One of the biggest things Afton Neal preached to her social media class for small business owners was to not make a Facebook post sound like an advertisement in any way.
“People don’t want ads, they want stories,” she told the class of about 10 small business owners and employees late last year.
Neal was one instructor who helped lead a series social media classes put on by the Downtown Grand Junction Business Improvement District. Neal owns Annelise Bridal Boutique on Colorado Avenue, but also has experience running social media accounts for some small businesses in the area. She also knows not everyone has her background using social media.
“Some businesses have been around 20 or 30 years and social is new to them,” Neal said. “We felt the stronger downtown social media is, it will bring more people downtown.”
Downtown Grand Junction has an eclectic mix of new and old businesses and business owners, some of whom are less adept at managing social media accounts in addition to running their business. But as social media has become more prevalent and the way businesses connect with customers has changed, it’s become increasingly important.
“We need to empower these businesses to advertise online and showcase what makes their store great so people will shop with them,” BID marketing and communications specialist Caitlyn Love said. “It’s really a long road without this if you want to appeal to a younger generation.”
Love enlisted Neal and some others to help kick off the classes and ran three sessions late last year dealing with the basics of starting a business Facebook page, how and what to post and the importance of photos. Later, they delved into Instagram, which, it seems, has become the top social choice for the millennial generation.
The classes were advertised to downtown businesses, but Love said all small businesses are welcome to attend. Love plans to add more classes in the spring.
“This is a really changing time where people need to use social,” Love said. “The BID and downtown are doing due diligence to give them the tools to empower them and the tools necessary to succeed. It’s real important to do social for our small businesses.”
Lori Smith, administrative manager for Il Bistro Italiano, attended the three classes after she was given the responsibility of managing the social media accounts for the upscale downtown restaurant.
Smith had a Facebook page, but mostly used it to see photos of her grandchildren. When it came to knowing the best practices to engage with customers, she felt like a novice.
Since the classes, Il Bistro’s has posted daily specials and new menu items on its Facebook page, while also giving followers an opportunity to better know the staff. One story was about a chef in the kitchen who had just had a baby.
“It’s rewarding to have followers respond and reach out,” Smith said. “We can see the engagement.”
Smith said the biggest obstacle for her is carving out the time to post on Facebook and create an Instagram account in between her other duties. But as she posts more, it becomes easier.
Il Bistro owner and chef Brunella Gualerzi said after a previous employee who had handled social media had left, there was a void and she knew they were behind the learning curve.
“There’s kind of a disconnect between what we like,” she said. “I hardly use social. I’m not good with it. I like to cook and do other things and we’ve been successful without it. We have a solid base.”
Kristy Motz opened Candle Kitchen downtown in April, but also considered herself challenged when it came to social media. She attended the three classes and felt they helped her learn. She also has an employee who she said spends around three or four hours per week focusing on social media.
“It gave me a base, let me know who to talk to and it’s giving me new ideas to make it more convenient,” Motz said.
Colorado Mesa University mass communication professor Elaine Venter specializes in teaching social media in her classes and tells her students that posting for a business is about connecting with customers on a personal level.
She said this is one area where small businesses have an advantage over the large chains or big brand names. While those big stores or brands can show a community focus, it may not be in this community, compared to a small business that does everything locally.
Plus, the business can provide an inside look at an operation instead of paying big money for a commercial that just gets the name out there.
“People want to feel more connected to businesses,” Venter said. “Small businesses have an advantage with that over big stores. Stories are a way to do that. … I think that’s what we’re looking for.”
In addition to classes that may be available, Venter said there are plenty of online tools as well. For example, Hootsuite, a social media management platform, has online blogs that Venter said provide useful tips for businesses.
Mesa County Libraries also has online help available through Lynda.com. Links can be found through mesacountylibraries.org. For in-person help, anyone can book a session through “Book a Librarian,” which allows for 30 minutes of one-on-one time with a librarian.
The Business Incubator also includes internet strategies as part of its courses for starting businesses. There are also free coaching opportunities.
Business Incubator Executive Director Jon Maraschin said social media has been a part of his organization’s business training for about a decade.
“If companies want to compete, they need a diverse plan on how to do that. They have to stay in the conversation to stay relevant,” Maraschin said. “If you’re on Facebook or Instagram, you need to be on there. Once every three weeks doesn’t work.”
When David Foster opened Kiln Coffee Bar on Main Street a couple years back, he decided the business would not spend any money on marketing and focus on engaging with people through social media.
Kiln instead starting doing giveaways online and had fundraisers for fellow businesses run through Facebook and Instagram. So far, Foster says it’s been more effective than buying ads.
“You connect with someone emotionally, rather than just visually,” Foster said.
Foster doesn’t have any background in social media, but mostly observed what other coffee roasters did and took things from them. His wife runs a lot of the company’s social sites and he said understanding psychology and sociology has helped him and his brother, Jon, when it comes to engaging with people online.
“I think businesses have an opportunity to give that sense of belonging to a greater purpose. It gives people something to believe in,” he said.
But the customer base also factors in, as Dennis Seth is learning as he has ventured into social media with his business, Mountain Time Watch Co. on North Avenue.
“We’re in a funny position. We tried other means of advertising and it’s mostly been ineffective,” Seth said.
Seth owns the business with his wife, Janet, who said their customer base is mostly over the age 50 and their customers don’t seem to be on social media as much.
Also working against them is the fact that their customers tend only visit once a year or every two years. So far they have not had any business that came in due to social media, Janet said.
“We’re not the typical small business that sees a big benefit from social media,” Janet Seth said.
Social media will not work the same way for everyone, Venter said. And the first question a business should ask is “why are we doing this?”
“If someone tells me everyone else is doing it, that’s not a great reason,” she said. “You have to know your why.”
But the reason can also be as simple as just wanting people to know about the business. Venter suggests businesses keep at it and know that it will take time to build a base.
“Be consistent, willing to learn and experiment and play,” she said.