Facebook and American Express today announced the ten finalists for their second annual competition, "A Big Break for Small Business," which is geared to helping SMBs get more social media and marketing savvy. The ten companies - including everything from a fresh fruit popsicle stand in Washington D.C. to a Chicago-based network of mobile athletic shoe outlets - were chosen from a pool of 12,000 applicants, according to Amex Open, the Amex division dedicated to promoting small businesses. These were then winnowed to 40, from which the finalists were chosen.
Starting today, the five companies among the finalists who garner the most Facebook votes over the next 12 days will receive $25,000 and a one-on-one strategy session next month with execs from Amex Open and Facebook.
So how did the panelists choose? "We ranked them on their commitment to their business and to growth, their need for social media and their energy and enthusiasm around small business and their community," said Laura Fink, VP of social media at American Express Open. "There were a lot of amazing companies and it was hard to choose, but in the end the panelists were in agreement," she added. Fink was on the selection panel, along with Heather Freeland, head of global marketing communication at Facebook; Andy Dunn, CEO of men's online retailer Bonobos; and small business coach Melinda Emerson, also known as SmallBizLady.
Each of the five winners will receive a three-day "house call" at the end of September. The first day will involve individual coaching on how to connect and engage with customers and prospects online, said Fink, while the second will be widened out to helping other local businesses and entrepreneurs. Day three will involve an Amex card promotion for local consumers; Amex card members will be able to sync their cards, and when they spend at a local small business, their account will be credited for a specific dollar amount.
All ten of the finalists will receive $2,500 credit for Facebook ads. Facebook and Amex also arranged to have videos made for each of the ten companies, in which each company pitched why they deserve to win. The firms can continue to use the videos as promotional tools.
Suzanne Leighton, owner of finalist New Orleans School of Cooking, said winning the contest would not only help her company fund a new retail location but also "get ideas on how to grow our business and get up to date on social media." The company is more a restart than a startup. For around 30 years, it has offered visitors to the city cooking classes, recipes and free food samples of local specialties like gumbo and bread pudding. But Ms. Leighton said the company saw some major setbacks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill and has only been in expansion mode for the past year.
The company has had a Facebook page for about the same period of time and Leighton said she is thrilled with the way it allows them to keep in touch with visitors to the school long after the visit is over. Now the company has ambitions including a plan to shortly start an e-commerce page that customers can link to via Facebook to buy items from the cooking school, which include a number of products only made locally.
But there were also younger companies among the finalists, such as three-year old Pleasant Pops, a Washington D.C. based firm making exotic popsicles from locally grown fruit. In its video, the young company played up not only how it used Facebook to enhance its business, but how it would "give back" via fundraisers to support community gardens and D.C. area schools. Whether the altruistic angle works remains to be seen.
But, as it goes with social media, those not pleased with the direction of the competition made themselves heard right on the Facebook page. "None of these seem 'small' to me," griped one user. "They're all well established with expensive storefronts in some of the biggest cities of America. This is a crock." Contestants soon piped in to assure users that they were family-run and local, if not young businesses.
The 10 finalists:
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.