Small business owners are increasing their emphasis on establishing and promoting themselves online to network and increase their customer base. An overwhelming majority (90 percent) dedicates time to networking online, and 74 percent find networking online just as, if not more, valuable than networking in person, according to a new survey released today by Manta, the largest online community dedicated entirely to small business.

Nearly 50 percent of small business owners surveyed say the most valuable benefit of networking online is gaining and targeting prospective customers. Moreover, 78 percent say they gained at least a quarter of their new customers through online or social media channels this year.

“Small businesses understand they need to go where their audience is. Participating, networking and being found online is extremely important today in growing their business, so it’s not surprising that they are embracing the channel,” said Pamela Springer, CEO of Manta.

“We’re empowering members of the Manta community to create a comprehensive showcase for their company, products and services, and member profile all in one place. And, since more than 36 million people come to Manta each month searching for companies and their related products and services, these searches will now become even more valuable and more profitable for our members.”

“As 97 percent of consumers use the Internet to research products or services in their local area, and those searches regularly include company name, product/service, or business owner, it is critical small businesses build awareness of themselves and their company online. Manta is providing them with the ability to create and house all of this content about their company in one place, which enables them to be found in all the ways customers search for businesses,” said Jed Williams, BIA/Kelsey Program Director.

However, the large amount of online and social media channels available can be overwhelming for today’s small business owner to navigate and use successfully, as 58 percent of small businesses surveyed say they struggle to find value in using Facebook to promote their business or don’t have a page at all. Pinterest and Groupon, channels considered to be popular with consumers, turned out to be the most unfruitful online channels for small businesses, receiving a 1 percent and less than 1 percent response, respectively. On the flip side, nearly 25 percent of small businesses surveyed say their company website drives the most business for them, which is a simple place for busy small business owners to start driving awareness online.

“Over time, I’ve realized that it’s very important for me to maintain a consistent presence for both my business and myself online. More and more consumers, who are my prospective customers, are looking online for information about companies who offer remodeling services and architectural plans,” said Joseph Buczek, President of Indiana and Missouri-based Lighthouse Construction and Restoration, Inc. “My presence on Manta allows me to expand awareness of both my company and myself as a small business owner online. With Manta’s help, my website traffic has increased from 2-3 visits per month to 200-300 visits per month, which has helped enormously in landing new customers.”