Small business owners comparing the environment today versus that of five years ago feel that the rise of Facebook and other social networks has been both a plus and a minus, making running their businesses more complicated, but offering them easier, inexpensive ways to market, according to a survey released Monday by engagement marketing firm Constant Contact.

According to Constant Contact, of the 59 percent of respondents who believe running a business is more difficult today than it was five years ago, 49 percent feel that it is harder to keep pace with technology, trailing the 55 percent who feel that the economy has hit their businesses hard, but ahead of the 40 percent who cited more direct competition.

Only 12 percent of respondents felt that it was easier to run a business today compared with five years ago, and of those, 89 percent cited online marketing tools that make promoting their businesses easier and cheaper.

Online marketing tools, including Facebook and other social networks, were the most cited change in how small businesses operate today versus five years ago, at 84 percent of respondents. In terms of social media specifically, 87 percent use it for marketing today, compared with just 10 percent five years ago.

Mary Jennifer Russell, owner of Sugaree’s Bakery in New Albany, Miss., told Constant Contact:

We’ve found that social media and email marketing has made it easier to run our business today, especially around the holidays. We’ll post a special on Facebook or through email, and people start ordering immediately online, and also start coming into the store right away.

Constant Contact CEO Gail Goodman added:

Supporting local is a growing consumer trend. The national discussion about the importance of small business to our economic recovery has raised awareness, as have shop local movements like Small Business Saturday. Local and mobile search is also making it easier for small businesses to reach consumers. When a local restaurant can have its menu, along with that day’s specials, readily available to restaurant seekers browsing their smart phone for a good dinner spot nearby, it’s easy for customers to choose them.

Social media has created a new, highly visible channel for small-business word-of-mouth referrals. The countless word-of-mouth moments that once happened at industry conferences or backyard barbeques are now happening in front of the eyes of business owners and customers alike, right on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social media is creating the opportunity for real dialogue and, in the process, is amplifying word-of-mouth referrals.

Small business owners: How would you have responded to the survey by Constant Contact?

Farm stand image courtesy of Shutterstock.