In a year where everything changed, it’s no surprise that consumers have too. But how have they changed, and how will it affect your business?

A new survey, “The State of Social Media Investment,” conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Sprout Social has shown how the events of the last year have accelerated both American consumers’ and businesses’ use and expectations of social media. But what can European businesses learn from these findings?

While consumer use of social media is largely similar in both regions (87% of UK internet users report having a social media account, compared to 92% in the United States), there is a notable difference with regards to business use of social media. In previous surveys, only 40% of small to medium-sized enterprises reported using social networks, as opposed to 81% in the USA.

As business use of social media grows in Europe, here are five key findings from the consumer data with actionable tips you can start to use today.

1. Potential customers are looking at much more than your website

As the world went into various levels of lockdown, it’s hardly surprising that the number one use of social media was as a way to connect with friends, family and colleagues. Nonetheless, when shops and stores around the globe closed their doors, online shopping and ecommerce exploded.

But how are customers finding your business online? It might surprise you to learn that consumers are using much more than just websites. Up to one in three consumers will use social media to learn about or discover new products, brands or services.

Level of influence of each information source on purchasing decision

You can see that while your website might seem like the obvious starting spot for customer research, reading other customers’ reviews was the most influential information source about your business (85%). Similarly, social media posts from people in the consumer’s network ranks highly (71%), as do social media adverts (59%), influencer recommendations (53%) and the content that you post as a business (63%).

Take action: Build your digital presence

With consumers increasingly moving their purchasing power online, it’s important to consider your online presence holistically, beyond just your website.

Checking your website is updated is a good first step, but consider the other places that a consumer might be checking you out. Do you regularly update your social media profiles? What type of content do you share? What reviews have previous customers left? Collectively, what do all these sources say about your company?

Information, opinions and conversations about your brand will exist on social media whether you choose to acknowledge them or not. By taking an active approach to social media, you can help shape the narrative. While you can’t control what other people might say about you, you can contribute to the conversation and represent your business as well online as you do offline.

2. Customers are using social media more than ever…and that trend is set to increase

Over half of the consumers surveyed said their social media usage had increased in the last year. Not only that, but it’s a growth that’s set to continue over the next three years, especially with Gen Z and Millennials.

Social Media use compared to a year ago

With social media usage on the rise across all age groups (18-74), there’s never been a better time to connect with new audiences and to create new customers.

Take action: Connect with your ideal audience with social media advertising

Understanding your customer is instrumental to effectively connecting with them on social media. Social media advertising is still gaining popularity in Europe and with 75% of consumers believing that businesses need to better customize how they interact with their audiences, there’s a real opportunity to stand out from your competitors.

Here are a few ideas to implement:

  • Identify your ideal customer type: Think broadly with respect to things like age, lifestyle, hobbies, needs, location—are there any commonalities that you can identify? If this is the first time you’ve created personas, this helpful article will help guide you through the process.
  • Find them online: With so many platforms to choose from, you will find different types of customers on different platforms. If you want to connect with your ideal audience, you first must identify where they are. For example, LinkedIn is perfect for professional networks, whereas TikTok might be better for a younger audience.
  • Engage with them! You’ve honed in on a platform, now it’s time to engage with your potential customers. Not sure what to post? Ask your current customers, or check out what your industry peers are doing. The best way to understand what works with your target audience is to experiment—there’s no silver bullet, but you’ll find your own voice best by using it and seeing what content works, and what doesn’t. (Still not sure? Here’s seven tried and tested ways to tap into your target audience!)
  • Expand your reach with social advertising: While you can grow your network through recommendations and shares, social advertising is a great way to reach new audiences of your ideal customer type faster and more effectively. All social media platforms support advertising, and you can target audiences much more precisely than with traditional forms of advertising like TV and radio. Check out this handy guide to social media advertising to help get you started.

3. Businesses are expected to engage with customers on social media

Ways of engaging with a brand or company on social

Consumers are active members of communities online—sharing, posting and interacting with their own networks and beyond.

Take action: Get creative with how you connect

Social media is used best when it’s a conversation—and no one likes a one-way conversation! Many European businesses still consider a social media presence as a “nice to have,” but that mindset is not aligned with your customers’ expectations, who consider it a necessity.

For businesses ramping up social, get creative about the ways you can connect with your audience. Of course you can use social as a broadcast channel to promote your business, but the more you put into social media, the more you will get from it. Start conversations, cultivate communities or work with influencers in order to reach your audience in more authentic ways. The best advice? Try to have fun!

Struggling to think of fresh ways to engage with your audience? Check out these 20 social media ideas to help keep your brand’s feed fresh!

4. Social media is your customers’ preferred communication channel—at every stage of the customer journey

Social media is a great place to broadcast and connect with new audiences, but it doesn’t end there. A whopping 67% of consumers believe that the responsiveness of customer service is integral to a positive customer experience. Furthermore, 58% of your customers prefer to connect with you online rather than in your store, and 63% expect businesses to use social as their main channel of communication. A further 80% of consumers expect businesses that have social media presence to interact with their customers in meaningful ways—which means that social media is important to more than just the marketing department.

Take action: Use social media for every stage of the customer journey

Social media is not just about attracting new customers. It’s also a way to interact with your current customer base—whether it be through responsive customer service, sharing engaging content or fostering a community. Consumer expectations are powerful, and meeting them on social media is an easy way to build a loyal customer base.

  • Create a social media strategy: Consider how you currently use social media versus how you could use it. Chances are, there’s room to improve. Social media can be used for generating leads and new business, but also for customer engagement, brand awareness, market insights and customer service. Not sure where to start? Check out our guide for creating a strategy for everything you’ll need.
  • Set realistic goals: Setting goals with any new project can be a powerful motivator. But set unrealistic goals, and you risk disrupting your progress before you even begin. While you can achieve a lot with social media, we recommend focusing on certain goals to get you started. Try to create them to reflect incremental growth, rather than an all-encompassing target. For example, you might want to get 10,000 followers on Twitter. That will take time to achieve! Break that down to a weekly or monthly target, so that you can keep on track over a period of time.
  • Set yourself up for success: Now you know what you want to achieve, consider how you are going to do it. While you might not need to change everything all at once, it’s worth considering team bandwidth, training and tools which could help your business be successful.

5. Your customers can and will attract new business for you

Recommendations and word of mouth have always been important for any business. With social media however, the power, reach and impact of a referral, recommendation or positive review has never been stronger. One third of people use social media to share experiences with companies, and 40% of people will ask their social networks for recommendations. Most importantly, up to 76% of people will recommend your business to a friend or relative after a positive interaction with you, validating ROI of all social media efforts.

Liklihood of action after a positive interaction

Take action: Focus on creating a great customer experience

Great customer experiences create great customers. Creating a great customer experience extends far beyond just social media, but word of mouth exists in a very powerful and amplified manner on social media. Growing your network of happy and loyal customers means you in turn can connect with their networks.

If you needed any more convincing that prioritising your customer’s experience is important, this wonderful insight also works in the opposite direction. Bad customer experiences will not only destroy any customer loyalty, but when amplified on social media, can deter others from doing business with you.

TL;DR? Social media is key for successful businesses

All in all, 62% of consumers surveyed believed that brands and companies which did not have a strong social media presence would not be able to succeed in the long run. Social media usage in consumers has continued to grow exponentially—and across all age groups. With significant growth in a one year period that’s projected to continue, there’s never been a better time to up your social media business strategy.

Interested in the full report? Check out all the findings, for businesses and consumers alike.