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Small businesses learn to tweet, post, and blog

The work’s daunting, but results can wow

Mike Pedersen, owner of Mike’s Automotive Services in Somerville, has built his company’s Web presence with the help of his son, Mark, 31. Mike Pedersen, owner of Mike’s Automotive Services in Somerville, has built his company’s Web presence with the help of his son, Mark, 31. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / February 22, 2011

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Mike Pedersen, 59, the owner of Mike’s Automotive Services in Somerville, has always tried to keep up with the latest technology, especially when it comes to marketing his business.

“We had a Web page way back in ’94, when it was the cat’s meow,’’ he said, shortly after finishing a repair estimate for a customer.

But lately, he admitted, it has been a challenge to stay ahead of the marketing curve.

“Twitter, Facebook, Groupon — the whole thing has gotten a lot more sophisticated,’’ Pedersen said. “It’s kind of forcing my hand to get involved.’’

It’s one thing for big companies to navigate the digital marketing landscape, hiring specialists to make sure customers can find them on every new social network. But now, small-business owners who have spent years building their marketing around wall calendars and refrigerator magnets feel as if they are being forced to tweet and post to stay ahead of a never-ending succession of online services.

“Many small-business owners over 50 wish that social media had never been invented,’’ said Michael Katz, president of Blue Penguin Development, a marketing consultancy in Hopkinton that has many small-business clients. “There’s definitely a feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s just one more thing to do.’’

Mike’s Automotive does it all. It has an active blog, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook page. You can check in at Mike’s on Foursquare. Avid customers can subscribe to an online RSS feed of Mike’s blog posts. In October, the small auto-repair shop even offered an online coupon on Groupon, the “social coupon’’ site.

“We sold 1,705 ten-dollar oil changes,’’ Pedersen recalled. “It was crazy, and a little scary, to tell you the truth.’’

Pedersen has built his online presence with the help of his son, Mark, 31, who is launching a career as a digital media consultant. But many small-business owners are on their own.

Three years ago, when Annissa George, 37, started Stitch House, a yarn, crocheting, and sewing store in Dorchester, she was not prepared to sort through the onslaught of online marketing opportunities.

“I’m just old enough to be a little bit behind on all this mobile technology and social networking — and I’m still behind,’’ she said with a laugh.

George’s biggest challenge, she said, is “to be on the most current space online.’’ When she opened, the store’s primary online marketing page was on MySpace. Six months later, she moved it to Facebook. Now, Stitch House is also on Twitter, “but I still don’t have anyone special to do status updates and tweets and all that stuff,’’ she said. “We still feel like we’re playing catch-up.’’

She may be a reluctant participant, but George’s business has an impressively positive online profile. On the social review site Yelp.com, Stitch House had 30 rave reviews last week. A few months ago, George posted a deal on Groupon (half off a knitting lesson) that attracted 250 buyers.

Yet George said she is haunted by the opportunities just beyond her reach, the ones she “doesn’t have the mental bandwidth’’ to use to full advantage.

“Have you heard of Tippr?’’ she asked. “How about Wowcher, from AOL? Then there’s Buywithme.com. There are so many social media services to keep track of.’’

The three years that she has devoted to Stitch House have been “a crash course in new media,’’ she said.

Bruce Weinberg, chairman of the marketing department at Bentley University in Waltham, said business owners often find it hard to keep up.

“I know from my contact with Fortune 500 companies that they are finding these new social services challenging,’’ Weinberg said, “so you can imagine how hard it is for one person running a small business.’’

Katz assures his clients they don’t have to use every new social media service. “My health club has 50 machines. I feel no obligation to use them all,’’ he said. “You just need to find three or four social services that make sense for you, and just do them.’’

Eric Friedman, director of business development at Foursquare, which allows users to broadcast their location to friends, understands the reluctance many business owners feel.

“It sounds confusing to a coffee shop owner until I walk in and ask him if he’d like to see a list of his best customers,’’ he said. “That often wins them over. That, and it’s free.’’

For years, Nancy Botticelli, 55, handled all the marketing for Dom’s Sausage Co., a butcher shop, full-service deli, and meat distributor in Malden. Her strategy, she said, was “mostly newspaper and radio ads, an annual calendar, and my husband, Buddy, on the floor talking to customers.’’

Now Dom’s has a Web page, a blog, and a Facebook page.

“I’m not going to pretend that I understand it all, but it’s the new wave,’’ Botticelli said.

Botticelli turned to her children — son Dom, 23, and daughter Melanie, 30 — to help navigate new media — not unlike Mike Pedersen and his son.

“My son said to me, ‘Mom, can we do a Groupon promotion?’ And I really had to admit that I really had no idea what it was,’’ Botticelli recalled.

She soon found out. On the day that Dom’s made its offer ($20 worth of products for $10), she was stunned by the response.

“When my son told me that a thousand people bought the offer, I was like, ‘Huh?’ When it went to two thousand, I was like, ‘What!’ And then it just kept going.’’

By the end of the day, 5,600 people had bought Dom’s Groupon offer.

Mike Pedersen is also a believer.

When his son reviewed the number of new customers who walked through the door since he began the social media campaign, he discovered the total was up 28 percent. And that’s not counting the 620 people who have come in for service bearing a Groupon coupon.

“There’s usually a lag in business during the winter,’’ Mark Pedersen said. “This year we haven’t had that.’’

To the senior Pedersen, however, social media tools are still largely a mystery.

“Now my son is looking at a marketing service called Spreadable,’’ Mike Pedersen said. “I’m not sure what Spreadable does. But I told him, ‘If you understand it, let’s run with it.’ ’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.