EDENTON — Candace Thompson, owner of Downtown Diva in Edenton has been using social media to build her business since it opened in 2010. She has become so adept at it that other downtown Edenton business owners often seek advice from her.
Thompson said that when she started using Facebook 10 years ago, it wasn’t as well known as it is now.
“I just did it and got good results,” she said.
Businesses like Thompson’s boutique are one of the keys to North Carolina’s economy. According to the Small Business Administration, 1.7 million workers were employed by 913,398 small businesses in the state in 2019. SBA counts any business with fewer than 500 employees as a small business.
Of those small businesses, 283,153, or 31 percent, have fewer than 100 employees, while 164,412, or 18 percent, have fewer than 20 employees.
With so many small businesses in the state, reaching customers and networking with other owners is vital. Thompson says she uses social media to connect with other boutique owners, who share updates on social media platforms and business tips, such as special things they’ve done at their store and how well they worked.
“We share what’s working and the latest algorithms,” Thompson said. “We get ideas on what will work, trends and other things like that.”
Algorithms are a way for social media platforms to sort out content for their users. For businesses, however, there’s the belief that social media algorithms exist to push brands to pay for ads. If brands can’t reach their audience organically, they’ll turn to ads instead. Obviously, this means more money for the social networks.
As Facebook and other social media platforms evolve, it has become harder for businesses to reach their audience, Thompson said.
“Back in the early days, everybody saw every post for a page they liked,” she said. “Now Facebook wants businesses to pay. If you don’t post something every 24 hours, you’ll move down the algorithm so your link moves down a search list. There are certain words, like ‘sale,’ ‘buy now’ or the dollar sign, that also will move you down in the algorithm.”
Despite the changes, technology remains an easy way to connect with customers. Thompson says she primarily uses Instagram, which is linked to Downtown Diva’s Facebook and Twitter account. So when she posts to Instagram, the item also goes to the other social media platforms.
“I think it’s easy for me to use because I’m used to all the features,” she said. “But it’s harder to reach customers due to the algorithms.”
If algorithms seem like a foreign language, College of The Albemarle’s Small Business Center can help business owners sift through the array of social media tools and other issues that come up while running a business.
Each of the state’s 58 community colleges has a Small Business Center, which are funded by the state Legislature. COA’s Small Business Center is one of the most wide-reaching in the state, serving seven counties: Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Pasquotank and Perquimans. The center has only two full-time employees, one of whom is director Ginger O’Neal.
At the center, prospective and current business owners can receive help starting up or establishing their companies. And the nice thing is, most of the help is free.
“The state wanted to make the expense for starting a business in North Carolina very small,” O’Neal said, noting that funding pays for everything the center does except when it’s unable to find a sponsor to help pay for meals.
O’Neal noted that small business growth in Elizabeth City has almost doubled in six months.
“Some people are in the process of pursuing their ideas. If we get six or more (businesses) up and running, it will be great for the city and economic growth,” she said, referring to the businesses with whom the center is currently working.
During the 2018-19 fiscal year, the center helped start 14 businesses, the majority of them in Elizabeth City. With those businesses, 27 new jobs were created and 64 total jobs were retained.
The center offers small businesses information and confidential assistance such as help with marketing, sales, bookkeeping and management. O’Neal noted that while some of the clients are prospective business owners, others are established businesses that may have hit a hiccup or two and need help staying in business.
Training at the center touches on seven core topics, including marketing.
O’Neal noted that it is easy for business owners to get bogged down on the internet. The center often advises people to use two social media sites and a website so they don’t get overwhelmed.
“It can hurt the social media presence if it’s not updated on a regular basis,” she said.
The center also suggests cross-marketing — using several different marketing platforms to get your product in front of customers. Often, the center will suggest a client feature a specific product it has as part of its marketing strategy.
“Then we’ll suggest a website or whatever works best for them,” O’Neal said. “It really depends on your services. You have to look at your market and the age of people you’re trying to reach.”
She noted that social media isn’t a one-size-works-for-all marketing tool. Besides the multitude of social medial platforms — Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, Tinder, etc. — there are many other forms of marketing. Radio, Chamber of Commerce e-blasts, newspapers and newsletters can all relay information to potential customers.
“Sometimes, you have to spend some money to get a greater return,” O’Neal said.
Information about the Small Business Center Network, of which the COA center is part, is available online at https://www.ncsbc.net/. The COA Small Business Center is located at 1208 N. Road St., Elizabeth City, and can be reached at 252-335-0821, ext. 2370.