MANHATTAN – Researchers at Kansas State University are hailing a newly established center to study social media and other online services as an opportunity to help rural small businesses increase their profitability long-term.

Lauri Baker, associate professor of agricultural communications and journalism, said the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement officially launched an online learning website on Sept. 16 to help small businesses score big with new media technology.

“We are here to conduct research that helps people improve the bottom line of their business and to improve rural economies,” said Baker, noting that much of the center’s current research represents two to three years of recent work.

Their findings and other educational content can be found online at www.ruralengagement.org.

“We saw a need for independently owned rural businesses to learn how to capitalize on new online media technologies in order to advance their business goals,” said Cheryl Boyer, associate professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources.

Baker, Boyer and agricultural economics professor Hikaru Peterson are co-founders of the center. Baker said the team members’ backgrounds provide a well-rounded approach to marketing research for business owners.

In addition to social media – Facebook and Twitter research is abundant – the team has already looked at other online tools, such as how a small business can effectively use such popular consumer sites as eBay and Amazon.

“You’re not selling just to your neighbors anymore,” Baker said. Online media “provides the opportunity to sell to someone on the other side of the globe. It has opened a lot of doors to small business owners.”

Scott Stebner, managing director for the center and a former small-business man, says business owners are open to new information and new operations if they make money and aren’t time-wasters.

Already, the center is seeing success. Stebner told of a rural garden center that in two months increased its sales to customers in 20 states by capitalizing on online sales. That same business is now dedicating one full greenhouse to online sales.

“The biggest thing when you are working with any small business owner is taking these complex, abstract findings and making them personally relevant,” Stebner said.

“We want to help them increase profit but also help business owners understand how they can use new media and social media to increase the relationships and communication they have with their customers.”

The center’s online materials are in blog format so that they can be continually updated. As Stebner says, “new media is always new.”

“The struggles of small business owners are real across the state, across the country,” he added. “Our focus right now is Kansas, but the findings can be transferred to business owners everywhere who are just looking for social media strategies to help them compete against the bigger stores.”

The center’s main website is at www.k-state.edu/cree, and interested persons may email the staff at newmedia@ksu.edu, or call 785-532-1173.