By now almost everyone has felt the effects of the economic downturn that has taken place over recent years. In the wake of a global recession, numbers have been crunched, companies have become leaner and many independent business owners have been forced to close their doors. This last point is especially unfortunate considering that many economists believe small businesses to be the driving force of our country's economy. The growth of small businesses generates new capital and offers job opportunities to an increasingly unemployed nation.

November 26 marks the second year that American Express will celebrate an event it's calling 'Small Business Saturday.' On this day, which falls during one of the nation's busiest shopping weekends of the year, the company encourages the millions of American shoppers who will be out to 'Shop Small' and support their 'favorite local stores and help fuel the economy.' This noble effort is not only a call to action for consumers but also provides opportunities for small businesses to create offers, initiate Facebook communities and receive e-marketing materials to promote their businesses online.

Lifeblue understands that there are challenges that face any of the hopeful individuals out there who start out with nothing but a dream and a plan. In our five years of operation, LB has not only survived, but thrived, and while much of this success is attributed to providing a quality service, much of it can also be credited to the company's use of cost-effective marketing tools now available to just about anyone with an Internet connection. Below we have outlined some of the ways that these services can help a small business become a success.

Company WebsiteAs a company that designs and builds websites, we firmly believe in the power of an effective and engaging online experience. In this day and age, much of a business' consumer traffic is generated by an interest that is sparked long before that person is in the vicinity of your store, but instead miles away in front of his computer. Create a good, user-friendly website that allows consumers to research your company and its products and services. As more and more people turn to mobile for all of their online needs, having a working mobile site is also in your best interest. Just make sure your site is in shape; it's the window into your store.

Review SitesReview sites, such as Yelp, and reviews found on Google Maps can also prove important in developing your business. The Digital Age allows for customers to have their say and spread word-of-mouth endorsements'or defamation'to a global audience. While you can't necessarily control what gets said about your business, you can regulate how you react to it. Respond to negative comments. This can help you discover how to improve and gives you the opportunity to right your wrong and turn an unsatisfied customer into a very happy one. Use review resources to know exactly what's being said about your company. These comments can provide insight on how to improve and reveal opportunities to capitalize on something that works.

Social MediaThe rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter and Foursquare have provided any company with an inexpensive method of customer engagement. These vehicles allow for user interaction and build on consumer relationships by providing a forum that fosters the two-way conversation between company and customer. Create an offer on FourSquare that brings in business, or use a Facebook page to advertise promotions to consumers that will build loyalty. Take advantage of the location features on these programs that allow consumers to publicize their visit to your establishment. One of the best parts about social media is that it can generate something money can't buy: word-of-mouth endorsements with the potential of worldwide reach.

Online VideoWhile paid commercials are expensive, publishing videos to your own YouTube channel is not. The video site YouTube gives anyone the opportunity to create and share video worldwide, and as a small business, it could be just what you need to get your message out. Viral videos have been shown to possess great influential power and can even be more effective than a commercial. Create one and post it on your website and social media profiles to gain exposure. The great thing about creating your own online video is that there are no time restrictions, and it allows for more artistic freedom in crafting your message.

SEOSearch engine optimization (SEO) can also help get your business out there. Starting out, your business' site will not be at the forefront of an organic search simply because of its newness. Good SEO practices can help guide consumers to your site when they are searching for a product or service your company provides. Look into using programs like Google AdWords, where you can purchase keywords that will bring up your site in a relevant search. Most of these programs provide analytics to evaluate the effectiveness of your paid placement, and you can then decide whether or not this tactic is working for you and adjust accordingly.

This is an exciting time to be taking the plunge and investing in your own business. With a variety of tools available online, it has never been easier to reach millions with your message. Advertising can be expensive, but online marketing costs very little and can be just as effective.

Today you have the chance to build personal relationships with consumers around the world and engage them with media that is interactive and dynamic.

Small businesses are extremely important to the American economy. When you think about it, every large, successful business today started out as a small business itself. Use these tools to find the mix that works for your company, and let the business start booming.

-Savannah Harper, LB Wordsmith