Many small-business owners don't understand social media, and American Express Co. is making increasing efforts to instruct them in the best uses of such sites. A focus of Amex’s efforts is its forum on LinkedIn, where bird-supply vendor Mitch Rezman participates.

More than 5,700 members belong to the forum, called Business Knowledge Share, and membership has doubled since the company touted its first small-business social-media tutorial there Jan. 26, an Amex spokesperson said via e-mail.

Rezman, a vice president at a Chicago company that sells supplies over the Internet for owners of exotic pet birds, says that so far he has brought more knowledge to the group than he has received.

"It's a bit like being a coal-miner; I ask all these questions and occasionally I get a nugget of information," Rezman says. Many of Rezman's questions on the forum go unanswered, he says.

The Amex brand, by itself, isn’t what attracted him.

"Personally I hate American Express … but if they're pushing something like social media for business, there must be something to it," Rezman says.

Amex is working hard to improve its image with small-business owners like Rezman.

The New York-based card network in recent months launched a series of free online videos and tutorials to help entrepreneurs figure out how to use social media. The first of three basic how-to guides in Amex's Social Media Show & Tell Series aim to demystify Facebook and foursquare; the latest entry, launched July 31, has an emphasis on Twitter.

However, the best social-media lessons Rezman has learned so far came from his personal trial and error.

Rezman's company, WindyCityParrot.com, has had a Facebook fan page for three years. Until recently, it yielded little business for him, he says.

That changed this year when Rezman began experimenting with Pinterest, a social networking site built around sharing photos. In July, he posted photos of baby egrets on Pinterest, and after linking that account to his company's Facebook and Twitter feeds, visitor traffic to all of the bird-supply shop's social media sites "shot up," he says.

Rezman estimates that simply posting intriguing bird photos on Pinterest resulted in 30 orders that generated $1,400 in sales, "and it only took me a few minutes while I was watching TV at night."

When he uploaded his most popular Pinterest images to the shop's Facebook page, his Facebook comments soared.

"Within 96 hours of connecting Pinterest to Facebook I went from 124 people talking about my site to 1,500 people commenting on it," Rezman says.

The shop routinely spends approximately $90 a month on Facebook advertising that results in about $1,000 in sales a month, Rezman estimates.

But traffic volume to his various social media sites varies wildly, so it is difficult to predict results, he notes.

Providing free advice on how to use social media is sure to lure many merchants, because most small-business owners "are very curious and floundering around" with Facebook and Twitter, Brian Riley, research director with CEB TowerGroup, said in an interview.

Amex obviously hopes to use entrepreneurs' interest in social media and other business tools as a way to strengthen its brand among the small-business owners that may want its products, Riley says.

But whether many small-business owners are actually using social media to drive higher revenue is unclear, Riley adds.

"There's no question that social media is the great buzzword of the decade and everybody wants to get into it, but … if the social media business model were easy to figure out, (the stock price) of Facebook would be ahead of its IPO price," he says.

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