In Oakland, Facebook woos small businesses

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On a recent Friday morning, Taylor Desmangles and Tasha Burleson got up at 6:30 a.m. to drive from Sacramento to Oakland. They arrived at the Oakland Airport Hilton at 9:30, just in time for Facebook’s “Boost Your Business” event.

The pair run a culture blog called How To Be Real on self-awareness and cultural awakening. They hope to grow it, and eventually connect with sponsors and businesses that share their philosophy.

But first, they have to get the word out. They made the drive to see a presentation by a Facebook small-business expert and a panel of four businesses with experience using the social network.

“A big part of what we do is getting subscribers and viewers and people to share our posts, so it’s definitely very relevant to us,” Burleson said. “We’ve been using our personal [Facebook] pages, and we haven’t quite got around to making a business page.”

Desmangles and Burleson were among 200 attendees who listened attentively as Jeremy Lynch, a community engagement manager at Facebook, went through a one-hour presentation teaching people to use its social network for their small businesses.

Since 2011, Facebook has put on over 130 events like this one aimed at small businesses. This fall alone, the Boost show has played in Los Angeles, San Jose, Queens, Tacoma and Tucson.

“We go to all different markets — small and large,” said Devon Wardlow, a small business policy manager for Facebook, who coordinates Boost events from Washington, D.C. “I’ve been all around the country. We’re like traveling rock stars.”

Her colleague Samantha Spielman said that they even had “a groupie,” someone who has come to three events.

The workshop is just one of the ways that the company is trying to attract more business users. For Facebook, signing up small businesses brings many benefits. One is potential advertising revenue. Another is entry to the local-services market, where Yelp, Google and Amazon also compete.

In September, Facebook announced that 45 million small businesses worldwide were active on the social network. In the same month, the company added more features to its business pages, beefing up mobile functionality and adding new sections, call-to-action buttons and a messaging feature.

In the company’s third-quarter earnings call, COO Sheryl Sandberg said Facebook had just 2.5 million active advertisers even though there were more than 40 million business pages. They represent “a lot of opportunity,” she said.

At the event, Lynch, the small-business expert and host, told attendees that “organic reach is on the decline.” With so much content on Facebook, he said, businesses increasingly must pay to make it into users’ news feeds.

Wearing a suit jacket over a blue-and-white Facebook t-shirt, Lynch walked through various ways that businesses can get seen on Facebook: promote, boost, carousel ads, targeting segments of users, local awareness campaigns, and A/B testing — running two different ads, and comparing the results.

He shared Facebook success stories from around the country, like one about a Chevy dealership in Chicago whose Facebook local awareness ad campaign led to sales of 23 new cars. Punchy success-story videos emphasized the point with phrases from business owners like “within 36 hours, we got a thousand subscriptions!” and “the potential to double our business!”

Donnella Reid owns a rhinestone apparel company called RoyalTee’s in Oakland. She does not have a personal Facebook profile, only a business page, and she said she wants to use it more effectively.

“I wrote down some major things that I need to do as far as my company is concerned,” Reid said. “The ads — that’s the main thing I need to start doing so I can reach a targeted market.”

After Lynch’s presentation, four local business owners and marketers took the stage to talk about their success using Facebook. The panel included hip San Francisco drink shop Boba Guys  and Berkeley’s Cupcakin’ Bake Shop.

Andrew Chau, co-founder of Boba Guys, which has two locations in San Francisco (and two more on the way, in SF and New York City), spoke of how his company depended on Facebook in its early days to communicate with customers when they were just a pop-up shop at Ken Ken Ramen. Social media allows smaller businesses to compete against large companies in difficult economic times, he said.

“I would argue that a big company does social media worse than a mom-and-pop because there’s an inherent authenticity with the mom-and-pops,” Chau said.

After the event, Desmangles and Burleson talked about what they had taken away from the day as they waited in line at a selfie station, where attendees could take pictures in front of a Facebook sign.

“The main message that stuck with me was local awareness, because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, make people aware of what we’re doing in our community,” Desmangles said.

Her partner Burleson said she was most interested in how they could use ads to boost the visibility of a post. “I thought that was very useful and definitely something we’re going to work on as soon as we get home,” she said.

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