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What New Facebook Data Can Teach Us About Small Business Health And Pandemic Recovery

The Other Room's Mumbai Expedition is a gin-forward cocktail with violet liqueur, Bombay East gin, lemon, hibiscus cubeb and a green chartreuse glaze. It is garnished with a candied hibiscus flower.
Daniel Wheaton
Midwest Newsroom
The Other Room's Mumbai Expedition is a gin-forward cocktail with violet liqueur, Bombay East gin, lemon, hibiscus cubeb and a green chartreuse glaze. It is garnished with a candied hibiscus flower.

From cocktail bars to comic book stories, small businesses turned to social media to keep in touch with customers — giving researchers a glimpse at what was going on in their communities.

Economists have long used measurements like unemployment, inflation and interest rates as measurements of economic health, but new research suggests that measuring posts made by businesses may be another useful tool.

In a dashboard released late last month, researchers at Facebook have been tracking how often small businesses post on their Facebook businesses pages. Using pre-pandemic posting levels as a baseline, the researchers tracked the rate of posting by different business sectors. A lower index means fewer posts are being made, while a higher number suggests more engagement.

“By measuring the frequency of small businesses posting on Facebook you could get a window to see what was going on in their community.” Laura McGorman, a public policy manager on Facebook’s Data for Good team, said.

In the Midwest, fluctuations of posting followed the arc of the pandemic. When it began in March, restaurants posted at rates nearly double to the pre-pandemic baseline as shutdowns were ordered.

“This was a time businesses were furiously posting on their pages,” McGorman said

Now as the delta variant spreads, the posting rate for restaurants remains about 10 percentage points below the baseline. Currently, only grocery stores have consistently posted above the baseline during the pandemic. In Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, posts from local event businesses have returned to “normal.”

“We do think Facebook activity and online activity is reflective of the outside world, but it’s by no means only reflective of what’s going on during the pandemic,” McGorman said, explaining that expected spikes — retail sales over the winter holiday season, and posting on holidays — continued.

This research was inspired by a paper published in “Nature” from the University of Bristol, where they tracked the rate of posts of small businesses following natural disasters. Immediately following a disaster, posting activity dropped to near-zero, suggesting a collapse in infrastructure. Once power and the internet were restored, posting shot back up to update people on where businesses stood.

“It’s the story of a bright recovery, but an uneven recovery,” McGorman said.

While this new dataset provides another lens into our online world, exactly how much of this data is “signal” versus “noise” remains to be seen.

Valerie Jones, an advertising and public relations professor who teaches classes on digital analytics at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, described the data as a potentially useful tool, but warns that the enormity of the information can make drawing conclusions difficult.

“One of the fundamental things I try to teach is: Have a hypothesis or have a set of research questions before you look at the data otherwise it's overwhelming,” Jones said.

Looking into Nebraska’s trends, Jones said she was surprised by the low posting rate from the retail sector, causing her to ask if that’s because of a lack of small retailers in the state, or if they’re simply communicating elsewhere.

“Another thing I talk to students about is just because you can measure it, it doesn’t mean it’s worthy of being measured.” Jones said.

Given the sheer amount of variables measured, Jones cautions against governments using this information in a vacuum and to consult other data sources alongside this measurement.

Sometimes, Jones said, qualitative measurements can be more useful than quantitative ones.

Knocking this doorknob alerts the bartender in The Other Room that you want to enter.
Daniel Wheaton
Midwest Newsroom
Knocking this doorknob alerts the bartender in The Other Room that you want to enter.

Different businesses, different social strategies

For a speakeasy with a capacity of less than 30, the pandemic meant a complete business overhaul. Lincoln’s The Other Room is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for — a lion’s head door knock will alert the bartender to your presence and will let you in through an oversized pivot door -- only if a light nearby is green.

Matt Taylor, the publican who owns The Other Room and Tavern on the Square, turned to retelling his businesses’ stories when the initial shutdown closed down most businesses.

A bartender at The Other Room infuses a whisky cocktail with smoke.
Daniel Wheaton
Midwest Newsroom
A bartender at The Other Room infuses a whisky cocktail with smoke.

“We want to think of the business page of a friend of the consumer,” Taylor said. “We don’t want to be a business page that’s blasting ‘Hey come buy stuff from us.’ We want to create a page that is tied into what we’re doing.”

When The Other Room couldn’t serve customers in-person, Taylor focused on repairing his bars and expanded the outdoor space of the speakeasy. He and his team also created a line of cocktail kits based off of the Room’s most popular drinks, including one that won a James Beard award in 2015.

Located in St. Louis’ eclectic South Grand neighborhood, Apotheosis Comics & Lounge had become something of a community center for game and comic fans.

When the pandemic hit, no longer could children learn how to play the Pokemon Trading Card Game or Dungeons & Dragons while their parents enjoyed a brew, but the goal of building a community remained the same when Martin Casas had to move comic book orders and beer delivery online.

Casas, who has owned the store for nearly four years, had just expanded his business to include a second-floor game room and purchased a draught beer system when the lockdown began in Missouri. Still, he wanted to make Apotheosis a place where people could still hang out. Online, that is.

“That was one of the hardest things about the pandemic. Everybody had so much they needed to say or talk about or figure out, but they couldn’t do it with each other.” Casas said, “It all had to be online.”

That’s why he focused on having a consistent digital presence during the early lockdown days — from superhero workouts to funny memes. Still, he’s had to face some online who flaunted masks and distrust vaccines.

Those rhetorical battles — online and in-person — combined with the struggles small businesses had, took a toll, Casas said.

“Your creative juices are just gone,” he said, “It’s like we’ve been asked to run three back-to-back marathons, and it looks like we might have to do a fourth one.”

The effort that it’s taken to keep the store afloat has also led him to reduce hours and take more days off, so his staff can have better work-life balance. In return, he’s noticed regulars being more friendly and coming to the store to make new friends and chat about comics.

For businesses outside of the dining and drinking sector, the pandemic provided a key opportunity. D&M Roofing and Siding, which operates out of Omaha and Des Moines, used the lockdown to promote their services as many homeowners stuck at home realized it was time to finally get some repairs done.

Lindsey Pate, who joined D&M in January 2020, runs the social media strategy for the company and admits her role isn’t what many would expect.

“When you think of a roofing company, it's not your typical industry to be active on social media,” Pate said.

She joined at the right time, as months later the company moved to offer digital inspections and many other services via video chat. When storms hit, such as the ones that knocked out power in Omaha in July, Pate promoted her business on social media to let potential customers know it could repair their homes.

Even though many services have returned to pre-pandemic normalcy, Pate said she expects to continue her digital strategy to connect to customers when their services may be needed.

“No matter what happens, being online and going digital is just the way of the world now,” Pate said.

The Midwest Newsroom an investigative journalism partnership including KCURIPRNebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Daniel Wheaton is the data journalist for the Midwest Newsroom. Wheaton is based at Nebraska Public Media in Lincoln, Nebraska, and can be reached at dwheaton@nebraskapublicmedia.org
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