Social media and small businesses: The good, the bad and the authentic

Feminiscence products lay on the table before being packaged. Feminiscence is a local minority-owned business that has found success through social media. (Megan Spencer)

Many small businesses who sell at local farmer’s markets in Provo feel that social media is a major part of being a successful business.

Data from the Pew Research Center said about 84% of adults aged 18-29 use at least one social media site, which is why many businesses see social media marketing as a now essential part of their business strategy.

According to a 2019 study done by Buffer, it comes as no surprise to find that many businesses use social media as a marketing tool in this era of internet grown and increasing social media popularity.

The Buffer study was on 1,800 marketers from “businesses of all sizes, across a range of industries.” The data showed 89% of marketers see social media marketing as an important part of their overall strategy. Additionally, 73% of marketers in this study feel that social media marketing has been “somewhat effective” or “very effective” for their business.

During the rise of COVID-19, many businesses found that they had to move into online venues such as Instagram or shop sites to keep sales going. This push, along with the general shift towards online entrepreneurship, has created more digital commerce and businesses on social media than ever before, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Some small businesses were just getting started when the pandemic hit. Tayla Chapa, the owner of the Provo-based earring company Feminiscence, found that COVID-19 wasn’t all bad for her business.

“Starting out, social media was great. It helped me reach people that I wouldn’t have reached during a pandemic,” Chapa said. “Simply put, I don’t think my business would be what it is today without the pandemic.”

Social media apps like TikTok and Instagram are Feminiscence’s biggest platforms, with one video in August gaining 12.4 million views on TikTok. The video format of these platforms allows Chapa to give updates to people interested in her products, while also allowing her to make connections and bring in people who want to be involved in her brand.

“I’ve shipped to Norway, the UK and Australia. My business reaches people throughout the world because of social media,” Chapa said.

Chapa’s sudden spotlight provided many surprises along with monetary benefits. She described how she now gets thousands of people reaching out and wanting to not only support her business, but tell their story and talk about historical women and the issues that modern-day women face.

“I knew that social media connects people, but I’ve seen it firsthand in my life,” Chapa said. “It’s so touching to see that social media has helped my brand to get out there to people and start conversations, because that’s all I’ve really ever wanted.”

Asher Head, founder of the apparel story Finally At Peace, also found more of a community online than he was expecting. Originally, when starting his business, he was afraid people wouldn’t see the point of his business or that he would face backlash — but that never ended up happening. Instead, he was able to connect with other people who are in similar situations and are backing similar causes.

“The biggest benefit (of social media) is being able to find a community I didn’t think existed,” Head said.

Hannah Brooks, Brigette Eagar and Rachel Gartz run an eclectic design-based booth together at the Provo Farmers Market called Collect Ave. They too, like Chapa and Head, have found support and community through their business’ social media, according to Brooks.

“(Social media) keeps people aware of us,” Brooks said. “We’ve had a really cool community rise up.”

While all three partners have had experience working for social media before, the trio have had to learn how to balance in-person experiences with their online shop and keeping up with both customers and online algorithms, Brooks said.

“It’s definitely more of a process than we expected. We have to be really intentional about, like: ‘OK we need to start promoting our market right now,’” Brooks said.

Provo business Terra Therapi sells decor and mental health resources and has been learning how to balance the necessary elements that come with an online presence. Terra Therapi was created by Hailey Nordwald and has been on Instagram since 2019. Since then, Nordwald said she has gained further understanding of the capabilities of social media.

“There really isn’t any magic to it. It’s just knowing all the details that all contribute to being successful with it,” Nordwald said. “There’s a lot to it.”

The work pays off though, and Nordwald said she has been able to use the reception her business has to gauge customer interest and guide future business decisions.

Five models pose with @lincpoetry merch. Lin Flores, a local Utah business owner, found that success on social media does not come overnight. (Courtesy of Lee Bobb)

While COVID-19 and the move to more online sales has provided success for some business owners, certain side effects have caused growing pains for other small businesses.

Lin Flores, the founder of lincpoetry, described how isolating and difficult running a small business in the midst of a pandemic can be.

“I had to do everything alone. I had to figure out how to make products alone and it was difficult to learn that all by myself,” Flores said. “That was the hardest part.”

While social media has benefited many small business owners, the learning curve for those trying to do it all themselves is a steep one. Flores described that if the pandemic had not struck when it did, she could have easily hired some help or met other entrepreneurs in a similar stage of starting their business.

“I just relied on myself a lot,” Flores said.

Flores emphasized the importance of in-person contact for businesses, and how that can diminish with the limited contact social media facilitates between entrepreneurs and customers.

“I think when you meet someone, you can see what they have to offer. On social media, it’s just another pretty person with a cool shirt on,” Flores said. “(Social media) doesn’t feel as authentic as when I meet someone in person and pitch them my product.”

Authenticity and creating a connection between businesses and customers is a common balance that business owners have to learn how to strike, according to a 2014 study of 12,000 respondents by Cohn & Wolfe.

Christine Leaming, the owner of The Stimmy Store at the Provo Farmers Market, values authenticity so she said she doesn’t use social media in the traditional way that other businesses might.

“I don’t know if (social media) brings in business so much as it gives people a way to communicate with me directly,” Leaming said.

The in-person experience is important to Leaming, so much so, that The Stimmy Store does not have an online equivalent. She prefers to provide her products only in-person for the local Provo community, rather than prioritizing her online presence or business social media accounts.

“I think that’s why I don’t really rely a lot on social media, because it doesn’t feel authentic to me,” Leaming said. “You get what you see, and I don’t want to do anything that’s fake.”

While these small business owners described their struggles with beating algorithms, making ads, staying authentic and figuring out the new and ever-growing world of business on social media, each entrepreneur emphasized the importance of the communities they found online and how community is what kept their small business thriving.

“With social media, I think it’s really cool to see people come together,” Head said. “It really is a tool to build community and safe spaces for people.”

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