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Digital tools play big role in small business growth (USA Today)

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Tweet, Vine, Pin, Post. Update a blog. Like a Facebook status. Network via LinkedIn. There are myriad options for small business owners to connect with customers, peers and others via digital media.

Yet, these entrepreneurs also have to balance budgets, keep track of accounts receivable, manage payroll and sell their products and services.

With limited time and financial resources, it can be incredibly difficult to figure out the most efficient and effective ways to embrace the rapidly expanding digital world.

If a small business owner shuns social media, he or she could miss out on big marketing opportunities. But if too much time is spent seeding such sites, other important duties could fall by the wayside.

These are the challenges of many small businesses nationwide, including the four firms that are part of USA TODAY's Smart Small Business series. This six-week series addresses the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and provides advice on topics such as creating sustainable growth, using social media for marketing and finding financing that works.

The four Smart Small Business participants all have dived into the digital world already. Here's some of their outreach in that area:


  • The Twitter feed for We Rub You's Korean BBQ sauces includes photos from tasting events and information about Korean cuisine. Firm co-founders Janet Chung and Ann Chung Mellman also use Twitter to directly engage with other foodie users.
  • Bhakti Chai's Pinterest page is filled with images that reflect the Indian culture that inspired founder Brook Eddy to create the tea company. There are pictures of colorful spices, unique yoga poses and Bollywood stars.
  • The website for Jin+Ja, a beverage created by Reuben Canada, includes easy-to-access links to Jin+Ja's Facebook, Twitter and YouTube profiles. Those sites are updated frequently and include information such as where to buy Jin+Ja and what other beverages mix well with it.
  • The Facebook page for Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, a firm run by the Giacomini family, provides details on the farm's more than 50-year history, as well as links to interesting news about cheese — such as a recent article about "funky, innovative cheeses."


Digital doings

If done consistently and strategically, entrepreneurs can use digital media to bolster brand awareness, improve customer relations and boost sales, say marketing and small business experts.

This year, average digital media usage among U.S. consumers is estimated at nearly 15 hours per week, according to researcher PQ Media. By 2017, it's expected to hit 19.30 hours per week.

"This is where your customers are," says Sabina Ptacin Hitchen, co-founder of Tin Shingle, an online community and resource provider for small business owners.

But even as digital media use grows, there are firms staying on the sidelines. One in 10 small businesses don't have a website, according to the National Small Business Association's 2013 Technology Survey. Nearly 30% don't use social media.

A major issue for small businesses is deciding which platforms to embrace — as well as what potential time and money-sucking options to weed out.

One must-have: a presentable website.

"You don't need to have a flashy or super-slick website," says Katie Vlietstra, director of government affairs at the National Association for the Self-Employed. It just has to be "clean and updated."

When it comes to choosing from the wide array of social-media choices, firms should first focus on channels that mean the most to their businesses, advises Jeff Sweat, director of PR and Social Media for ad agency Deutsch LA.

A business-to-business company may want to begin with a presence on LinkedIn, for instance, while a more consumer-oriented company may want to post a profile on Facebook.

"Pick your battles," he says.

Companies should check out the digital resources that others in their industry are using — competitors included — to see if those platforms would fit in with their own business plans, says Sweat.

As for a quick list of the most vital social-media sites, Ptacin Hitchen points to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Once a business opts in to social media, it must maintain an active presence, she says. It's not enough to create a profile and update it once in a while. Aim for daily updates — and don't just focus on company news.

"Don't just talk about yourself all the time," she says "Share information; ask questions."

For the already over-taxed entrepreneur who can't fathom the idea of adding another job to the daily to-do list, Ptacin Hitchen offers this advice: "Instead of seeing it as a burden, think of it as a gift."

Small businesses can use social media to share interesting industry news, promote new products and solicit consumer feedback. If done right, those social-media followers will likely become evangelists for the brand, she says.

"Sure it takes time, but it is time well spent," she says. "In the beginning, you may not love it. It may be a challenge. But most people learn to really enjoy it."

• Google your company name and brands: Online search is a major way that people do research, and companies should be aware of what results arise when their names are plugged in, says Don Sorensen, founder of online reputation management firm Big Blue Robot. Businesses should also set up Google Alerts with relevant keywords to stay on top of online mentions.

• Monitor your mobile presence: Nearly six in 10 American adults own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Three in 10 own a tablet. In a world with rising mobile access, small business owners should be sure that their websites present well on mobile devices, says the National Association for the Self-Employed's Vlietstra.

• Pass out profile information: An easy way to get more social-media followers: Add a company's Facebook and Twitter information to business cards and e-mail signatures, says Ptacin Hitchen.

• Find interesting tie-ins: Savvy small businesses should associate some posts to trending or topical issues, says Sweat. For instance, all-natural food makers can put out recipes that fit in with an upcoming holiday or tout events that celebrate fare that isn't made with genetically engineered ingredients.

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