Community-based Social Media Boosts Local Businesses during COVID-19

Read time: 2 minutes

Having a social media strategy is essential for businesses, especially small or local ones. Social media business pages are cheaper than radio or newspapers advertisements, and don’t require much infrastructure to run. Most importantly, social media provide the opportunity to create direct relationships and a sense of community with their customers, building brand loyalty and resiliency. This is proving extremely helpful for many local businesses whose existences are being threatened by COVID-19.

Many local business owners are especially great at taking a community approach to social media. Owners will answer every comment personally, take suggestions and concerns seriously, and participate in community events or markets. Customers come to care not just about the product or service, but about the owners and staff themselves, who just might be their neighbours. So when a crisis like COVID-19 forces owners to shutter their doors unexpectedly, the customers don’t disappear – in fact, they’re eager to help out as much as they can.

Every day, when I check my social media feeds, I see local businesses reaching out for support, and customers responding by writing encouraging comments, making purchases, and sharing posts with their friends. I even see local businesses sharing posts from other businesses – a true “We’re all in this together” mentality. This, in my opinion, demonstrates the best of what social media can do – rally a community together around a common cause.

I reached out to Jules Van Bergen and Dee Hernandez, the owners of Pressed for Time Paninis in Guelph (one of my favourite local restaurants), for their perspective. I’m a long-time follower of their Instagram account, and have seen first-hand how they’ve used it to stay close to their customers.

Q: Why did you originally decide to take such a personal approach to your social media accounts?

A: We have said from the beginning “we are our brand”. We wanted it to feel like we were cooking for you in our home kitchen surrounded by our plants and favorite cookbooks. We love that our guests know who’s preparing their food and coming up with all those puns! The Guelph community is extremely important to us, they are loyal and they care about supporting small business and community and that’s the reason we chose to start this journey exactly where we are. When you give a large company a sale, you don’t get a “little song and dance”. We want our followers to see investment in ourselves and our business when you look through our social media accounts. Our custom made t-shirts “paninis pay my bills” is the genuine truth, it’s just the two of us with no staff and that shines through, now more than ever. 

Like many restaurants, Pressed for Time Paninis has recently adapted to offer produce baskets and prepared meals, which has been well-received by customers. I was curious to learn how Jules and Dee are leveraging their social media community during COVID-19.

Q: How have you used social media to change the way you’re conducting business during COVID-19?

A: We have used social media to share information on our store hours, menus and notifying our followers of any new or changed procedures in this strange time we find ourselves in. We are posting about our prepared meals, produce baskets, gift cards/videos on how to buy them. We also started using Instagram as a store, a few days ago we added a button on our Instagram profile page where people can purchase gift cards, this shop feature was just released. We also have been using it as a communication tool to keep in touch with fellow business owners and our well missed guests of the Panini Palace! This communication led us to collaborate with local businesses for giveaways and participate in the Guelph Box subscription service, which allowed us to sell and distribute 225 bottles of our hot sauce to the community.

Sharing posts and showcasing profiles of local businesses has helped boost our business, along with the other activities mentioned. The number of weekly profile visits has just more than doubled in the last month, we’ve gained approximately 200 followers, and our story mentions have increased around 50%.

Jules and Dee say that 80% of their current customer base previously existed before COVID-19, which is a clear example of the loyalty their customers feel toward their business. It isn’t the social media platforms themselves that have created that loyalty, but Jules and Dee’s brand and personalities, authentically reflected in their online presence.

“While we still feel the uncertainty of the world right now, we don’t feel we would have to permanently close if we didn’t have a social media community. We attribute this due to the loyal local community support we have surrounding our business, and this amazing downtown neighborhood we are lucky to be a part of.  There are other tools we can and have been using to help get the information out there – for example: our website and monthly newsletters, advertising through Guelph today and 3rd party delivery services such as Skip the dishes and Uber Eats, selling our products at other local businesses, as well as distributing updated menus to neighborhoods.”

Based on this testimony, and what I’m seeing on my own feeds, I conclude that while social media communities may not be the only thing holding up local businesses right now, they are certainly providing a boost during this time of crisis. It’s a pretty compelling argument to inject authenticity and personality into your social media accounts.

On that note, if you’re a small business owner and need some help communicating with your customers during this time, I have capacity for some pro bono work such as press releases or email statements. Please reach out to me.

For information on how to support local businesses, check out the following resources:
Coronavirus is hurting small businesses. Here’s how to help. (Global News)
Guelph Coronavirus Community Response, a Community-sourced page for people needing and offering help.

Communication: Your Ticket to Recruiting Great Volunteers

Volunteers are extraordinarily valuable to organizations, especially non-profits and charities. They extend capacity, often allowing an organization to offer more programs and services to the community it serves. Great volunteers also bring perspective, skills, and diversity. If you’re looking for new volunteers, how do you attract great ones to your network? It comes down to the way you communicate during and after the recruitment process.

The first thing a prospective volunteer will do is Google you. Your website is likely geared toward your customers and patrons, so you’ll want to create a specific page for volunteer information. Gear the tone and messaging to the volunteers you are hoping to attract; for example, can the role be filled by someone who has a full-time job and family commitments, or are you hoping for a retired person who may have some more time on their hands? Clearly lay out your needs and requirements, but understand that you may have to make adjustments based on the skills, interests, and availability of your candidates. For example, many organizations I’ve worked with hold volunteer meetings in the evenings so that the work day is unaffected.

Avoid an overly “salesy” tone, and opt for a more conversational or personal one. Remember, time is more valuable than money, and you’ll need to make a meaningful connection if you’re going to convince them to share their finite number of daily hours with you.

Volunteer candidates have different motivations than employees; they can’t be tempted by a competitive salary or a good benefits package. While they may sincerely want to contribute to your cause, they may also be looking for an opportunity to develop skills, make friends and connections, or build their portfolio. Don’t focus solely on what you want your volunteers to do for you; instead, explain how it can be a mutually beneficial relationship. This diagram from Volunteer Canada demonstrates the many values of volunteering:

Once you have chosen a candidate, ensure that they have a positive onboarding experience. Keep up the momentum of that initial connection by giving them the attention you’d give any new employee: information, expectations, and a project they can start on right away. More than once, I’ve heard of volunteers leaving after only a few months with an organization because there was a lack of direction about what they should be doing. This can be avoided by designating a volunteer coordinator or point of contact who will be able to address any questions or concerns. It can be hard to allocate this kind of time with limited resources, but it’s worth developing a welcome package and other communications for the long-term engagement of your volunteers.

Your volunteers can become your biggest champions. Be sure to collect feedback through regular meetings and an annual survey. Testimonials and stories can be used for blog content, marketing tools, and recruitment, so don’t be afraid to ask your volunteers to share their experiences. It also won’t hurt to hold Volunteer Appreciation events every so often. Let’s celebrate our volunteers, the heart and soul of our community!

Written in celebration of National Volunteer Week. To learn more, and for volunteer management resources, visit the Volunteer Canada website.

Creating an Indigenous-focused Beauty Company

This article was originally posted on January 18, 2020 on the Innovate Inclusion website.

Jennifer Harper is the Founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics, a successful online business known for its high-quality lipsticks and for its focus on Indigenous empowerment. Cheekbone Beauty has a dedicated social media following of people who identify with the brand’s positive messaging of diversity and inclusion.

I reach Jenn at her home office on the Wednesday after American Thanksgiving, the weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

“It’s so busy right now! We sold more products this weekend than any year before – we’ve even completely sold out of some lines,” she says as we get started. “It’s a great problem to have, though. We’re growing quickly.”

Jenn is friendly, positive, and extremely open about her journey. It’s clear that she’s passionate about her business, which was born out of a very personal story.

Jenn’s Story

Image designed by Rachel Nico

Jenn, who is Indigenous, grew up in Niagara with her Caucasian mother and had minimal connection to her Indigenous heritage or community. She says she often struggled with her identity as an Indigenous youth, especially because she was unaware of the history of residential schools or transgenerational trauma until about ten years ago.

“In 2008, I started to pay attention to the way media talked about the First Nations community. It was always so negative, and was often about stereotypes such as alcohol addiction. It perpetuates shame, which causes you to not want to talk about things. I have had difficulties with alcohol, and so did my dad, and other members of my family. A big part of my healing has been learning to talk about my struggles and not feeling ashamed of them.”

“Growing up as part of Generation X, I didn’t have a ton of female role models and definitely no Indigenous ones. I also didn’t learn a lot about entrepreneurship at school; I don’t think I could have named more than one entrepreneur from my generation who had built a business or a company.”

Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics was born out of a desire to improve Indigenous representation and to support Indigenous youth. Jenn firmly believes that a business can be both successful and have a social cause. She donates 10% of Cheekbone Beauty’s profits to Shannen’s Dream, which supports the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society. The company also often features Indigenous models in their branding.

“I just want people to feel how much we love Indigenous youth, and how much we love each customer and how grateful we are that they order and purchase our products. Every dollar allows us to grow and move forward with the business. I have so much heartfelt gratitude and respect for all of them.”

Starting the Business

I ask Jenn how she knew starting her own business was the right move for her, rather than joining an existing organization or non-profit.

“I think I always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “During my career, although I was working for companies, I was always in independent roles. I did sales for a while and became familiar with hunting down business and dealing with a lot of rejections. That definitely helped me get started. Now that I’m a business owner, I’ve also become knowledgeable about other aspects of business such as supply chains and distribution.”

“I had a good start thanks to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In 2016, I attended an online mentorship program through NWAC where I had the opportunity to learn everything a business operator needs to know. At the end of the course, all of the program participants got to meet and share our stories. Surrounded by other Native entrepreneurs, with all that support, I knew then that I was on the right path.”

She started with just $500, a gift from the NWAC program, and used it to register her domain and open a small Shopify store. Jenn made sure to post on social media every day from her smartphone, no matter what, which organically grew into the following the company has today.

Jenn admits that there have been challenges along the way. It can be difficult to explain her business model to potential investors or collaborators who are extremely focused on the bottom line; it’s hard to quantify the positive social impact Cheekbone Beauty’s brand is having on Indigenous youth and young people in general. She’s not afraid to share her story, though, and over time has built up a strong business network.

“I’m not afraid to talk about my struggles. When I went on Dragon’s Den, even though I didn’t get the investment that I was hoping for, I showed that I could stand on a national stage and talk about myself, be vulnerable, and act as a role model for the people watching. I was willing to take that risk because our youth need to see us try.”

“Everyone deserves to see their face represented, no matter whom they are or where they are.”

What’s next for Cheekbone Beauty?

“One of Cheekbone Beauty’s next projects is a sustainable lipstick line with better packaging. As Indigenous people, we always ask ourselves: How will what we’re doing today affect the next seven generations? This new line is speaking to that. It’ll be out in March 2020!”

Any advice for other entrepreneurs?

“My personal advice is that we should be working harder on ourselves daily than on our businesses. Unless we are whole and well, we’re not going to be any good to anyone else – including our company.”

And for aspiring entrepreneurs, Jenn says: “Just keep going. The key is consistency. You can start with something smaller and prove that it can work before you scale up. You don’t need to go big right away… Show up every day, and always do your best.”

The Two Ways to Give Your Website a Boost

This article was originally posted on October 29, 2019 on The Letter M Marketing’s website.

Ever wonder why your website doesn’t get that many hits, despite all your hard work? Why aren’t you at the top of Google searches? It’s probably because of SEO – a strategy that is becoming increasingly crucial for every business to have. The world of digital marketing is always changing, and we have to keep up. To get you started, here’s a quick introduction to what SEO is, and why it’s so important.

What is search engine optimization (SEO)?

SEO is a strategy to help your website rank higher in organic search results in order to increase website traffic and leads. It’s a valuable way to build brand awareness. It is an active practice that involves various techniques to optimize internal and external aspects of the website. SEO influences the content on your website, as well its design and functionality. There are also off-site ways to boost SEO and build trust.

Why is SEO important?

When your customers search for your services or products, you want your website to be at the top of the search engine results page. This is because people generally click on the first few links that they see. The higher rank your site has, the more web traffic you will receive.

Google ranks search engine results based on how trustworthy, high quality, and relevant those websites are. It has created a vast index of all sites, which an automated bot “crawls” through to look for keywords indicating which websites are relevant to what was searched. If you haven’t taken SEO into consideration when building your website, Google will not be able to find your site or won’t believe it to be relevant.

What are paid online search advertisements?

Paid online advertisements are a way to ensure that your website can get to the top spot immediately. These can be targeted to very specific demographics and geography. There are display and text-only ads available through Google, as well as promoted posts and ads through social media networks.

Why might I need paid search ads?

It may take a long time (several months or even a few years) for your website to climb to the first page of Google search results as it builds credibility online. Paid ads are a great way to give your site an initial boost while you build your organic presence. They can also be effective for short-term promotions, seasonal products, and more.

 Search Engine Optimization (SEO)Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Benefits-Lasts a long time
-Perceived as much more trustworthy than paid ads by Google AND by customers
-No continued ad costs
-Takes time to build – patience is key
-May require significant updates to existing website
-Requires strategic planning for all future content creation
Drawbacks-Quick to implement and see results
-ROI is easily obtained
-Customizable and targeted
-Continual cost and ad maintenance/refreshing
-Less trustworthy to customers and to Google

The best approach is often a mixture of both paid and organic tactics. Even if your organization has limited financial resources, a little time and care can go a long way to building your website traffic.

March Roundup

Read time: 2 minutes

Here’s what I’ve been reading, listening to, and learning this month. Enjoy!

Reading

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower tells the story of a society fallen to drugs, war, and climate devastation. Lauren Olamina lives with her family and a close group of neighbours within a walled community near Los Angeles. When the walls fall, Lauren is thrust into the outside world in search of safety.

I read this book as part of Life’s Library Book Club. It reminded me a little of The Walking Dead in that, while the environment is harsh and resources are limited, it is other desperate humans that pose the greatest to danger to Lauren and her friends. It’s a thought-provoking and cautionary tale. Well worth a read.

Listening

Rewrite The Stars, The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman is a musical movie loosely based on the life of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a famous 19th century American Showman. A man of humble beginnings, P. T. dreams of a life of glory and fame. He gathers a group of outcasts and begins a circus.

Zac Efron plays P. T. Barnum’s business partner, Phillip Carlyle, who falls in love with the trapeze performer, Anne (Zendaya). Phillip is determined to date Anne; she is more reluctant, knowing that their interracial relationship would be more than difficult. I’ve had Rewrite The Stars, their love song, stuck in my head for weeks. It has gorgeous harmonies and is performed on trapeze – what’s not to love?

Phoebe Reads A Mystery, This Is Criminal Podcast

This Is Criminal Podcast usually covers quirky or unusual crime stories in half-hour episodes. Since the onset of COVID-19, however, showrunner Phoebe Judge has had to pause the show. She’s currently reading a chapter a day of a classic mystery book, beginning with The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. Phoebe’s calm, soothing voice has been a welcome sound during a stressful time.

Learning

Lynda.com Learning Video Courses

I recently discovered that I have access to Lynda.com, now also known as LinkedIn Learning, through my local public library account. The website has video courses for everything from Project Management to building a website to learning how to code. I’m about halfway through a course on the Basics of Graphic Design and am finding the videos extremely easy to follow. If you are finding yourself at a loss without something to do, why not brush up on some old skills or learn something new?

Starting Something New

Read time: 3 minutes

It’s been eight days since Premier Ford officially declared Ontario to be in a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Public facilities, theatres, and restaurants are closed; we’ve been advised to stay home. Since then, I’ve missed activities, social gatherings, and networking coffees. I haven’t been to my favourite thrift stores, local restaurants, or dance classes. I, like the rest of the province, feel as if I’ve been handed a sudden prison sentence with no end date.

It’s a little strange that I feel so trapped by this pandemic. I was let go from my role at a Marketing Agency in September and have been living a life of “funemployment” ever since. I’ve spent most of the last several months propped on my elbows on my pull-out couch applying to jobs, sending networking emails, and generally trying to figure out my life. Sure, I have the odd freelancing client, but thanks to the nature of digital marketing, I can do most of my work from that same position on the couch. You’d think that an order to stay home wouldn’t really affect me. The truth is, it’s torn away what felt like the only bright spots in my life: physical contact with the outside world.

After a week of self-pity and wallowing, I drag myself outside for a walk. I’m fortunate to live in Cambridge, Ontario, where there is more than 50km of trails running through the city and along the Grand River. I’m not much of a outdoorsman, but I’m grateful for those trails today.

As I wander along the path, I realize that I’m noticing small things that I would have previously ignored. The roar of the distant traffic, the chatter of birds, and the intense gaze of a small chipmunk catch my attention. I glance down at a dried river-bed and notice small pools of water caught in the footprints of absent rocks. Is everyone else noticing these things too, as they are pushed unexpectedly out of their regular routines into quiet walks in nature?

I realize I’m walking a lot slower than my usual meaningful stride when I hear someone approaching behind me. I step aside to allow her to pass by without getting too close, smiling as her small black poodle pit-pats away with a leaf stuck stubbornly to its tail. And with that smile, I’m ready to go back home to my couch.

That evening, I finally confront the fact that it might be weeks or months before we can resume our vies quotidiennes. My naturally practical side kicks in. If the job market was difficult before, it will be even harder now. Perhaps this is the push that I needed to fully embrace the life of a freelance marketer, which I had only dabbled in thus far. And so, a new adventure begins…