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Beyond Likes and Shares: The Real Impact of Social Media on UK Businesses

Social media is the currency of modern influence. It’s a thought-provoking phrase that aptly encapsulates the transformative power of social media. And, just like currency facilitates the exchange of goods and services, social media facilitates the exchange of ideas, opinions, and even social status. It’s also the medium through which reputations are built and crushed, products are endorsed or damned, and influence is wielded with good and evil intent.

Powerful stuff, indeed.

Collectively, social media is a multitude of platforms available at our disposal. It’s a fertile ground for companies to connect, engage, and even convert customers at an unimaginable scale, even a decade ago.

Its journey has been meteoric, to say the least. From the early days of Friendster and MySpace to the global domination of giants such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, social media continually redefines how we interact, communicate, promote, and even think.

Aside from just being a post repository, though, social media platforms have evolved into multi-faceted ecosystems, serving everything from personal networking to e-commerce, from news dissemination to activism.

From 2.73 billion social media users in 2017, there are now around 4.5 billion users worldwide. The year-on-year rise in user numbers is almost perfectly linear, with Statista predicting there will be close to 6 billion users by 2027.

Brands that ignore social media…will die. It’s that simple.

Jeff Ragovin, Chief Growth Officer for Social Native

Understanding the impact of social media on society

Beyond the selfie culture and viral memes, social media has profoundly impacted societal norms and governance. It has influenced elections, mobilised social movements, and even catalysed revolutions. The Arab Spring, #MeToo movement, and the rapid spread of information (and misinformation) during the COVID-19 pandemic all demonstrate its power and far-reaching and sometimes life-changing impact.

Influencing elections
Over the past decade, social media has played a pivotal role in elections worldwide, including in the UK, but most notably and publicly in the US. The platforms serve as both a stage for politicians to share their policy proposals and a battleground for ideological debates. However, it’s a double-edged sword. While social media has democratised access to political discourse, it has also been a hotbed for fake news, propaganda, and echo chambers that can easily distort public opinion. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a glaring example of how data from social media can be exploited to manipulate voter behaviour.

Mobilising social movements
The power of social media to mobilise people is unprecedented. The #BlackLivesMatter movement largely gained international attention and momentum through hashtags and online activism. The #MeToo movement, originally started by Tarana Burke but popularised on social media by celebrities, transformed the conversation around sexual harassment and led to real-world consequences for the perpetrators. These examples demonstrate how social media can serve as a catalyst for social change, providing a voice to those who might otherwise go unheard.

Catalysing Revolutions
The Arab Spring (“a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world”) is perhaps the most striking example of how social media can fuel political revolutions.

What began as online murmurs of discontent soon swelled into full-blown protests, toppling long-standing regimes in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Social media served as the medium through which dissidents could organise, share information, and rally international support, proving that it could be as potent as any weapon in the fight for political change.

Public health information and misinformation
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on both the benefits and pitfalls of using social media for disseminating information. On one hand, health organisations and government updates could be rapidly shared with the public. On the other hand, the platform was rife with misinformation, from false cures to conspiracy theories, posing significant public health risks. The World Health Organisation even coined the term ‘Infodemic’ to describe the overload of true and false information circulating during the pandemic.

Redefining personal relationships
Social media has profoundly influenced interpersonal relationships beyond the aforementioned large-scale impacts. The way we perceive friendship, intimacy, and even our self-worth is increasingly being filtered through the lens of social media metrics, such as likes, comments, and follower counts. While this has enabled a more interconnected world, it has also given rise to issues like cyberbullying, social isolation, and mental health struggles, particularly among young people.

Social justice and accountability
The recent surge in ‘cancel culture’ is another aspect of society that’s impacted by social media. Public figures and ordinary individuals alike are held accountable for past actions or statements. These have led to real-world repercussions like job losses or tarnished reputations. While some argue this promotes a modern-day form of social justice, others express their deep concern about the absence of due process and the potential for mob rule.

Not all of the above relates to business, but it’s a clear and strong indicator of the unstoppable impact social media has on every aspect of our lives, locally and globally. Understanding the above will be crucial for some businesses because it will, or should, influence every thought and action relating to the context of what you’re about to post.


Understanding the impact of social media on businesses

Levelling the playing field
Social media has dramatically altered the business landscape for entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Traditional barriers, such as high advertising costs, limited customer reach, and the need for physical, brick-and-mortar shops, have all but disappeared. Today, a fledgling start-up can reach millions of potential customers with just a smartphone and a good strategy.

The playing field has not just been levelled; it has been entirely redefined in many ways.

The Instagram revolution
All social media platforms attract a particular type of user, who in turn attracts a particular type of visitor, but Instagram made strides in this arena that were the envy of others and have since been replicated in their own way.

For example, entrepreneurs are increasingly bypassing the once-essential step of building a traditional website, opting instead for a solid Instagram presence.

It’s nothing new, though, as IKEA were the first to exploit Instagram in this way, launching their ‘IKEA 2014 PS Collection’ in 2014. It was nothing short of groundbreaking. A mobile-first campaign that used tabbed posts to simulate a micro website that instantly grabbed the world’s attention. Nine years on, the video they created to explain how it works is still available here:

The uniqueness of Instagram’s format is that it’s tailor-made for instant engagement – it’s all about the here and now.

Imagine you’re in property management; you could wander around a property taking photos and videos, sharing them with thousands of potential clients – all in real-time. These days, ‘stories’ and ‘reels’ can create as much impact as a well-placed billboard, if not more.

But it’s not just property businesses that are benefiting. From fashion and food to tech and tourism, nearly every industry can leverage Instagram for immediate audience engagement.

Psychological hooks and user engagement
As Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, insightfully remarked, “Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins. Facebook is ego. Zynga [gaming] is sloth. LinkedIn is greed.” This statement encapsulates not just the essence of these platforms but also the psychological tricks they use to keep users engaged.

Facebook thrives on the desire for social validation – likes, comments, and shares serve as affirmations of self-worth. LinkedIn caters to professional ambition, providing a platform for publicising and applauding career milestones, professional interactions, and business wins.

Even gaming platforms like Zynga tap into a universal penchant for leisure and escapism.

These deep-seated emotional hooks ensure users stay engaged, providing businesses with a captive audience to market to.

The rise of community-based marketing
Beyond individual platforms, social media has also given rise to community-based marketing. Niche communities, from Reddit threads to Facebook groups, offer a more targeted approach to customer engagement. Brands can now be part of conversations that are directly relevant to their products or services, gaining insights that were once only available through expensive market research.

Data-driven decisions
Social media platforms are also treasure troves of consumer data. The analytics provided can offer granular insights into customer behaviour, preferences, and trends. Businesses can adapt their strategies in real-time, something that was unimaginable a decade ago.

Viral potential
The potential for content to go viral on social media cannot be ignored. A well-crafted post or campaign can explode in popularity overnight, reaching audiences far beyond a business’s existing customer base. Take the story of Blendtec blenders, for example.

In the mid-2000s, founder Tom Dickson wanted to see just how powerful his blender really was. After blending a piece of 2×4 wood, he and his marketer friend decided to video the results of bending a wooden broom handle, half a chicken (including bones), marbles and a few golf balls. The reaction on YouTube was off the scale, and within five days, the videos received more than six million views.

After receiving thousands of requests from viewers, Tom blended everything imaginable, including a Justin Bieber CD, a TV remote control, glow sticks, toy cars, and so on. However, what really changed the game for them were videos of him blending tech devices such as mobile phones and even an iPad (19m views!).

The above was a lot of fun and literally launched Tom’s business into a global market that captured the imagination of countless individuals, generating millions in revenue in the process.

However, the internet is also littered with examples of viral content that has caused intense embarrassment, sometimes destroying careers, or worse.

We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media; the question is how well we do it.

Erik Qualman, Author of “Socialnomics”

Platform cultures and their relevance to businesses

Trying to figure out the best or most appropriate social media platforms to use for your business is difficult enough, particularly for those in the UK who may be tempted to model their approach after American brands, not appreciating the cultural differences between the two countries.

The decision-making process is further complicated because each platform has its own unique culture and set of unspoken rules too, although this may also create distinct opportunities for SMEs.

Facebook: Once the town square of the internet

Culture: Facebook is the oldest of the major platforms and, over the years, has had a broad demographic appeal. Facebook worked hard on building a community feel that, in the earlier days, was hugely successful, bringing together people from all walks of life. While it’s a platform for friends and family, it’s also a place where people discuss news, join interest groups, and interact with businesses.

Facebook was once ‘branded’ the town square of the internet, but many consider that to no longer be the case. A town square is a place where people come together as part of a community where they discover new information, engage in conversation, perhaps commerce, and build their community. Facebook does that, yes, but it’s also become a vehicle for manipulation, not least by the main man himself, Mark Zuckerberg, with the spread of misinformation to sway political elections.

Relevance to SMEs: For UK SMEs, Facebook offers a versatile platform that accommodates a variety of content forms – articles, photos, and videos can all find a home here. Its robust advertising system allows for highly targeted marketing; the available analytics are particularly in-depth. From local bakeries to tech start-ups, almost any business that is fundamentally consumer-focused can still benefit from a well-executed Facebook strategy.

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Instagram: The visual storyteller

Culture: Instagram is all about visuals and instant engagement. It attracts a younger, style-conscious demographic that values high-quality imagery and storytelling. It’s the go-to platform for lifestyle, fashion, food, and travel brands.

Relevance to SMEs: This platform is perfect for UK SMEs with visually appealing products or services. It’s also highly effective for influencer collaborations and brand partnerships. Features like Stories and Reels allow for creative marketing strategies that can be produced with just a smartphone, making it accessible even for businesses with limited resources.

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LinkedIn: The corporate networker

Culture: LinkedIn is the epitome of professionalism online. Users typically visit the platform for career opportunities, industry insights, and business networking. LinkedIn has seen a significant change to the style of posts over the past few years, possibly more so since people became disenchanted with Facebook over trust issues, but it’s still less about personal stories and more about achievements, skills, recognition, and endorsements.

Relevance to SMEs: For B2B companies or those targeting professionals, LinkedIn is invaluable. I’m advertising terms, the platform allows for precise targeting based on job titles, industries, and even specific companies. Long-form articles are published to ‘LinkedIn Pulse’ and have, for many years, been pushed to a wider audience. But with the introduction of LinkedIn Newsletter ls in 2022, it’s now even easier to reach a much wider audience and potentially establish your business as a thought leader in your industry.

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Twitter (rebranded as ‘X’ in July 2023): The pulse of the now

Culture: Twitter thrives on immediacy and topicality. Whether it’s breaking news, trending memes, or live events, if something is happening in the world, it’s being talked about on Twitter. Typically, Twitter’s users are in the 25 to 35 age bracket.

Relevance to SMEs: Twitter can be a fantastic tool for UK SMEs looking to establish a brand voice and engage in real-time with their audience. Its search and trending features also make it easier to jump onto current topics relevant to your industry, thereby increasing visibility. However, it requires constant engagement to keep your audience interested.

Since Elon Musk’s rebranding of Twitter to ‘X’ in July 2023, speculation was rife that users might leave in their droves. But that’s not the case, as reports are showing both an increase in user numbers and greater reach for advertisers. Whatever you think of Elon Musk or his motives, he seems to be doing some things right.

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YouTube: The video vanguard

Culture: YouTube is where people go for video content – be it tutorials, reviews, vlogs, or entertainment. It caters to a broad demographic and varies widely in its content offerings, but the key is value through video.

Relevance to SMEs: For UK SMEs capable of creating quality video content, YouTube offers a long-term investment opportunity. A good instructional series or regular vlogs (video blogs) can attract a loyal following. The platform also provides monetisation options that can turn content into a revenue stream. The user experience of this can be somewhat frustrating, but it generates around 85% of Twitter’s revenue.

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TikTok: The playground of creativity and virality

Culture: TikTok is the newest kid on the block and has quickly become a global phenomenon. Known for its short-form video content, the platform is a hub of creativity, humour, and trend-setting. It primarily attracts a younger audience, eager to both consume and create engaging videos that range from comedic to educational.

Relevance to SMEs: TikTok offers an unparalleled opportunity for virality. A single, well-crafted 15-second video can garner millions of views overnight. This platform is ideal for UK SMEs aiming to reach a younger demographic and who are willing to experiment with creative, outside-the-box marketing strategies.

Businesses use TikTok to create how-to videos, although often in a tongue-in-cheek style. The platform is particularly useful for brands in lifestyle, fashion, and entertainment, but its versatile nature means that even traditional sectors can find a foothold if the content is right.

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Pinterest: The digital vision board

Culture: Pinterest serves as a digital scrapbook or vision board, allowing users to ‘pin’ images and ideas for everything from home decor and fashion to recipes, crafts, weddings and travel destinations. Unlike other platforms that focus on real-time engagement, Pinterest is a more solitary, planning-oriented experience. Users typically visit Pinterest to gather ideas and inspiration for future projects or aspirations.

Relevance to SMEs: For certain sectors, like home improvement, fashion, and food, Pinterest can be a goldmine. Pins can drive a lot of traffic back to your website if they are well-curated and visually appealing. However, Pinterest may not be suitable for all types of businesses. Unlike platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which allow for immediate and dynamic customer engagement, Pinterest is more passive and long-term.

Interest’s popularity, or perhaps lack of it, is worth a mention here. Despite its relatively long history, having launched in 2010, most people will know the name but have no idea what it is or what it’s for.

Pinterest has not gained the same mass adoption level as others, possibly due to its niche appeal and the lack of immediate social interaction. It is less about what’s happening now and more about planning for future activities or projects. This long-term focus doesn’t resonate with everyone, making it less versatile as a marketing tool across all sectors.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; what happens on Twitter stays on Google forever!

Jure Klepic, Digital Strategist

Benefits and risks of social media

Navigating through social media can feel like sailing through both calm waters and unpredictable storms. One minute, everything’s going just fine and without any problems, and the next minute, a single post with a poorly worded description, and you’re in the midst of a raging storm.

Understanding the opportunities as well as the challenges social media presents is the cornerstone of mastering it, whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pro.

There’s no doubt that the benefits of social media far outweigh the risks. It provides unparalleled audience reach, real-time engagement, and invaluable customer insights, to name a few. But it’s not without its pitfalls, and even seemingly harmless missteps can attract so-called trolls that will potentially damage your brand, alienate your audience, or worse.

It’s a wild, wacky, ever-evolving digital space, so buckle up for the ride.

Let’s begin by looking at some of the risks of using social media

Negative customer feedback: One dissatisfied customer can start a viral trend that spirals downwards. If not handled well from the outset, and it’s so easy to say the wrong thing, it may necessitate effective reputation management.

It’s time-consuming: While potentially rewarding, social media can be utterly addictive, and managing a multi-channel campaign can be a full-time job in itself.

Ad misplacement: There’s always a risk that your carefully crafted ad may appear next to undesirable content. YouTube presents a huge risk in this regard, not least because without opting for a paid account, you can’t control the additional content that’s displayed in a grid at the end of your video. The other videos may just be competitors, which is bad enough if you have pulled the video in to play directly on your website, but they can also be highly inappropriate or offensive.

The benefits of using social media:

First and foremost, there are no barriers to entry with social media. Every platform has its paid-for options, but social media is fundamentally free to create accounts and free to post content. That in itself is unparalleled in the world of marketing, and along with it come many benefits.

Reach and exposure: Notwithstanding cultural and audience differences, social media as a whole provides an unparalleled platform for visibility and increased exposure. It opens up markets and audiences that would otherwise be inaccessible through traditional marketing methods.

Engagement: Social media transcends the boundaries of mere advertising; it’s the epitome of inbound marketing as it’s a two-way street that enables direct interaction with consumers. These interactions offer invaluable insights into customer preferences and build a sense of community around a brand. Customers who feel heard and valued are more likely to transition from one-time buyers into loyal patrons.

Good investment: In terms of return on investment (ROI), social media marketing often outperforms traditional marketing strategies. The budget-friendly nature of social media advertising allows SMEs to reach targeted demographics without breaking the bank. Social media provides a flexible and scalable approach to marketing.

Brand awareness: The repetitive and widespread visibility on social media can significantly boost brand recognition. Consistent and strategic posting helps keep you on the radar of potential customers, who are more likely to convert when they feel a sense of familiarity with your brand.

Instant feedback: Social media provides immediate responses, be it likes, comments, shares, or direct messages. This instant feedback serves as a real-time gauge of the effectiveness of marketing strategies and campaigns, offering businesses the ability to fine-tune their approaches almost instantly.

Positive SEO: Active social media profiles offer direct channels to audiences and positively impact search engine rankings. Frequent social engagements such as likes, shares, and comments act as endorsements of content quality, which can improve a website’s SEO ranking.

Mark Zuckerberg once stated, “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” Given his alleged involvement in the Cambridge Analytical scandal, it’s somewhat ironic, but as a concept, he’s absolutely correct. Transparency in this context means creating open channels for communication, a pivotal benefit of social media for businesses.

The first rule of social media is that everything changes all the time. What won’t change is the community’s desire to network.

Kami Huyse, CEO Zoetica Media

Is a global audience practical for UK SMEs?

The allure of a global audience is tantalising for any business, and according to Statista, 45% of the world’s population is active on social media.

It might feel like the millions of potential customers scattered across continents are a goldmine waiting to be tapped, but it’s crucial to pause and consider if this wide net is practical for your particular business.

Cultural sensitivities are a potential minefield. What appeals to a British customer might not resonate with someone in Asia or South America. Therefore, content that appeals to a global audience requires a clear understanding of these variances, which can be a resource-intensive task.

Global outreach also means grappling with a terrifying maze of legal requirements. Different countries have distinct laws concerning consumer rights, data protection, and even advertising standards. Navigating this intricate web is not only time-consuming but could also lead to inadvertent missteps, attracting unwanted legal problems.

Entering a foreign market also means contending with local businesses that have a deep-rooted understanding of their native market. The challenge is not just linguistic but also about grasping subtle cultural nuances that local competitors understand instinctively.

A global audience might be enticing, but the logistical challenges and resource requirements could outweigh the benefits for an SME with limited means. And that in itself could be a huge challenge.

What can SMEs learn from big brands?

By looking at how big brands utilise social media, it’s definitely possible to learn from them and gain insight and inspiration for your own strategies. The scale is vastly different, of course, but the underlying principles often remain the same and can be adapted to fit the objectives and available resources of smaller businesses.

Companies like Coca-Cola and Apple have perfected the art of storytelling. Their campaigns are not mere advertisements but narratives that evoke emotion and form a connection with the audience. With thought, care and attention, anyone can adopt this approach on a smaller scale to make their brand more relatable and memorable.

Big brands are masters at maintaining a consistent tone, style and messaging across all platforms as part of what’s known as an ‘integrated marketing campaign.’ Consistency fosters trust and helps to build a solid brand identity. Any business can do this by ensuring its logo, colour scheme, and overall messaging remain constant, irrespective of the platform.

Data drives decisions for big brands, but unlike many SMEs, big brands have the volume of traffic that produces the requisite data. Small-scale data can still be effective by making use of analytics tools to understand visitor behaviour, even if the numbers are limited.

Big companies typically have big marketing teams, so it’s easier for them to develop and implement processes that put the customer first. Whether it’s by personalising marketing messages or ensuring first-class customer service, ensuring the customer is at the heart of all business decisions will always be a winning strategy, and smaller businesses would be wise to adopt this mindset to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Quick wins are not what the big brands look for. They have a much longer-term social media strategy in mind, although this is generally possible because of the size of their budgets. It’s harder for SMEs to justify, but it’s still worth looking beyond immediate gains and more towards the longer-term impact.

Conclusion: key takeaway actions.

  • Local or global: The chances are your customer base will be local to where your business is. That may still be national, but national isn’t global. Social media is inherently global – it’s just out there, so you’ll need to consider whether extending your reach to a global audience aligns with your business goals and the resources you have available.
  • Learn from the big guns: Find a big brand that roughly aligns with your product, service or audience and look at how they present themselves across multiple platforms. Without copying them, can you replicate their style? Are they solving problems? Are they being humourous? Are they telling stories? What can you learn from the way they perform?.
  • Risk assessment: Nobody likes to think of the downside of a project they’re about to embark on as they just want to get on with it. But have you considered whether your product or service might be controversial in any way? Is the language you’ll use to describe what you do or sell likely to be inflammatory at all? AIt’s ok to go against the grain, but how do you intend to respond to any negative comments or backlash? Just thoroughly consider the inherent risks of social media and prepare strategies to mitigate them.
  • Consider a strategy: It may be beneficial to take the marketing strategy health check questionnaire or the marketing audit health check questionnaire to ascertain where your business is on its marketing journey and how it will help you achieve your goals.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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