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.

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.”