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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...