-- Deborah L. Cohen covers small business for Reuters.com. She can be reached at email@example.com --
By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO (Reuters.com) - It's probably one of the last groups you'd expect to stake out a presence on YouTube, the Internet video channel characterized by irreverent rants from the guy next door and unwitting B-roll from mainstream news.
But last month the Small Business Administration, a government agency better known for bureaucracy than cutting-edge technology, put out the word that it had indeed begun to launch informational videos on YouTube, the youth-oriented Web portal, here www.youtube.com/sba.
"With millions of visitors, most of them under 35, YouTube offers a prime opportunity to use current technology and the appeal of a popular online platform to further promote the agency's programs and services," said Karen G. Mills, the SBA's newly appointed administrator, in an August 26 press release disclosing the move.
The first instinct might be to chuckle. Anyone who has followed the SBA throughout the travails of the recession realizes the agency has been under scrutiny over the effectiveness of its primary mission of delivering financial support to a vast array of small companies. Could this be a bit off point?
The reaction is exacerbated upon discovering that the first 10-part series posted to the SBA YouTube site, entitled "Delivering Success," was co-produced with another federal behemoth not typically associated with leading-edge practices - The U.S. Postal Service.
The skeptics include people like George Cloutier, a small business turn-around expert and author of the recently released book, "Profits Aren't Everything, They're the Only Thing."
"SBA officials should be spending less time worrying about YouTube and more time on the thousands of small businesses that fail every week," Cloutier told Reuters. "We'll lose half a million to a million small businesses while they're worrying about the next generation."
Maybe so. But to be fair, the YouTube development, albeit embryonic, could mark the beginning of a sea change for the SBA and other government agencies in the nascent stages of developing new media sea legs. It could help more people navigate the agency's extensive and sometimes complicated service offerings and help to build transparency.
CUES FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
Think about it. Mills was appointed by the newest resident of the White House, a man whose own presidential campaign momentum was in large part influenced by the grass-roots chain-rattling of his constituencies over the Internet.
As was evidenced following President Obama's health-care address to Congress on Wednesday evening, he continues to use blast emails to build support for his platform.
"Deborah," my own individually targeted email read late Wednesday, "I just finished laying out my plan for health reform at a joint session of Congress. Now, I'm writing directly to you because what happens next is critical - and I need your help."
With dispatches such as these, it's only natural that Obama's lieutenants should embrace similar viral methods of information sharing in their own respective arms of government.
"It's an opportunity for us to really expand our reach," says Jonathan Swain, an SBA spokesman, when asked about the YouTube initiative. Much of the agency's online content, he points out, exists in several places, including an interagency site it runs called business.gov. The problem is people often don't know about it.
"It's putting it out there in a place on the Internet that gets significantly higher amounts of traffic than our government site ever would or could," Swain tells Reuters. To date, for instance, the agency's introductory video had recorded 3,036 YouTube views since its launch.
Future YouTube content will span a variety of industries and business models, with the intention of offering a little something for everyone under the wide umbrella that the SBA represents. Expect more in-depth information about topics ranging from how small businesses can take advantage of the Recovery Act loan program to government contracting opportunities and guidelines on exporting.
The expanded dissemination of information is primarily being done internally, using existing staff, with no special budget, Swain says.
"What you'll see there in the next few months is best practices, success stories of small business owners who successfully navigated these tough economic times, who kept their door opens," he adds.
Beyond YouTube, the agency is pushing ahead with other ways to leverage new media, including helping groups of entrepreneurs make connections on social networking sites such as Linked In. Business.gov has also been experimenting with Twitter and blogging.
Media experts say the SBA's YouTube efforts are definitely a step in the right direction, a nod to the reality that retiring baby boomers will be outflanked by the incoming ranks of heavy Internet users, the Generational X and Millennial set.
"If the SBA is putting their messages on YouTube, it's very smart," says Yves Darbouze, CEO of Plot Multimedia. Darbouze creates social media and online interactive campaigns, and has provided online expertise to everyone from P Diddy to Caroline's Comedy Club. He was also a consultant to the Obama campaign, producing viral video content targeted to youth audiences.
"If they get aggressive and do this the right way, this will take away some of the bureaucracy," Darbouze says. "All of these social media applications can make the bureaucracy more transparent."