Count Facebook (FB) among the throng of Internet companies courting small business customers. Today, at a converted industrial space on Manhattan’s West Side, the Menlo Park (Calif.)-based company held the first installment of its Facebook Fit program, a series of boot camps designed to help small businesses thrive—by buying advertising from the social networking giant.
There were coffee and cupcakes from local food trucks and a prerecorded welcome from Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook staff stood by, clad in blue-and-white T-shirts, ready to answer questions. Representatives from Intuit (INTU) and Square—two other companies that sell services to Main Street—were also on hand.
There’s good reason for Facebook to roll out the blue carpet. Thirty million small businesses worldwide update their Facebook pages at least once a month, the company says. About 1 million pay for Facebook ads. And just as small businesses hope to convert their Facebook fans to paying customers, Facebook wants to turn its free-riding small business users into advertisers.
It’s been harder for small businesses to attract attention to Facebook posts lately, following changes to the way the company decides what content to surface. (Facebook has said the changes were not made to boost revenue, though some business owners are skeptical.)
That made the moms and pops taking notes on smartphones, tablets, and the occasional paper notebook—Facebook says 850 attended today’s program—a prime audience for the social network. Attendees paid $25 to get in the door, which entitled them to $50 worth of Facebook advertising.
The audience heard from companies that lean heavily on Facebook for much of their online marketing. Manny Pena, owner of Astor Row Cafe in Harlem, told the audience that his eatery uses its Facebook page in lieu of a website, and requires customers who want Wi-Fi access to “check in” to the cafe on Facebook’s mobile app. Another panelist, Alex Barber, a digital marketing associate at Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre, said the nonprofit has gotten a lot of mileage out of posting backstage photos snapped by actors and other staff.
More sophisticated marketers, such as Tavy Ronen, owner of the Manhattan-based Yarn Co., lets customers shop directly from her company’s Facebook page. She also uses a service that Facebook calls “lookalike” marketing that lets her reach potential customers who share attributes with people who already like the yarn store’s page.
One of Facebook’s challenges is encouraging Main Street companies that don’t know where to start. “It’s totally daunting when you think about all the different types of media,” says Jordan Yanco, a speech coach who helps actors learn new accents and corporate executives lose old ones. Yanco, who attended the boot camp on Tuesday, says he’s completely new to Facebook marketing but thinks it might be a good way to reach actors.
Seventy percent of new advertisers on Facebook get started with basic services such as paying to ask people to like their pages, or paying to promote posts, says Dan Levy, Facebook’s director of small business.
To bridge the gaps in expertise, Levy says Facebook is trying to show business owners that its ads can help them meet specific business goals—you know, the kind of thing a company might pay for. “This isn’t about being creative and making a post really fun,” he says. “It’s about, ‘You want online sales? Here are the strategies for online sales. You run events and want walk-in traffic? Here are the tools for that.’”