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By Stefan Pollack

Digital communities are an integral part of any business-to-business marketing strategy. According to a recent survey by the Worldcom Public Relations Group, the world’s leading partnership of independently owned PR firms, nearly all companies now recognize the importance of social media, but many are still unsure how to use the medium to humanize their brand.

As companies commit greater resources and personnel to their digital marketing efforts, we now anticipate a greater comfort level with social media by this time next year.

According the survey, more than half (54%) of surveyed companies plan to increase spending on social media in 2011. This bodes well for Twitter, the most popular channel, used by 85 percent of global respondents, followed by Facebook (74%), LinkedIn (72%), YouTube (69%) and corporate blogs (60%).

The survey of more than 100 business-to-business (B2B) company leaders confirmed the significant increase in the use of social media. Nearly all companies (83%) are using social media to communicate with target audiences, and 66 percent have been doing so for more than a year. Most executives (89%) believe social media will increase in value for their company over the next year, and 58 percent expect the increase to be significant.

It is interesting to note that Western European companies appear to be using social media as a source to actively find new contacts and business leads, while the U.S. has taken a different approach, by promoting a company’s thought leadership through social media as a way to generate inbound leads.

The biggest difference between social media use in North America and Western Europe is the approach to “thought leadership.” In North America, thought leadership promotion is the primary use of digital tools (30%); but it was not mentioned by any of the respondents in Western Europe. European companies focused primarily on social media to communicate with potential clients (31%) and current clients (25%).

This is also reflected by the difference in platforms used. In North America, 91 percent of respondents were using Twitter compared to only 62 percent in Western Europe. Facebook is the most used platform for Western European companies (31%) followed by Twitter (25%) and corporate blogs (25%). In North America, Twitter was used most (31%) followed by Facebook (25%) and LinkedIn (19%).

More than 80% of companies surveyed globally are using social media to communicate with potential clients, and when asked about the “most important” use of social media, 26 percent cited communication of their company’s thought leadership, followed by “communicate with clients” (23%) and “communicate with potential clients” (20%). Companies are also using social media to build a community as an extension of their website (60%), communicate with journalists (58%) and communicate with potential employees or alumni (50%), but very few cited any as a “most important” use.

When broken down by revenue segment, small (under $50 million) and large (over $1 billion) companies emerged as the social media leaders. Nearly 80 percent of small companies and 88 percent of large companies have been using social media for more than a year, compared to only 57 percent of mid-sized companies. In fact, 34 percent of mid-sized companies surveyed have been using social media less than six months. Mid-sized companies are still grappling with the role that social media will play in their communication and business development strategies, and only 46 percent plan to increase social media spending this year compared to 68 percent of small companies. Many companies still lack a dedicated team of experts in this area and are unsure as to which platforms make the most sense for their business.

These findings are from the Worldcom Social Media B2B Study that examined the use of social media at B2B companies primarily in North America and Western Europe. The survey was conducted by independent market research firm Persuadable Research in April 2011.