For about a year and a half, the possibilities of social networking and Facebook puzzled Andrew Meier as much as they tempted.
That's how long a teenage high school employee bugged him about it before he listed his Shirt Factory Cafe, got 870 fans and began to consider Facebook an essential part of running his Medina business.
"It appealed to me on its face, but all of the moving parts that actually go into the project just seem to overwhelm," said Meier.
"You just don't flip a switch and do it For me, it's gotta sink in a little bit," he said. "But for small business owners, just the prospect of sitting down and doing something you don't know how to do is just daunting."
As Facebook has gradually taken hold in the last two years as a place to find long-lost fourth-grade classmates, share photos with far-flung relations and read about the celery and peanut butter snack a friend just ate, it has seemed in turns confusing, time-wasting and irrelevant.
Yet, as the site collects more profile-posting members, its conversational, online-friend, social-network approach now seems like a crucial, sometimes hard to quantify, ingredient that encourages people to shop and stop at local businesses.
Business owners say they sign up for Facebook, offer special coupon deals and then expand to other digital media options, as Meier did. That includes Twitter, another free service for posting 140 character messages that people can read and "follow" like subscribers, and a for-pay e-mail tool called Constant Contact, for sending out "blasts" to long e-mail lists with colorful, photo-accepting templates.
Accounts in this digital media landscape can be connected together so cyber links and notices to friends, fans, acquaintences and strangers multiply and interrelate.
"It helps us get instantaneous messages out," said Meier. When he posted a Facebook-only coupon offering a free $10 gift certificate when buying a $25 one, about 10 people came to the store to redeem it within three days. Even more have signed up, through Facebook, for his Constant Contact e-mail list, which costs him about $15 a month.
"The lesson is, you can't be afraid to try new things and to seize on them sooner rather than later," he said. "And that's a constant challenge."
Arun Jain's marketing students in the University at Buffalo's school of management now build Facebook into proposals for creating buzz about new products. They suggested it for the new hydrogen-fueled car General Motors plans to launch in a few years. It makes sense, he said, because people post notes about what interests them and share ideas with Facebook friends.
"Think about it, my customers become my sales people," Jain said. "It's a question of imagination."
Brad Mazon created a Facebook fan page for the two-year-old Niagara Popcorn candy company he launched with his partner. They have a kitchen and a counter at the Broadway Market, where they make custom "cakes" with different chocolates, marshmallow and caramel corn.
They find customers from passersby, through word of mouth, their website and Facebook. One plant store owner found them on Facebook and now sells their chocolate "bark" at her shop.
Twitter is less interactive, allows people to "follow" or subscribe to notices that can be business related or random fun.
Mazon said he can't help but try Twitter. "It's part of that creating a profile for a company," Mazon said. Still it's not clear how exactly it helps.
"I will not overemphasize the value of Twitter," he said. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'Why I am I doing this?' "
Nancy Monroe, owner of the clothing shop Monroe's Place on Lake Street in Hamburg, said skepticism was her first reaction to Facebook. Now, with about 1,200 friends, she is thinking of trying Twitter. "Social media does take up a lot of time," she said. "You have to monitor it."
Click to "friend" her "Monroe's Place" Facebook page and she will post a note on your wall offering a $10 gift certificate on purchases of shoes, dresses, jeans that add up to $25 or more.
"I don't think you can be a good business person and not be using it," she said.
Some use Facebook as a forum for newsletter publishing, a way to let people know about happenings and business-related ideas.
On her Blue Sky Design Supply Facebook page, Tyra Johnson posts about eco-friendly home options, such as "Milk Paint" that goes on walls without the usual, strong paint smell. Trained in construction management, she opened her shop on Perry Street in Buffalo's Cobblestone District this summer to sell eco-friendly products and consult about less-toxic and environmentally-friendly ingredients for home construction.
While her downtown neighborhood doesn't have a lot of pedestrian traffic, Facebook helps make her presence known. People seek out her shop because of what they notice on her wall, where she posts updates.
Kim Krug has been using a Facebook fan page to develop her Clarence business in the last year and half. She opened the Monkey See, Monkey Do children's bookstore, which also hosts birthday parties, art classes and story-book reading, just as the sour economy seemed to be at its worst.
She has been able to keep advertising costs down using Facebook and the Constant Contact e-mail service to post notices about afternoon book club meetings and sales.
Social networking seems to have helped spread the word. "I think it's important to be out there," Krug said. "I think it's needed."