published Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Facebooking the future: Social media crash course teaches how to use services for more than fun

By Anna Lockhart
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Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

The Business Development Center's next social media workshop will be on Marketing and Sales. The course will go over which mediums are best for different types of businesses and what technologies are available for free or cheap. It also will cover mobile marketing, search engine optimization and building a website.

What: Social Media Workshop -- Intro and Benefits.

When: Wednesday, March 12, 9-10:30 a.m.

Where: Small Business Development Center, 100 Cherokee Blvd. Suite 202.

Admission: Free.

Phone: 423-756-8668.

Website: www.tsbdc.org.

The crowd at the social media workshop is a mixed batch: a risk management consultant, a balloon sculptor, an administrative assistant for a CPA. There's a rep from a bed and breakfast and a woman who makes ties for men.

Class instructor Ronda Van Billiard is telling them how to use social media for their businesses -- and the message is the same for everyone.

"Your profile picture has to be you," she tells them firmly. "I don't want to see a picture of you from the '70s or a picture of your dog."

Of course, there's more than that.

Van Billiard, who runs the local marketing consulting firm Fortune Marketing, has been teaching these social media crash courses at the Business Development Center on Cherokee Boulevard for about a year. She also holds small group sessions and one-on-one meetings to teach newbies about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn -- simply put, the world of online social media.

Business owners of all kinds -- most of them over 40 -- have come in droves, she says.

"People in the 50- to 65-age range, when the economy tanked, we lost our corporate jobs," Van Billiard says. "A lot of us are underemployed, unemployed and unemployable. So we've had to create our own jobs, be a little more creative. We have to be able to sell ourselves."

In other words, Facebook isn't just for fun anymore. And that can be scary, whatever your age or job situation.

These days, anyone starting their own business or handling publicity and marketing for someone else's must see Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google Plus as integral supplements for the business, especially if they're working with a smaller budget.

According to SocialMediaToday.com, 93 percent of marketers use social media for their business. Eight out of 10 small businesses use social networking sites to collect information about their competitors.

Mediabistro.com reports that 71 percent of social media participants say they're more likely to purchase from a brand they follow online, while 91 percent of searchers say they use Facebook to find local businesses online.

According to the Pew Research Center, people age 50 to 64 are the fastest-growing group to start using social media, with 55 percent of people in this age bracket having at least one social media profile. But there's a definite learning curve to learning how to use these tools. Unlike younger generations who grew up with Facebook and came of age with Tumblr and Instagram, however, people over 40 often have a harder time using the sites.

First-time users often feel overwhelmed by the options, Van Billiard says, so she advises people to pick just one or two mediums and focus on those.

Lanny Wingrove is CEO of Wingrove Global Risk Management, a company he and his wife run that advises businesses on cost-effective approaches for ventures and projects. It's a young business, and this is Wingrove's second career. He built the company's website using a free website builder -- a process he calls "enjoyable, but a little painful" -- and shares blog entries on LinkedIn.com.

"I grew up when computers were just being invented. I mean there were dots and codes on a screen," he says at the workshop. "I'm still learning."

Others echo his concern.

"I thought Facebook was only for personal use," someone says.

"When I go on there, I feel lost," says another.

Van Billiard herself says she doesn't entirely "get" Twitter.

Reinvention

Ann Dickerson, 50, found herself having to reinvent herself a few years ago when she lost her job as managing editor for Smoke Signals, a monthly newspaper for the Big Canoe gated community in North Georgia. Her husband, Bill Zack, 57, was in real estate marketing and felt the financial effects of the recession, too.

Dickerson, who holds a master's degree in journalism and worked for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for 15 years, was cobbling together a living and working nights at a tech-help call center when she and Zack cooked up the idea for Chattanooga Cookie Co., and later, Tennessee Moonshine Cakes, the company's current incarnation.

Dickerson and Zack run the bakery out of the Chamber of Commerce Incubator for new small businesses, located in the Business Development Center. They spend weekdays baking their moonshine-infused cakes and many weekends on the road at festivals or grocery stores, selling the sweets. From the get-go they have used Facebook and Twitter as their main sources of advertising.

"We don't have the budget for print ads," Dickerson says, who posts pictures of their products and their traveling schedule to their 600-odd followers about once a week.

She had never used Facebook before and, to learn how to navigate the site, she used Facebook's video tutorials and tips from her teenage son. She links her Facebook and Twitter accounts and dabbles in Instagram.

"It wasn't that complicated to learn, but I had to start from the beginning," she says. "That's why all the teenagers are quitting Facebook now, because their parents are finally figuring out how to use it."

Starr Popp attended the social media workshop at the Business Development Center to pick up tips for the orthodontic practice she runs with her husband, Dr. Tom Popp.

"We've been in business for 20 years, but in 2008 we saw a downturn in our business. Everyone did," she says. "And we don't have anyone young and savvy to do [social media] for us. It's all hands on deck."

She hopes to create a YouTube channel for the office to show patients' parents the nuts and bolts of some orthodontic procedures, and a Pinterest page to showcase before and after shots of patients' results.

Investment

Ivette Rios, small business specialist at the Business Development Center, says social media is as important as bookkeeping or a marketing strategy; it's an investment you make in your company.

"Everyone knows they should have a website," says Rios, "But having a beautiful website that no one knows about is like having a pair of really nice, expensive shoes and keeping them in the closet."

Keith Richards, professor of marketing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says social media marketing is just like traditional marketing strategies, only much more sharply tuned.

With traditional advertising -- print or TV ads, for example -- "you were just kind of shooting bullets in the air, hoping the right person would read your ad," Richards says. "Now we can target consumers, have an interaction with them."

Consumers want more than ever to put a face to a business name, Van Billiard says. Baby boomers spend an average of 27 hours per week online, two hours more than those in the 16 to 34 age group, according to the Pew Research Center.

That's why you must be persistent in building your brand, Van Billiard says. Posting every day, often multiple times a day, keeps your company's message and brand in your consumers' line of sight, she says.

Richards notes that social media marketing "is not going away."

"But it's not specific to these websites," he says. "In 10, 20 years, we'll be talking about totally different platforms. It's all about learning how to adjust to the market."

Rios says a lot of her clients see social media as just another chore. And though small business owners always end up wearing a lot of hats, with social media literally at their fingertips, it's hard to get away from their business.

Rios recalls one of her clients complaining, "I wake up in the morning with my smartphone in my hand!"

Contact Anna Lockhart at alockhart@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6578.

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