Key Findings

  • Social media is predicted to be the #1 most important source for data and insights to inform companies’ business decisions over the next three years, according to more than half of business executives (51%).
  • 55% of executives expect their company’s social media marketing budgets will increase by more than 50% over the next three years
  • 84% of executives expect their company’s use of social media for external communications to increase over the next three years
  • 62% of consumers agree companies without a strong social media presence will not be able to succeed in the long run.

The events of 2020 put into sharp focus how critical social media is for an organization’s success. With much of the world in lockdown, businesses leveraged social media to maintain and nurture their connections with consumers. But social is more than a communication channel—and executives are recognizing just how powerful social media can be in driving business forward.

The Harris Poll, on behalf of Sprout Social, surveyed more than 1,000 US consumers and 250 business executives to better understand how they use social media and its impact on an organization. From increasing investments to using social data to inform opportunities outside of marketing, businesses are doubling down on social media following a year of accelerated transformation.

Social is an essential part of the consumer lifecycle

Consumers agree that social media is an essential part of their lives. Over the past year, 54% of consumers say their use of social media has grown, with 34% saying their usage will continue to increase over the next three years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Generation Z and Millennial consumers have seen the greatest surge in social media usage over the last year (45% and 46% respectively), a trend that we expect will continue with each younger generation.

How consumers use social media is also evolving, with research revealing 43% of Generation Z and 49% of Millennials have purchased directly from a social media platform. Understanding the role social media plays in the buyer journey will be paramount for businesses as consumers most likely to purchase through social media have growing buying power. According to Pew Research, Millennials already account for more than one-in-three US labor force participants.

More than a tool for socializing, social media is fast becoming home to the entire customer experience. Compared to a year ago, consumers have increasingly used social media to discover new brands (43%), to purchase products or services (36%) and recommend brands to family and friends (33%). Social media is a catalyst for enhancing consumer-business interactions, with 61% of consumers stating they expect companies to provide more personalized experiences on social based on previous interactions with them.

Additionally, the survey found 63% of consumers have a baseline expectation of brands using social media as a main communications channel for reaching out to customers. Eighty percent of consumers expect brands that have a social media presence to interact with them in meaningful ways on social, with 51% wanting brands to know them better based on their social media activity. Responsiveness is key too, with 78% of consumers expecting a response from brands less than 24 hours of reaching out on social media.

Recognizing the consumer shift toward social media, 90% of executives agree social will soon become the primary communications channel for companies to connect with existing and prospective customers. Eighty-four percent of executives expect their company’s use of social media for external communications to increase over the next three years and 88% agree social will be the primary channel for customer service and support.

In anticipation of a social-first future, businesses are prioritizing social media investments now. The survey found 91% of executives anticipate that their company’s social media marketing budget will increase over the next three years, with 55% saying their budgets will grow by more than 50%. It’s a move that will help propel business growth, especially when you factor in that social media is leapfrogging channels like word-of-mouth, TV and print ads as consumers’ preferred method for learning about brands going forward (33% vs. 16%, 20%, 4%).

Social media is the future of business intelligence

With a renewed focus on social media investment, executives are also recognizing a social-driven strategy will be the key to a business’ survival moving forward.

In addition to functioning as a communications channel, social media is the future of business intelligence. More than half (51%) of executives believe social media will become the number one most important resource for the data and insights that inform key business decisions. On top of that, 90% of executives agree companies will need to learn how to more effectively utilize social data to better understand their customers. And 95% of executives agree that companies will rely more heavily on social data to identify business opportunities outside of marketing.

Above all, businesses are planning to harness the impact social media can have on a business’ bottom line. When consumers have a positive social media experience with a brand or company, 78% are more willing to buy from that company and 72% will increase their spending with that brand. Additionally, the survey revealed 77% of consumers will choose the brand they had a positive social media experience with over a competitor.

Eager to capitalize on this trend, 86% of executives say social media commerce is a growing part of their company’s marketing-driven revenue plans and 79% expect to use social to sell products and services over the next three years. With social media becoming more ingrained in the buyer journey, 93% of executives believe businesses will increasingly move their ecommerce strategies over to social media.

A social-driven strategy will propel business forward

It’s one thing for executives to state their intention to build out robust social media strategies and it’s another to actually put that intent into action. With 62% of consumers stating companies without a strong social media presence will not be able to succeed in the long run, there’s pressure on businesses to expand their understanding of what social can do for their bottom line.

Here are several things any executive should keep top of mind as they double down on social media:

  • Increase the influence of social media internally. Executives are calling for increased social media investment, but those efforts are wasted if the true value of social media is lost on the rest of the organization. Everyone, from the individual contributor level to the C-suite, needs to see social differently in order for every department to benefit from an investment in social. As a leader, consider how you can champion social media and social data within your organization and break down silos isolating social teams from the rest of the company.
  • Invest in your social team. Behind every successful brand social strategy is a team of individuals that comprise specialists, strategists, analysts and creatives. As businesses look to elevate their social strategies, prioritize building and growing the team working behind the scenes. Determine what your social team needs today to get the job done, but also consider what kind of team you need to meet your business’ future goals. Invest in your social team’s professional development, provide them the resources they need to achieve their goals and watch your social strategy take off.
  • Evaluate your tools. A robust social presence also calls for robust social media software that can meet the demands of your business. Do you have listening and analytics tools to extract as much insight as possible from social media? Are your tools able to provide immediate value or are you still struggling to encourage adoption? Take a moment to evaluate your existing tech stack, identify what software you need to support your strategies and look for social tools that are easy to implement across multiple teams.

For the complete data and insights on the future of social media in business and how executives plan to embrace business strategies fueled by social, download the full report today.

About the report

The survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Sprout Social among consumers and business executives in the U.S. The consumer survey was conducted January 27-February 4, 2021 among 1006 adults aged 18-74 who use at least one social media platform. Raw data were weighted by age within gender, race/ethnicity, annual income, size of household, education, and marital status to be representative of the total population of U.S. adults ages 18-74. The business survey was conducted February 5-16, 2021 among 250 business executives who have a title of Manager or above, employed full time at a company in the U.S. which uses social media as an external communications channel, and are involved in the decisions about social media strategy, social media marketing and/or social media advertising for their respective companies. Raw data were weighted by company size to be representative of the U.S. businesses.