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Santa Rosa businesswoman helps Facebook court small businesses

When Stephanie St. James launched a new birthday party business in Santa Rosa, she decided to use free social media to find her customers.

“Let’s make a Facebook page with a logo and see if anyone would want this,” St. James recalled thinking two years ago.

Within one day, the Santa Rosa High alum had booked her first client for Amazing Fairytale Parties, a company that provides costumed princesses and other storybook characters for appearances at children’s parties. Since then, the business has grown and expanded from Northern California into the Pacific Northwest.

St. James, a former stage actress, still reaches potential customers with Facebook and has amassed nearly 32,000 “likes” on her business page. Such a following helps explain why this year she was invited to sit on the social media giant’s Small and Medium Business Council.

In May, St. James visited the company’s Menlo Park headquarters and took part in sessions with fellow council members representing nine businesses and one nonprofit from around the country. To cap off the day, the members sat in on Facebook’s “town hall meeting” with Mark Zuckerberg on the company’s CEO and co-founder’s 31st birthday.

St. James and two other council members said they already had experienced some success using social media. But the three agreed that through their council experience they are reaching customers with new methods: Making videos, building carousel ads or, most strikingly, using “lookalike” targeting to reach new customers whose tastes and interests resemble their current fans.

The time on the council also is reinforcing their views that social media gives them an edge.

“It helps small guys compete versus the big guys,” said Andrew Chau, a council member and partner of Boba Guys, a bubble milk tea shop business in San Francisco.

This is the second year that Facebook has convened a small business council, bringing together a tiny representation of the 2 million businesses that now buy advertising on the company’s pages.

In all, Facebook has 40 million business pages. But the vast majority are created by owners trying to reach people “organically,” meaning without paid advertisements.

In the year’s first quarter, the company reported 936 million daily users and $3.5 billion in revenues, including $3.3 billion from advertising. More than half the revenues come from outside the U.S. and Canada.

Despite such hefty sales, Facebook wants to know how to make itself more valuable to smaller companies, a spokeswoman said. And the council helps provide answers.

“Really, it’s a way for us to learn what’s top of mind for small business,” said spokeswoman Elisabeth Diana.

Other small business initiatives include Boost Your Business events held in cities around the country. The gatherings provide advertising tips from both experts and fellow small-business owners.

And this year Facebook expanded its business support services to include online chat, where businesses can instantly communicate and “screen share” with trained advertising specialists.

“We really started stepping up the support we’re giving small business,” Diana said.

For St. James, now 40, the trip to the Facebook campus was part of a broader odyssey that took her from the stage to hospital beds and back to Santa Rosa for recuperation.

Born to immigrant parents, a mother of Jewish descent from Russia and a father from Guyana, St. James studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. While there, she landed her first role for a European tour of the musical “Fame.”

For more than a decade she appeared in shows around the country, including the first national tour of “Footloose.” She was nominated in 2008 for an NAACP Theater Award for her role as Squeak in the musical “The Color Purple,” and in 2010 she received the San Francisco Broadway World Fan Award for best leading actress in a local musical, for her role as Mimi in “Rent” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.

But St. James for years suffered from endometriosis, a condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside that part of the body. In 2012 she underwent four surgeries for the condition and spent three months recuperating in a New York City hospital. From that time she emerged weighing 92 pounds and encumbered with “a lot of medical debt.”

Returning to recuperate at her grandmother’s home in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village, St. James and husband Ariel Werba asked themselves what sort of business they might start. After attending a niece’s birthday party, they came up with the idea for Amazing Fairytale Parties.

The couple now lives in Portland but keep their Northern California operations based in Santa Rosa. They offer party packages priced from $200 to $375 from Yuba City to San Jose. The company also operates in Portland and Seattle.

Facebook’s Diana called St. James a savvy user of technology for reaching customers with compelling messages.

“The use of video for Stephanie is fantastic,” she said. That’s a valuable skill to have when Facebook counts 4 billion video views a day, with three in four of those happening on mobile devices.

In the early days, St. James said, “Facebook was the only way that we could reach people.”

Initially St. James said she was reluctant to spend money on paid ads. But eventually she spent small amounts and found she could reach mothers, grandmothers and organizations that work with children.

Her conclusion? “You can do a lot with $1 a day on Facebook.”

Fellow council member Chau and business partner Bin Chen were quick to use Facebook when they started Boba Guys in 2011. Back then they began as a pop-up business in a San Francisco restaurant so it was important to have an online location for connecting with potential clients.

Now their Facebook page has nearly 12,000 likes, which Chau considers excellent for a company with just two stores, soon to be four.

Boba Guys touts its use of organic milk from the North Bay’s Straus Family Creamery, as well as making its almond and grass jellies and its syrups from scratch. On Facebook the partners look for ways to get “a little bit of virality.”

During the West Coast ports strike, Boba Guys learned that its tapioca pearls, a key ingredient in bubble tea, were caught up among the mass of merchandise waiting for shipment. Chau and Chen posted to Facebook, “Our balls are stuck” and explained that for a time they would be forced to use “backup balls.”

Chau acknowledged worrying whether the acknowledgment would turn off bubble tea connoisseurs. But customers not only found the post humorous, he said, but some trumpeted to friends, “See, I told you the balls were different.”

Boba Guys spends less than $50 a month on Facebook advertising. As a council member, Chau was floored to learn about the lookalike feature, which he now is trying. For about $20, he is getting the chance to contact about 5,000 Facebook users from San Francisco whose profiles are similar to his current fan base.

“You can’t get more relevant than that,” he said.

Another council member, Daniel Morgan of the nonprofit Project Healing Waters, said Facebook has proven a good way to reach disabled veterans. The decade-old Maryland-based group has 185 local programs offering such vets the chance to learn fly fishing, fly tying and rod making.

Facebook also allows potential donors to learn of the work, and it provides an easy way for the volunteers in one community to see what great ideas are being used in other programs. The national page has 23,000 likes.

Morgan, the group’s director of communications, already was aware of Facebook’s lookalike program. But as a council member, he learned about its carousel ads, which can display a series of images as in a slide show.

Such an ad appeals to his organization because “it’s hard to capture all the activities of our program in a single picture,” he said.

Morgan also was grateful to share ideas with Facebook officials that might benefit nonprofits. He noted that businesses can use “call-to-action buttons” on their pages that have such options as “shop” or “buy.” His suggestion: “Why not one that says ‘donate?’”

One of the best ways to spread the word about his group is still by one veteran telling another, Morgan said. But even then social media can make a big difference.

“Facebook takes that principle,” he said, “and amplifies it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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