Small Businesses Get Nearly Half of Traffic from Social Media

A study conducted by Northwestern professor Rich Gordon and Syndio Social CEO Zachary Johnson sought out to understand how sites, large and small, are connected on the Web. To get their answer they examined links between more than 300 Chicago based news sites and looked at analytics data and referral sources for 100 of them.

The findings were recently published [PDF] and, while meaty at times, it provides a great read. There are a number of important takeaways here for small business owners and some big lessons about why social media may be critical to the success of your SMB site.

social networking

Some of the highlights from the study:

1. Smaller Sites Rely on Traffic From the Local Ecosystem More Than Larger Sites

Part of what the study sought to accomplish was to understand how sites fit into the larger local ecosystem of the Web. For example, do sites owned and operated by the same organization tend to link to one another more than they do outsider sites? If yes, what percentage of their traffic do those links make up?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the data shows that the share of traffic that smaller sites receive from other ecosystem sites (related niche sites) is more than 11 times as great as that of larger sites. Obviously this is partly due to larger sites seeing a greater number of traffic overall, but it also stresses how important it is for SMBs to become part of their local community. If you want to grow an audience in your town, you need to become part of that town’s online ecosystem and to contribute.

For small business owners, this means partnering with other local companies when you can to form those relationships, looking for opportunities to get involved in your community, and forming links (relationship links, not Web links) between you and the organizations around you. Host events together, throw a block party – just let people know you exist and your part of the community.

2. Social Media Sites, Especially Facebook, are Critical for Driving Traffic

Here’s a data point to take to your boss: According to the study, Facebook and Twitter drive more than half of all referred visits for small business sites, three times the percentage of larger sites. Facebook, specifically, was shown to be extremely important to smaller sites.

If you’re a small business owner still weighing whether or not you should get involved in social media, that’s huge. Again, it’s also a testament to the power of getting involved in your local community, online and off. If you’re taking the time to engage people on Facebook and to create content that is valuable and relevant to their needs, you have a great opportunity to significantly increase the traffic to your Web site, even more than a site much larger than you.

As a SMB, if you’ve ever taken a look at your Web analytics, you’ve probably already noticed that social sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp are your top referrers. That’s not an accident.

3. To Get Links and Traffic, You Have to Drive Links and Traffic

Link out! Send traffic to other websites. Don’t try and trap everyone on your own site, in fear they may not come back to visit you again. Those of us who spend time in the SEO world, have long known this to be true, but it’s something small business owners still struggle with. However, the data shows, the more you link to other sites, the more they’re inclined to link to you. It all goes back to building those all-important relationships. You have to give it to get it. And the smaller and niche you, the more this applies.

The takeaways here for small business owners are clear:

  • Share local content.
  • Emphasis social media.
  • Send traffic and links to others in your online community.

No business is an island. To be successful you need to be social and support those around you.

If you have time, I recommend reading the complete Linking Audiences to News II [PDF] survey. It’s one of the most interesting reads I’ve caught in helping us all understand the different roles we all play in the Web ecosystem.

Social Network Photo via Shutterstock

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Lisa Barone


Lisa Barone Lisa Barone is Vice President of Strategy at Overit, an Albany Web design and development firm where she serves on the senior staff overseeing the company’s marketing consulting, social media, and content divisions.

16 Reactions

  1. Interesting insight, however, I see this as a symptom of a greater problem with small businesses…that they don’t know how to market themselves.

    Many clients who first come to me seem to believe (mistakenly) that social media is a “marketing strategy” when in fact it should be seen as simply a part of a greater marketing plan. That 50% of a company’s web traffic comes through social media when compared to the percentage for a large business, suggests that small businesses don’t know how to properly market themselves off-line.

    Just because social is free doesn’t mean there aren’t other effective off-line ways to market themselves for free.

    In reality small businesses should be equal to large businesses in terms of their social media reach on a percentage basis.

    While the data is enlightening the conclusion is incorrect. Small businesses need to work as hard as larger businesses on non-social media marketing to increase website traffic and their bottom line.

    • Hey David,

      As a small business owner in a niche market – we make Minnesota inspired t-shirts – I’m wondering if you could share some of those non-social media marketing ideas you hinted at in your post. I’m trying to figure out how to get out business out in front of potential customers here in Minneapolis and great MN.

      Thanks!

      - Clint

  2. With point #2, I think a lot of small businesses struggle with their website (CMS or otherwise) and Facebook provides a way to easily reach out to potential customers through their already existing social networks. I have a friend starting a photography business and her Facebook page is getting nearly 80% of her new clients. Her product is highly visual and Facebook is very good with pictures. I totally agree with the findings.

  3. I really like the sentences… “No business is an island. To be successful you need to be social and support those around you.” Great stuff. Reminds me how important the giving part of all this is. Thanks, Lisa!

  4. The study does in fact bring awareness to amount of traffic small businesses receive by engaging in social media. I agree with David. It’s very true to say a lot of small businesses simply aren’t knowledgeable when it comes to implementing effective marketing techniques and strategies.

    What I find interesting is how much time individuals and businesses spend engaging in sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. We know that social networking works to drive traffic, but many have no clue what they are doing and go about it incorrectly, getting lost and overwhelmed along the way. A lot of time is easily wasted, and many simply get distracted and lose focus.

    I do agree that social media in general plays a vital role in traffic generation, SEO, etc.

  5. Robert, I think you misunderstood me. I agree with the findings, too.

    The hidden gem of the study is that small businesses need to learn how to market themselves better outside of social media. We’re talking about percentages here, right?

    If small businesses want to achieve more success they need to strengthen their off-line marketing efforts to bring their offline visitors up to 80% of their total. I’m not talking about reducing online social marketing…I’m talking about doing more in the “real-world”.

    As I said above, “social media is not a marketing strategy”.

    According to the study, if small businesses want to market like a bigshot, social media should only represent about 20% of website visits.

  6. I think social media is the best way to promote anything on tight budget in between the most targeted market and all the research data also comes from the social media management.

    So it’s a win-win situation and now even the individuals are using it instead of those old classified sites.

  7. [correx] WAIT… There may well be some interesting lessons for SMBs here, but taking a study of 300 NEWS sites and writing a headline and story as if the results applied to all small businesses (with only one brief mention of where the actual data comes from) seems awfully misleading. All the more so since news sites are certainly not typical SMBs.

  8. I am not sure that I agree with the statistics given; it seems to me that there is a deliberate dismantling of the economy. This is destroying small business and passing over power to big corporations many who have no idea how to truly create jobs and care for small towns economies and or provide pay checks to potential employees that have families.

  9. Great article so very useful. Yes, I agree with you that social media is very effective in terms of driving traffic to site. :)

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