media for 13 to 18 months; 23.4% have been on seven to 12 months; and 14.6% four to six months. Remarkably, nearly one out of every ten brands stated that they have maintained a social media presence for three months or less!

Insufficient Peer to Peer Engagement

The top five social media goals businesses are implementing demonstrate that social media is primarily being used in a “traditional medium” strategy of broadcasting information rather than engaging customers in the bilateral conversations they have proven to prefer. 94.1% of all companies state that they use social networking to increase awareness of and interaction with their brand; 76.1% do it to create a community for their customers and fans; 55.1% to increase traffic to their websites; 50.3% to identify and react to customer needs; and 49% to identify new business opportunities or leads. The most desirable goal from a social networking perspective should be to participate on a peer to peer basis with a company’s customers. The strategies of creating a community and reacting to customer needs skirt the issue somewhat but the bottom line is that businesses are still not making themselves fully accessible and participatory enough to thoroughly engage social media customers.

“Old Media” Thinking Creates Obstacles

Obstacles originating from “old media” thinking continue to hinder social media promotional uptake in many companies. 14.7% stated that management resistance was responsible, and 33.1% of all businesses stated that they have not adopted social networking for fear of violating confidentiality issues. The latter barrier seems to be self-inflicted as there is no inherent greater requirement to divulge confidential information on Twitter or Facebook than in any other form of marketing, such as email or blogs. 19.8% claim that they lack the knowledgeable personnel to engage in social media, which essentially overvalues the skill set required to maintain a basic company presence. While it is true that advanced analytical tracking of social networking trends can require advanced proficiencies, virtually anyone can carry out a fundamental business presence and interact with customers in a light and conversational fashion. 14.9% claimed that they have not engaged in social networking because it is not relevant to their market, although there are companies in every single industry sector successfully executing social media strategies.

ROI? What ROI?

In the (in)famous online cartoon an executive asks his social media geek about the company’s social networking performance and the geek states that “we have 31,467 Twitter followers and 17,289 Facebook fans.” The exec replies “yeah, but how many products have we sold?” The difficulty in relating success in the social media sphere to actual sales continues to vex the expectations of obtaining an accurate measurement of Return on Investment (ROI). Just 14.7% of all companies actually measure their social networking ROI through undefined means, a figure that is dwarfed by the 33.2% who do not. 30.8% state that they “somewhat” track their ROI (which may be a euphemism for “I don’t want the boss to find out I have no clue”) and 21.3% are honest enough to state that they flat out don’t know. Although some of the best minds in the online marketing industry have been applied to determining an accurate social media ROI calculation, to date there is still no definitive formula.

Social networking is an evolving phenomenon and it will take some time for all businesses to embrace its advantages. In the meanwhile you can stake your claim to social media gold ahead of your more recalcitrant competitors.