This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column: Pew study reveals what’s new—and what isn’t—about social media use

Every month, my Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column focuses on a different social media topic. In Feb., I wrote about a study that reveals quite a bit about the current state of social media.

Study finds an increasingly crowded social-media landscape

There’s an old saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” While that phrase first became famous more than a century ago, it could apply to a lot of things these days — including social media. It’s easy to find numbers that support whatever argument you want to make, regardless of how counterintuitive or contradictory.

In this environment, however, there are still a few sources of unbiased, credible information. One is the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project of the Pew Research Center. Each year, the Pew Center publishes studies specifically designed to eliminate some of the confusion when it comes to understanding social media use in the United States.

One such study is the Pew Center’s annual “Social Media Update,” most recently released in December. Because of the reliability of the Pew data, the update provides an especially good gut check when considering how social media is changing, how it’s not changing and what that means for your business. Here are seven findings from the study that are particularly noteworthy:

1. Social-media use is now mainstream (but by no means universal). Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (18-plus) who use the Internet — 73 percent, to be exact — use a social-media site of some kind. Even when you consider that 15 percent of U.S. adults aren’t online (as was shown in a previous Pew study), social media is now mainstream.

However, it’s important to not confuse “mainstream” with “universal.” Consider, for example, that research from A.C. Nielsen Co. shows that 99 percent of U.S. households have a TV. Social media is steadily approaching that level of penetration, but it’s not there yet.

2. Facebook still dominates. 71 percent of the respondents in the Pew study use Facebook. No other social-media network comes close: LinkedIn was second at 22 percent; Pinterest third at 21 percent; and Twitter fourth at 18 percent.

However, this is another case where claiming that “everyone” is on Facebook is a significant overstatement — especially when you dig down deeper into the data. Only 66 percent of U.S. adult males, for example, use Facebook.

3. Facebook is still attracting new users. How else do we know that not “everyone” is on Facebook? Well, it’s still attracting new users. Facebook’s 73-percent penetration rate in the 2013 study was an increase of 6 percent from 2012. So while there are some questions about Facebook’s long-term prospects, especially among younger U.S. residents, it’s still growing in the short-term.

4. More users are gravitating toward multiple social media platforms. Why, then, is there so much discussion about Facebook’s imminent demise? It’s a conversation worth following, but part of the buzz has been caused by the growth of social-media sites aside from Facebook. What’s really at play, however, isn’t an abandonment of Facebook in favor of other platforms. It’s more a matter of more people using multiple platforms. In the 2013 Pew study, 42 percent of online adults said they use two of more social networks compared to just 36 percent who said they use only one.

5. Younger adults and African Americans have disproportionately high usage rates on Twitter and Instagram. A key takeaway from the Pew study is that different social-media sites attract different audiences. For example, the percentage of young people and African Americans who use Twitter and Facebook is disproportionately high compared to other platforms.

6. LinkedIn has a disproportionately high population of older, wealthy, college-educated users. LinkedIn is another example of the need to better understand which platforms attract specific demographics. Not surprisingly, given its focus on adult professionals, LinkedIn is the only social-media site that is more likely to be used by an older audience than a younger one, netting 27 percent of online adults 30-49 and 24 percent of those 50-64, as opposed to just 15 percent of those 18-29.

LinkedIn also has far more college graduates than non-college graduates and is most popular among those in the highest income range ($75,000-plus) measured in the study.

7. Instagram is nearly as much of a daily habit as Facebook. Facebook is often compared to the daily newspaper: the first place we go for information about those in our network. If that’s true, it may be time to start referring to Instagram as a “daily magazine” of sorts. According to the Pew study, the portion of those who check Instagram daily — 57 percent — is close to the same number who visit Facebook each day — 63 percent.

It’s important to not get too carried away with these numbers. What matters most is what matters to your specific audience of customers and prospects. However, the Pew study is a good place to begin when you’re looking to make sense of what’s a reliable statistic and what’s just … well, a lie. Read the entire Pew “Social Media Update” study at PewInternet.org.

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