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  • Small-business owners should acclimate to social media

    The Internet is a great equalizer for small companies and startups.

    Social media can be a major advantage for small businessesWhile small-business owners will never have the lavish advertising funds of their larger corporate counterparts, they can make a splash in the market by publicizing their product via the Internet, and to a greater extent, social media.

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

    Still, despite the growth in digital media use, many small businesses aren't taking advantage of what's available to them. According to the National Small Business Association's 2013 Technology Survey, 10 percent of small businesses don't have a website and nearly 30 percent don't use social media.

    "You don't need to have a flashy or super-slick Web site," Katie Vlietstra, director of government affairs at the National Association for the Self-Employed. Vlietstra told CIO Today that the most important thing is that your website be "clean and updated."

    On the bright side, the majority of small businesses do have websites for their business, and nearly 20 percent even have a mobile website designed specifically for web browsing on a smartphone or tablet.

    Nearly two of three small firms report they maintain their website internally, according to the NSBA survey, which seems to be a growing number as the percentage of small companies that pay an outside company for maintenance has dropped from 41 percent three years ago to 30 percent in 2013. For companies that specialize in online sales, the NSAB report shows that small businesses accepting online payment via credit or debit cards are on the decline. The report explains that third-party vendors are exhibiting an increase in online payment methods, which suggests some small businesses are avoiding selling online due to worries over cybersecurity and a lack of candor regarding credit card swiping fees businesses must pay.

    Knowing what platforms to embrace can be tricky
    For small businesses, one of the most troubling obstacles is understanding which platform to broadcast your company's products and services. With what seems to be an ever-growing line of social media tools - Facebook, Twitter, Vine and Instagram - choosing the right one can make a major difference in a company's success.

    According to Jeff Sweat, director of public relations and social media for advertising agency Deutsch LA, small-business owners should prioritize channels that mean most to their business.

    "Pick your battles," he said.

    If you are running a business-to-business company, you might want to focus your online and social media presence with LinkedIn rather than Instagram. If you are running a company aimed at consumers, it might be a better idea to start a profile and post on Facebook.

    Sweat added that small companies and startups, as well as established firms, should evaluate the digital resources that are being used in their industry. Get a measure on competitors and see if the tools they are employing could work for your own unique business.

    Make it more than just you or your business
    Hitchen implored businesses that take the social media plunge share the spotlight.

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

    She said companies should try to update their profiles daily, sharing industry news and promoting products that could catalyze consumer feedback.

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