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Make Social Networks Work for Your Start-Up

When Maxine Gardner started an online business selling original artwork in 2010, she says she felt compelled to immediately dive into social networking to promote it.

She had just completed several workshops on entrepreneurship where free sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were a hot topic. She also didn’t have enough money to buy advertising because her main source of income until that point—freelance photography work—had dried up.

But Ms. Gardner says she didn’t know which social networks made the most sense for her Huntington Woods, Mich., start-up, called Artful Vision, or how to begin. She also had a slew of other tasks on her plate and wasn’t sure if joining sites like Facebook should take priority.

“In the beginning, it was helter-skelter,” recalls Ms. Gardner, now 59 years old. “You’re so busy, you don’t what you’re doing.”

If you’re starting a business on a shoestring budget, you might be tempted to build a social-media presence for it right off the bat. Social networks are typically free to join and can be used for marketing, or even as an alternative to a company website.

They’re also wildly popular. Facebook users spent an average of seven hours on the site in February, according to market-research firm comScore.

But knowing which social-networking sites to join and how to take advantage of them can be daunting for a rookie entrepreneur. There are dozens to choose from—including fast-growing sites like Google+ and Pinterest—and scores of businesses are competing for attention on them.

Experts recommend waiting to jump in until your start-up is fully functioning because effectively managing one or more social-networking profiles can take a great deal of time and energy. What’s more, they say rushing in without knowing what you’re doing can potentially result in embarrassment or worse. For example, a poorly executed reply to a Facebook message from an unhappy customer could go “viral”—meaning it could get reposted many times over on the Web—if the recipient were to share it with his or her Facebook friends.

“Your first priority is to get your operation started,” says Kevin Ready, author of “Startup: An Insider’s Guide to Launching and Running a Business” and a seasoned entrepreneur in Austin, Texas. “Social media is a long-term investment and not magic. It’s hard work.”

When you’re ready to test the waters, Mr. Ready suggests starting with just one social network, ideally one that caters to your target market. For example, you might try LinkedIn if your business sells goods or services to other businesses because that site’s membership is made up of mostly companies and business professionals, he says.

One caveat: It may be wise to secure your start-up’s name on any social networks you’re confident you’ll use even before you’re ready to actually get started. This way you’ll avoid possibly losing the name to another business or individual while you focus on building your venture. You can post a “coming soon” message until you’re ready to begin using it.

One of the first steps that Seph Skerritt took when launching ProperCloth.com, an online custom-clothing business, was to claim its name on Facebook and Twitter. “Your worst nightmare is someone else gets it and you can’t use your own brand name,” says the 32-year-old, who began working on his New York-based business in 2008 while still in graduate school.

But Mr. Skerritt regrets attempting to use the sites right afterward because he got burned out trying to keep up with both while still building the infrastructure for his venture. “You could spend all day replying to people and starting conversations,” he says. So early on he decided to put his company’s Twitter account on hold to make his workload more manageable.

Today, he has two employees, one of whom is responsible for assisting him with social-networking-related tasks, including his start-up’s resurrected Twitter page. “We both have access to the accounts so we can jump in and respond to clients,” Mr. Skerritt says.

If you haven’t done so already, consider spending a few days or weeks familiarizing yourself with social-networking sites as a consumer before creating profiles on any for your business.

John Coffren took this step with Facebook because he’d never spent time on the site before opening Bliss Bakery, a bricks-and-mortar shop in Virginia Beach, Va., in mid-2008. He set up a personal account and checked out company profiles, including those of his competitors.

“If you see it from the consumer end, you definitely get an appreciation for how [consumers are] going to view your business,” says Mr. Coffren, who last summer added a second Bliss Bakery location also in Virginia Beach.

One of his key take-aways: The most popular company profiles were those that engaged visitors with contests, surveys and special offers. He now runs about 10 promotions on Facebook a year that involve giving away free baked goods, such as doughnuts and cupcakes, to a random selection of his company’s followers.

“The consumer nowadays is looking for what’s in it for them,” says Mr. Coffren.

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

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