By Raquel Harrah

Most college students can’t add a thriving retail business to their résumé, but Courtney Nolz, a junior at South Dakota University, can call herself a business owner at 20-years-old.

What began as an idea at 16 became reality thanks to her determination and the accessibility of social media. Nolz maintains her business, Cowgirl Crush, through Facebook, where consumers can view and buy products online. Items are both sold and marketed through numerous social media outlets.

“When I first founded the business I was only 16, so I didn’t have the funding for any other kind of marketing strategy,” said Nolz.

Cowgirl Crush, run almost entirely through social media, brings in nearly 3,000 “likes” on Facebook, more than many large businesses and corporations.

“Social media is super successful right now because of the adoption rate of technology amongst the world,” said co-founder of Alpha Brand Media and social media consultant Brent Csutoras. “More people have smartphones and computers in the home, and that has really changed the landscape of the web dramatically over the last two years.”

The company began with handmade stone, crystal, and cross jewelry and has expanded to include Same Spirit and Ali Dee designs, along with the introduction of a clothing line in 2011. According to Nolz, this addition doubled social media interaction through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Understanding the Social Media Audience

Nolz has welcomed the social aspect of social media—she communicates with her consumers, updating them on new products, asking them about their weekend, and what they would like to see next from Cowgirl Crush.

According to Csutoras, this type of interaction is essential to successful marketing.

“Social media gives you an opportunity to connect in a very personal and meaningful way with your customers. This allows you to respond quickly to customer support issues, share and praise compliments about your company, and provide offers to people who are going out of their way to show your company support,” said Csutoras.

As social media is relatively new, there has been some debate about whether success can be achieved through social media marketing. Social media helped Nolz ease into the notoriously difficult jewelry business.

“Any social media site can be effective for marketing if you take the time to understand what type of content performs well, who the audience is, and get creative about how you can provide your content or product in a way they would appreciate it and accept it,” said Csutoras.

New statistics from Allstate and National Journal show that 59 percent of social media users say a company’s social media activities make the company appear “accessible and responsive” and 64 percent of social media users want to see companies use social media for customer service. While statistics have not yet proven whether successful marketing can raise sales, statistics do show that just being available on social media can be beneficial to businesses.

Only 50 percent of small businesses are using social media, but Csutoras says this is a mistake.

“I would warn that any company not getting involved in social media at some point today is setting themselves up for failure or an expensive and hard catch-up in the next few years. Everyone should have a Facebook fanpage at this point. Facebook is a dominant force in social media and that doesn’t look like it is going to change anytime soon.”

According to the same study by Allstate and National Journal, a digital gap is growing. Companies which are already investing will do so even more in the future, and companies which are not investing in digital media are not planning to do so.

The survey concluded that 64 percent of adults are active on social media, and 79 percent of these users are likely to seek the opinions of others before buying goods or services.

Many companies refrain from social media for fear of negative feedback, but even negative feedback can be helpful to provide greater customer service and gather a better external perception of the brand. It provides a company with an endless survey of customer opinions.

Businesses should treat social media users the same way they would treat customers face-to-face—with respect, says Csutoras. If a customer expressed a concern in the store, it would be solved immediately, and social media interaction should be no different.

Social Media as Niche Market

The social media sphere has also become a niche market for many business owners. Women dominate on Pinterest, comprising over 72 percent of the site’s users. Some jewelry lines and retail businesses see Pinterest as an opportunity to post products and gain both recognition and customers.

“Pinterest is one of the first social sites to accept commercial updates, as you can update actual products and see real success from doing so. The Fancy [a photo sharing site], and even Kirtsy [an online portal of collections for women], all hold opportunities for small businesses, especially small businesses catering to women’s interests,” Csutoras said.

Social media provides the perfect catalyst for many niche markets, not just the female-centric.

“Already in Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, you have niche sections, fanpages, categories, groups, or boards, allowing you to focus on specific areas and target a specific audience. This is exactly what people should be doing and should be a part of their social media strategy and planning,” Csutoras said.

TIME magazine recently publicized that a majority of women use Pinterest while men use GooglePlus. Men dominate Reddit and StumbleUpon, but women maintain majority on Facebook and Twitter. For many businesses and organizations, this data supplies an opportunity to market exclusively to one gender.

Former softball player and winner of the 2010 World Cup Championship Ashley Charters, with partner Layne Bryant, has started her own headband company, Glitterbandz, sold online and marketed on Facebook and Twitter. The young entrepreneur acknowledges social media as an essential component to her growing business.

“Social media marketing is a huge factor in why our business has become successful,” said Charters. “There are so many people connected through social networking that it’s an easy way for any small business to get started. Young people are taking advantage of the benefits of social media marketing; we did and it has paid off.”

Charters credits Glitterbandz’s international success in countries like Canada, Europe, and Japan, to social media.
“I think a lot of small businesses are taking advantage of social media not only because it’s free marketing, but it’s also a great way to reach millions of people with a touch of a button. Technology is making it easier to grow a new business, and more quickly.” said Charters.

While international success can be the aspiration of any small business, it is important to note that the U.S. is unique in its consumption and transmission of social media.

“One thing to remember is that for the most part, the world is interested in social media, but only the U.S. really has the top social media communities, because of Silicon Valley and where they started from,” said Csutoras.

Controversy in Social Media

Social media marketing remains controversial. Experts have consistently questioned its effectiveness, arguing that young users are not affected by ads and still use the sites for their originally-intended purpose, to socialize.

Social media can be effective, but businesses must put time and effort into the campaign and test what works for the company, says Csutoras. What may work for one business may not work for another.

As the world shifts and technology becomes more prevalent, social media is no different than the introduction of TV in the time of radio. People must also be realistic about what they expect from social media.

“As people spend more time online and less reading magazines or watching TV, it is just a trade-up in how the average small business can market themselves,” Csutoras said. “I definitely think social media is helpful for startups, but I also don’t want people to put too much hope into one form of marketing as the basis for their company taking off or not. It is just one part in the puzzle for success.”

Nolz and Charters, who can credit social media to their success, agree that the future is not fixed in terms of social media. Both still have hopes of owning a store or boutique.

“The future for social media is unpredictable,” said Nolz. “I think that as long as a business owner can keep up with the new social mediums, they will continue to grow.”