Small business owners in economically challenged Merced County, CA, can now take advantage of a free, social media-based marketing program called Elements Merced to help them reach out to new customers. Elements Merced is aimed at small businesses in the county with less than $1 million in annual revenue. Owners will have the ability to link up with area college students trained in the business uses of social media to create marketing strategies. Elements Merced will be operated by the United Way of Merced County. It is supported by a $215,000 contribution from Citi Community Development. “Citi’s support for Elements Merced allows Merced County small businesses to harness technology to create economic opportunity,” says Mary Hogarty of Citi Community Development. “This program builds on the groundwork laid by thoughtful research and recommendations from local leaders.” Many of the more than 5,000 small businesses in the county have less than $1 million in revenue and are often operated by first-time entrepreneurs. Approximately 82 percent of business owners surveyed by the United Way would welcome this kind of help. Merced County has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and ranks among the lowest counties in education and economic development. Approximately 21 percent of the county’s residents live below the federal poverty line. Its almost 260,000 residents are disproportionately young, with young adults ages 18-30 representing approximately 30 percent of the population. Unemployment among this group is 48.7 percent, according to state economic development statistics. “Through our partnership with Citi, we will have the opportunity to transform challenges into solutions,” says United Way of Merced County Executive Director Flip Hassett. "At the same time, we will enhance and revitalize our small business sector and enrich local college students’ educational experience and provide them skills to succeed in the workplace and as entrepreneurs."