Social Media in the Inc. 500 - Promotional Bullshit Masquerading as Research
Posted on August 21, 2008
Filed Under Social Media Stupidity |
It’s getting awfully difficult to find real “research” these days. As I seem to be pointing out on an increasingly regular basis, “studies” being published around topics such as social media are almost transparently by the interests of the people conducting the studies or the studies’ sponsors.
To be sure, bias in research is nothing new. Unfortunately, it seems that the ability to hold bias in check has been all but lost and much of the “research” being published around “social media” is little more than promotional bullshit masquerading as research.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the recently-released study entitled “Social Media in the Inc. 500: The First Longitudinal Study.”
It was conducted by Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph. D. of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research and Eric Mattson, the CEO of Financial Insite Inc.
Interestingly, Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph. D. is also Senior Research Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, a social media-supporting organization (with close ties to the PR industry) whose involvement with other questionable “studies” I have already pointed out (here and ). It appears that when companies in need of social media validation want “research” to back it up, the Society for New Communications Research has become a go-to provider.
Eric Mattson is described as “an independent social media scholar.” A curious description given that Mattson’s degrees are in business administration and mathematics. While the definitions of “scholar” can include “a specialist in a given branch of knowledge,” one would expect that the word “scholar” in a “study” would be used more formally (i.e. to describe a person involved in a formal program of studies at a university).
Having established that the people behind “Social Media in the Inc. 500: The First Longitudinal Study” have clear biases, let’s move on to the “study” itself.
First, the language used in the “study” has a promotional quality.
Take for instance, the first two sentences of the Executive Summary:
In early 2007 the results of a groundbreaking study into the adoption of social media within the Inc. 500, an elite group of the fastest-growing companies within the United States, were released. As one of, if not the first studies of corporate social media adoption with statistical significance, it proved conclusively that social media was coming to the business world and sooner than many anticipated.
Words such as “groundbreaking” and “elite” are superfluous and nothing more than marketing fodder. Marketing fodder has no place in legitimate research. The purpose of research is not to brag and boast about the sponsor of that research or to toot one’s own horn yet Barnes and Mattson waste little time in doing both.
The promotional nature of this “study” is also highlighted by the unnecessary and useless comparisons made between Fortune 500 companies and Inc. 500 companies:
In 2007 (using the 2006 Inc. 500 list), the first study of this group and their use of social media was released and revealed that the Inc. 500 was outpacing the more traditional Fortune 500 in their use of social media. For example, at that time, 8% of the Fortune 500 companies were blogging compared to 19% of the Inc. 500.
This study revisits the Inc. 500 approximately one year later (using the 2007 list) in the first longitudinal study on corporate use of these new technologies. Given that previous research now shows that just 11.6% of the Fortune 500 currently having a public blog, it is astounding to see that 39% of the Inc. 500 are blogging. The addition of 3.6% more Fortune 500 companies to the blogosphere pales in comparison to the addition of 20% more of the Inc. 500 companies after the same time period.
And the point of this comparison is? There is none given.
The study’s authors make statistical comparisons (the easy part) but fail to provide any insight as to why such a comparison is valid and what significant implications it has.
It’s worth pointing out that the Fortune 500 is comprised of the top 500 public companies in the United States as compiled by Fortune magazine. The Inc. 500 is comprised of the fastest-growing 500 private companies in the United States as compiled by Inc. magazine.
There are, therefore, obviously significant differences between Fortune 500 companies and Inc. 500 companies. While there may be worthwhile comparisons to be made between them, the authors of the Social Media in the Inc. 500 study don’t connect the dots here. Are Inc. 500 companies more competitive than their Fortune 500 counterparts because of their use of social media? Are Fortune 500 companies less innovative? We don’t know because beyond the quantitative observations, there is no qualitative analysis.
Of course, that’s not a surprise given the fact it’s clear the authors believe the importance of this difference in social media adoption should be apparent.
After all, in an affront to real research, Barnes and Mattson leave little doubt about their biases:
Not only is this widespread adoption being driven by strong familiarity but also from the recognized critical role of social media to a company’s future success in today’s online world.
Let’s break these words down:
Recognized. With the use of this word, the authors imply that it is widely-accepted that social media is “critical” to a company’s “future success.” Is that the case? There are skeptics and there is no shortage of companies detailing their less-than-stellar (and more-than-realistic) results. social media spending and seem to know there’s a problem with ROI. As such, claiming that anything is “recognized” at this stage of the game is nothing more than exaggeration not fit for a “study.”
Critical. The word “critical” implies that companies must use social media to succeed. Is this the case? It’s worth pointing out that the top company on the Inc. 500 list, MemberHealth, doesn’t appear to have any “social media” initiatives that I can find evidence of. And to be sure, it has succeeded it was quick to take advantage of a market opportunity for managing Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage - not because it targeted seniors on Eons.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Social Media in the Inc. 500 study still reveals that for each of the forms of social media listed, adoption by companies in the Inc. 500 was less than 50%. Yet obviously Inc. magazine wouldn’t tell you that the Inc. 500 companies not using each form of social media aren’t going to be successful in the future.
- Success. How do you define “success”? In the business world, “success” usually equates to the creation of shareholder value and that usually derives from a healthy “bottom line” (read: profits). Is it possible that some companies will create more shareholder value using social media? Sure. Will most or all of them? Not likely. The truth is that each business has its own “keys to success” and stating generally that any specific strategy, trend or fad is “critical” to “success” is downright naive.
The bottom line here, in my opinion, is that, even putting aside the established biases of the authors and the promotional quality of what they wrote in the Social Media in the Inc. 500 “study,” the academically-lacking statement that there is a “recognized critical role of social media to a company’s future success” renders the Social Media in the Inc. 500 worthless as credible “research.”
Frankly, I think the authors knew this and tried to shroud their shoddy, biased “study” in the aura of being “statistically significant.”
Case in point: in four pages of real content, there are no less than six reminders that the study was “statistically valid”:
Forty-two percent (209) of the Inc. 500 participated, making this research statistically valid at +/- 5%.
Given this statistical significance, this research proves conclusively that social media has penetrated parts of the business world at a tremendous speed.
As one of, if not the first studies of corporate social media adoption with statistical significance, it proved conclusively that social media was coming to the business world and sooner than many anticipated.
Forty-two percent (209) of the Inc. 500 participated, making the new research statistically valid at +/- 5%. The original study was also statistically valid.
For the first time, growth in familiarity, adoption and importance to mission has been documented in a statistically significant, longitudinal study.
Overkill? Absolutely, especially given the fact that statistical significance is really not very important here given that we’re only talking about 500 companies and the authors are only extrapolating numbers for the following survey data points:
- How many Inc. 500 companies are familiar with social media.
- Which types of social media Inc. 500 companies are currently using.
- How important the respondents felt social media technologies are to their business/marketing strategies.
Statistical significance here is unrelated to the significant claims that the authors make:
Social media has penetrated parts of the business world at a tremendous speed. Yes, a group of 500 companies is “part of the business world.” Is that a statistically relevant part? No.
Widespread adoption is being driven by strong familiarity but also from the recognized critical role of social media to a company’s future success in today’s online world. As already discussed, there is no “recognized critical role of social media to a company’s future success” and additionally, there is absolutely no evidence provided that correlates the respondents’ adoption of social media to some “recognized critical role of social media” to “success.” If Barnes and Mattson are going to make such a judgment, they need to provide evidence to back it up.
- It is clear that many Inc. 500 companies consider the use of social media as a central part of their strategic plans. Once again, the language used by the Barnes and Mattson is very “loose” for an academic study (not to mention containing basic grammatical errors related to the use of singular and plural words). The fact that 44% of respondents felt that social media was “very important” to their business and marketing strategies does not mean that it is a “central part” of their “strategic plans.” And of course, one could point out that social media, by their own estimation, is not a “central part” of the “strategic plans” of 56% of the respondents.
At the end of the day, it’s quite clear that Social Media in the Inc. 500 is little more than promotional bullshit for Inc. magazine and two researchers with vested interests in social media. Masquerading, of course, as real “research.”
In a final slap to the face, the University of Massachusetts website Barnes created for this “study” lists a New York Times article under “Reactions and Press”:
Unfortunately, the article is written by Ana Patricia Ferrey of, you guessed it, Inc.com.
Frankly, the world of social media does itself no favors with these “studies.”
I’d love to learn that social media is providing companies of all sizes with a viable, cost-effective means to grow their businesses. Yet most of the “research” cited by social media proponents that supposedly proves the “success” of social media is “sponsored by” entities with vested interests in social media and/or carried out by individuals with vested interests in social media.
Most of this “research” is “spun” excessively, destroying its credibility, and in some cases, the conclusions are in direct conflict with the data. One need look no further than Deloitte’s recent study (that the Society for New Communications Research was also involved with) in which one of the study’s authors “noted [that] a disturbingly high number of [company online communities] fail” yet which came to incredulously positive conclusions.
While it’s fair to point out that other industries are not without spin and deception when it comes to research, it strikes me as odd that for all of the wonderful things social media is supposedly doing for companies, I’ve yet to come across a single “study” that stands up to a modicum of scrutiny and that appears to have been conducted by entities with no overwhelming conflicts of interest.
That shouldn’t be the case if social media is “the real deal” and social media proponents might want to give some thought as to why their research efforts seem to be a simple extension of their circle jerk.
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