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Small but Strong: Strategies for Business Success in Rural America

By Mark Crawford
Graphic: cover shot of print article

It's a story that's all too familiar to rural America. Small-town businesses face a future of dwindling populations as younger people move away in search of other opportunities. This trend is a serious threat to their survival—not only does the customer base slowly erode, but the towns begin to languish and become increasingly challenged in attracting new business investment. The use of social-media tools to jump-start dialogue about relevant town issues and create change—at local, regional and sometimes even national levels—is an easy, low-cost way for local businesses to improve the overall economic climate in their communities (and in turn their own profits).

"I'm tired of seeing my small town die a slow and painful death, watching good people leave because they can't make enough money, or there aren't enough conveniences," said Shawn Kirsch, a computer consultant and entrepreneur in Elgin, N.D. "Part of this is an infrastructure problem. Cell phones and Internet are now an integral part of any successful business. But huge portions of rural America have either painfully slow Internet, spotty wireless coverage, or both. I'm showing some stubbornness myself by not leaving, despite my Internet connection. With the appearance of new communication methods, such as blogging, Twitter and YouTube, rural America can really benefit."

A big advantage of these social media tools is that, for the most part, they are free—all you need is an Internet connection and the time it takes to master them. Add the highly respected work ethic that runs through rural America, and social media become a formidable tool for enhancing communication and reshaping small-town America.

Creating a Sense of Connection

Living in a small town can feel isolating at times. Perhaps the most important benefit of social networking is the feeling of connection it creates. "It's like having conversations around the water cooler with terrific people you have personally selected," said Becky McCray, a business owner, entrepreneur and social media consultant in Hopeton, Okla.

One of her ventures, a small-business survival blog (www.smallbizsurvival.com), is generating lots of attention. "I write about small business and rural issues, based on my own successes and failures," McCray said. "I work with small businesses to maintain their Web presence. Getting involved in the community is a good way to fight against decline; using social networking is an effective way to accomplish it."

A sound social-media strategy can improve the assets of your community, raise local awareness of your business and create more revenue for your business over time. "Social networking is a top way to reach beyond your geographic boundaries," McCray added. "If you're looking for local people as customers, you might be tempted to think social networking is not going to work for you. Wrong! More of your potential customers are online than you realize. Small-town professionals have a lot to gain from making new connections."

Those new connections, by the way, don't have to revolve around business. "If we can find other reasons to connect with people—a love of biking, baseball fanatic, endurance athlete, book lover, etc., that go beyond buying and selling products or services, we have a reason to talk, despite not completing a transaction," said Wendy Soucie, a social media expert in Madison, Wis. "Then, when business opportunities do arise, we'll know these individuals better and everyone will remember who stayed in the loop."

Enter the Blogosphere

Blogging is the easiest way to get started in making a difference in your small town. "Find blogs that are talking about your fi eld and start reading and commenting," McCray advised. "Then start your own blog, telling stories. While your small-town business may not pick up paying clients from your blogging, you will be learning new skills, improving your writing and making connections with people interested in your field." Even though people may not use your services right away, they will remember you—a key objective of any marketing plan.