On Monday, the Lord Baltimore Hotel was outfitted with a tech bar and three floors of workshops.
It’s the scene of Facebook Community Boost, a three-day series of events designed to provide local entrepreneurs with training in the digital resources to help grow a business. The free event, which drew 500 people on the first day, runs through Wednesday, November 14.
It’s a sign that the social media giant wants to look local. Baltimore is the 46th of 50 cities where Facebook is offering the workshops, as part of a goal to train one million people in digital skills. The events are designed to help business owners use digital marketing and social media tools to grow, as well as meet others.
“Anything and everything we can do to support small businesses, local entrepreneurs and local job seekers pays back massive dividends to the community,” said Ash Jhaveri, Vice President of Business Development at Facebook.
Jhaveri led a conversation with local entrepreneurs to kick off the event which doubled as a glimpse of some of the topics that the sessions will cover. The entrepreneurs identified some of the strategies they’re using both to communicate and reach new customers.
With the Warrior Music Foundation, Michael Caimona runs a nonprofit that seeks to help veterans as they deal with PTSD by providing music lessons at studios in Towson and Millersville. He said Facebook helps build a community of folks who might be potentially interested in participating, volunteering and supporting the organization. It provides a way to organize people as they seek to spur people from the community to give back.
“It’s a way for me to invite people to be part of what we’re doing,” he said.
Importantly for him, though, Facebook also provides a medium to raise awareness in general about the issues with the problems the nonprofit is looking to solve.
“It’s not necessarily just that it’s a marketing tool. This is a communication platform,” he said. “So this is how we talk to a lot of people, across the region and nationally.”
For Khari Parker, Instagram provides a way to bring people into Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, which is located in Lexington Market. Posts like a photo of a longtime customer or a video of staff at a festival dancing have helped communicate more than what’s on the menu. For the company, a post on Instagram was the catalyst for a partnership with D.C.’s Watergate Hotel.
“The idea is that we have a story. There’s a lot that goes on at Connie’s, moreso than just food,” he said.
Alison Schuch of Fells Point–based fitness studio Beachfit Baltimore said the tools businesses can use behind the scenes are also important to help develop a plan, narrow in on specific communities of people and align with the audience that a business is looking to reach. These tools allow for scheduling and continued refinement, as well.
“At the end, we’re going back and looking at what worked and didn’t work, so we can tweak that for the future and really manage by the numbers,” she said.
There are plenty of tactics involved, as well. Caimona said he pays close attention to the specific times and people he is trying to reach with each post. When using live video, Schuch said, it’s important to make time to go back and reply to all the comments that come through.
Beyond the three day event, Facebook’s Jhaveri said the tech giant is looking to continue providing resources.
“These programs are designed and tailored so that we can leave these things behind, and also we can check in on them and make sure things are going the way everyone wants them to,” he said.
To that end, Facebook announced plans to partner with a pair of local organizations.
The tech company is providing a $250,000 grant to the city’s Small Business Resource Center, which will help fund programming. SBRC’s Paul Taylor said it will enable the organization to provide additional resources in digital marketing.
Facebook is also partnering with Baltimore City Community College on a certificate program in digital marketing, including six courses. It’s one of 20 colleges where it’s setting up such programs. Interim BCCC President Dr. James Johnson said the courses would likely launch in the spring of 2019. It’s one of 100 local companies partnering with the college as part of a workforce program, said Interim President Dr. James Johnson.
To close out the first session, Congressman Elijah Cummings implored the audience to take advantage of resources that can help a business be “effective and efficient.”
Such events can help democratize the opportunities that such digital tools present, as well, he said. When it comes to technology access, “There are a lot of people who have basically been left on the outside.” For Facebook to put on these events, “It gives a sense to the world that they are trying to be sure that they’re involved in the inclusion revolution,” Cummings said.
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