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Much of the attention lavished on social networks as marketing platforms focuses in on large brands, many of which have invested heavily in these channels and can boast about large audiences.

One of the most popular social networks with brands has been Twitter, which is now generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in ad revenue and may go public in the next year.

But what about small businesses? They too have been adopting and investing in their presences on social networks, but they have markedly different views about where the potential is.

According to a survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and Vistage International, small business owners don't think much of Twitter, with just 3% identifying the service as the social media platform with the greatest potential. That puts Twitter just ahead of Pinterest, which 3% of those polled believe has the most potential, and behind Google+, which came in at 4%.

Interestingly, Facebook didn't fare very well either. The world's largest social network may have a billion users and dominant mindshare, but only 14% of the small businesses the Wall Street Journal surveyed indicated that Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room creation has the most potential. That's even less than YouTube.

So which network is seen as being the most promising? That distinction goes to LinkedIn, which garnered a whopping 41% of the vote. That's good news for the professional social network, which recently rolled out an advertising API.

Value over volume

So how is LinkedIn winning over small business owners? One word: value.

Ken Lopez runs a legal consulting firm, has used LinkedIn to increase traffic to his website more than ten-fold in a year. He's using Twitter, but he explained to the Wall Street Journal that there's a big difference between the ROI he receives from Twitter and LinkedIn. "We will tweet 10-plus times a day, and we will put roughly the same number of posts on LinkedIn per day, yet we get dramatically different results."

In other words, even though LinkedIn's audience may be substantially smaller than social media's biggest heavyweights, that audience is capable of doing more.

Small business: a role model for large brands?

Obviously, social media is a your mileage may vary channel. The services that deliver will be different from business to business, making experimentation crucial. This also makes measurement a must.

Ironically, it appears that small businesses may be better at measuring what social media is really doing for them than larger companies. As the Wall Street Journal's Emily Maltby and Shira Ovide point out, small business owners "tend to think the 'value' of social media comes primarily from measurable factors, such as pageviews, click-throughs or direct sales."

That's not surprising when one considers that just 40% of small businesses employ somebody full time to manage their social media efforts, and the majority of them allocate less than five hours a week to these efforts. Put simply, most small business simply can't afford not to measure.

Large brands, of course, are often far more forgiving. They might measure pageviews, click-throughs and sales, but not all of their social initiatives are even designed to drive those kinds of actions. A lot of initiatives fall under the umbrella of branding, and the metrics used to gauge how well the initiatives went aren't directly tied to the bottom line.

The big question: should brands take a page from smaller businesses and seek to tighten up their social investments?

To be sure, there are huge differences between small businesses and major brands in many respects, so it would be unreasonable to suggest that they should operate the same way in social channels. But the Wall Street Journal's survey does highlight the fact that there are huge differences between the audiences of social networks and brands may want to consider that the audiences they've been investing the most time and money in reaching are far less productive than they had anticipated they'd be.

Patricio Robles

Published 1 February, 2013 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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