You many have noticed that different surveys show very different small business social media usage rates. They also show very different views on how effective social media is for small businesses.
For example, the Wall Street Journal article Facebook Tops for Small Business reported on a survey that found small businesses quite positive about social media. Key quote on the survey results:
"About seven in 10 small-business owners say they “strongly agree” that social media is important to their business ..."
Also, if 70% think it's important it means more than 70% of small businesses use social media (at least a few must think it's not important).
Another point of view comes from Citibank. They recently released a survey and their press release headline is Citibank Survey Reveals Small Businesses Not Joining Social Media Conversation. Their survey shows only 36% of small businesses use social media and a mere 24% have found social media useful for finding leads or generating revenue.
So why the wide difference in results? The answer lies in methodology and sampling techniques.
The survey in the WSJ story - The 2011 Soclal Media Marketing Report - was done online and used Twitter, Facebook, other social media and email to find respondents.
Not surprisingly, if you use social media to find survey respondents you end up with a large percentage of respondents that use and like social media. Because of this, the survey mostly reflects the usage and attitudes of small businesses that use social media - a subset of the overall small business sector.
The Citibank survey was done using a random sample and by phone. A random sample draws their respondents to reflect the overall population being studied. In this case it means including small businesses that don't use social media and even small businesses that are only marginally online, or not online at all.
Because of the methods used, the Citibank survey is much more likely to accurately reflect social media usage and attitudes of the small business segment in general. The results from the Citibank survey are also consistent with other random sample surveys on social media usage by small business.
This does not mean surveys that don't use random samples are bad. The 2011 Social Media Marketing survey does an excellent job of meeting their goal of informing us how marketers are using social media. I found the report to be insightful and full of useful information. But it's not a good source on social media usage rates or attitudes for the entire small business sector due to how the sampling was done.
The lesson for users of surveys is to understand the survey methods used to collect and analyze the data. If you don't, you can easily end up drawing the wrong conclusions.