Program helps Merced’s small businesses get to the root of social media

01/13/2014 9:43 PM

01/13/2014 11:26 PM

Whether business owners see it as a useful tool or a necessary evil, social media is part of doing business in 2014.

Case in point: Tig Bigler, owner of Cencalevents.com, said Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like presented themselves as hurdles for his mobile entertainment and events company.

He said a couple of his employees who handled his online and social media presence had left the area for higher-paying jobs.

“I was left in a position where, wow, I could barely figure out how to send an email,” Bigler, 49, said. “Fortunately this program came along and has been just super beneficial.”

Bigler was referring to Root Social Merced, a program that teams small businesses with social media savvy interns. Bigler said he estimates the program has tripled his exposure online, which means he’s seeing new clients at his business, which has been around Merced since 1991.

Root Social Merced is a collaborative program that rents space in the United Way of Merced County building. Citi Community Development, an arm of Citibank that provides philanthropic and other funding to low-income areas, funds the two-year pilot program in town to the tune of $215,000. The program has received other donations as well.

Steve Roussos, director of Alliance for Community Research and Development, teaches the classes to the interns. He is also interim director of the Blum Center at UC Merced. “We want to make sure this program is known for results,” he said.

The tips for business owners can be simple, such as how to create a Facebook page as a business. The business page allows the owner to track its traffic. Using Google Analytics, an owner can see what is driving traffic to the business’ website.

Some of the more complicated tasks belong to the interns. On Friday, the interns met with program staff as they tried to figure out the best way to market the Merced businesses they’ve been helping. They discussed the goals of those businesses and how to watch for the results.

Vanessa Arriaga, 32, who owns Awesome Hand Car Wash and Detail with her husband, Austin, said she primarily uses Facebook to promote the business.

“Because of our type of business, it’s more about showing what we do,” she said. “We’re selling a service, so we show before and after pictures of detailing and all the different services.”

Word travels fast on social media sites, Arriaga said, so it is a good way to let potential customers know she’s moved to a new location, 2210 G St. She said she recommends Root Social for any small business.

It isn’t just Merced business owners that are getting something out of the program.

Adrian Mohammed, 22, an intern who is studying biology and business at UC Merced, said he wants to pursue a master’s of business administration degree. So he is working through Root Social and getting lessons on how small businesses grow.

Mohammed, who is originally from Chino, said he’s been assigned four companies in the area. He said the most important thing he’s learned is that caring about his clients makes him better at his job.

“When you genuinely care about your clients and their success it totally changes how you would go about developing a strategy,” Mohammed said. “You’re like, ‘What can I do? This is life or death for me as well.’ ”

Lori Schiffbauer, who leads the program, said the team of interns is made up of six UC Merced students who are marketing or business majors, as well as two men already in the workforce. She said the interns are paid a stipend and are able to build their skills and a portfolio.

“I think Merced is a little bit afraid of social media,” she said. “The Merced businesses don’t know how to use it. They know they want to use it. They know they should use it, but they’re not exactly sure how to go about utilizing those tools.”

Root Social Merced kicked off in March and is into its second group of social media interns, who design the strategies used by their respective companies, said Monica Bernardo, director of EPIC, an acronym for Engagement, Planning and Innovation for the Community.

A focus of the program is to benefit not just the individuals, Bernardo said, but larger areas – downtown, tourism and Merced as a whole, to name a few.

Root Social Merced is one of 10 pilot programs in the country, Bernardo said.

“One of the hopes is to, when we pilot this program, understand what makes it work and what makes it successful,” Bernardo said.

If the program proves to be successful, she said, the United Way could take it nationwide.

Root Social Merced has scheduled a class for small businesses called “Why Should You Measure Your Social?” from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday at United Way of Merced County, 658 W. Main St. The class is free.

For more on the program, go to www.rootsocialmerced.com.

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