Often, they have barely enough capital to pay the staff and keep the lights on, let alone advertise in newspapers or on television and radio. But the Internet is relatively inexpensive, the cost of computers aside - and, those who have taken the digital leap say, it offers what conventional methods of marketing usually cannot: a targeted approach to reaching potential customers.
"We started with e-mail blasts and improved upon it," said Jeff Mead, vice president of operations at the Kokes Organization, a developer of 55-plus communities in Ocean County. "We dove into social media: Facebook and Twitter. We had to get on board to compete. We couldn't ignore the technology."
Nor should any small business, said Melinda Emerson, a Drexel Hill entrepreneur, small-business coach, and author who practices what she preaches when it comes to digital marketing. Better known as SmallBizLady, she has 115,000 followers on Twitter, 5,000 on Facebook, and 2,500 on LinkedIn.
"Social media is the best thing to ever happen to small-business owners," Emerson said, calling it "the great equalizer."
What astounds her in this increasingly Yellow Pages-less age is that more than 50 percent of small-business owners still don't have a website. Of those, Emerson asks: "Can customers find you? Your website is your front door."
Indeed, consumers have come to expect a digital presence - websites to coupons - from most businesses, said Anita Campbell, a small-business consultant from Ohio and founder and editor in chief of Small Business Trends, an online publication.
"They expect you to have a Twitter account. They are expecting you to have a Facebook connection," Campbell said. "The consumer today is conditioned to look for that and expect that. And if they don't find it, they start to question: 'Are you really here for the long haul? Are you really committed?' "
The notable trend in 2011, she said, is "the explosion in interest in the tablet." Not only does it offer many mobile conveniences of the smartphone, it has a much larger screen, giving consumers yet another incentive to do more business online, Campbell said.
What a small-business owner must decide is how much he or she wants to devote to being there, Campbell said: "That's the real challenge with social media. It's so enticing to spend a lot of time chatting with people."
She suggests scheduling time to do it, while cautioning that time is a valuable commodity in business, especially to a small-business owner with few employees to share the workload.
At the McMullin Design Group in Haddonfield, the "rule" is one hour a day. The effort - mostly blogging and Facebooking - allows McMullin "to have a voice about what I do . . . I'm basically demystifying what interior designers do."
That has included blog posts on how wallpaper has evolved from "the typical Laura Ashley chintz from the '70s and '80s," she said, to an item she titled "Family Room Showdown: The Fireplace vs. The TV."
The idea, said McMullin, who has been in business 10 years, is to drive those followers to her website, where she features pictures of her design work.
That's what sold Kara Steele, who recently hired McMullin to, in essence, create a sense of place in the Mansfield, Warren County, house where she and her husband, Joel, have lived for five years.
"Everything Bridget had on her website, we loved," Steele said.
She was also impressed with the site's detail, which Steele concluded conveyed a high level of professional commitment by McMullin.
Businesses should be wary of the message a shoddy digital presence sends, Steele added.
"If they don't put the time into their business, what are they going to do for me?" she asked.
Bridget McMullin talks about how social media have enhanced her interior design business at www.philly.com/mcmullin
Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @mastrud on Twitter.