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Get online to boost sales

Small and medium-sized enterprises must improve their digital skills if they want to build a brand profile and connect with new customers.

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Sandberg: lending a hand to small business

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg flew into Europe this week on a mission to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) improve their digital skills. The high-profile Facebook chief operating officer was in Brussels to unveil a European Union-wide initiative that promises to deliver training to a million people at thousands of small businesses throughout the bloc. Facebook's scheme is ultimately designed to expand the number of SMEs using social media and digital tools, including its own platform, to build their businesses. It already offers a free online learning hub, Blueprint, but says its new scheme will provide face-to-face training for 100,000 SMEs across Europe, plus another 250,000 online.

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The social-media giant's research shows that 57% of businesses on its platform believed it had helped them increase sales, while 49% have taken on new staff to cope with the extra demand it had generated. Facebook is just one of several social-media networks with plans for SMEs. For those intent on building a digital presence, this competition presents opportunities, with a range of free tools and services at their disposal, as well as paid-for services that are more specifically targeted.

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Facebook's target-audience feature is just one example of how platforms are working hard to connect SMEs to very specific customer bases. Snapchat, for example, has launched a range of features focused on smaller businesses, including a geofilter tool that allows businesses to target users in a localised area. Twitter, meanwhile, launched a new low-cost subscription-based advertising service at the end of last year, enabling SMEs to pay around £75 a month for ten promoted tweets each day. LinkedIn has launched a range of services to encourage small businesses to use its platform to create content, build brand profile and connect with new customers.

What's in it for them?

For the networks, SMEs represent a growth opportunity. European Union statistics show that although almost three-quarters of larger companies have a presence on social media in most cases on several platforms just 43% of smaller businesses are exploiting it.

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For SME the challenge of getting started on social media is less daunting given the free help now available, particularly as platforms such as Facebook see engaging with entrepreneurs as one way to establish their credentials as positive contributors to the economies and broader societies of their key markets. And given the undoubted value for businesses that successfully exploit digital channels, it makes sense to take advantage of that help.

Did RBS let small firms go hang?

The scandal over the Royal Bank of Scotland's treatment of small businesses refuses to die down. MPs sitting on the Treasury Select Committee will this week quiz bank executives over the actions of its restructuring unit, which stands accused of going to extreme lengths to profit from struggling small businesses, and allowing them to get into further financial difficulties as part of a deliberate strategy to maximise revenues.

The cross-party committee launched the inquiry amid a stand-off with the Financial Conduct Authority, whose own investigation cleared RBS of the most serious allegations against it. Next week's questioning is potentially explosive given the publication of internal RBS documents in recent days. In one memo from 2009, headed "Rope", an RBS manager wrote: "Sometimes you need to let customers hang themselves. You have then gained their trust and they know what's coming when they fail to deliver." RBS says the memo was written by a junior no longer employed by the bank and that it does not condone the document. It has previously conceded its practices "did not meet the standard it set of itself, which impacted on how it treated some of its SME customers".

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