Bill Peduto introduces Facebook Community Boost Event at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo Supplied by Katelyn Howard.

The wildly influential social media platform that is Facebook functions as a blessing and a curse to many small business owners. On one hand, it can offer free access to hundreds, thousands, even millions of customers.

But if Facebook’s ever-changing and notoriously complex algorithm decides not to serve a small business’s post up to its intended audience, it’s as if the post never happened.

Last week, Facebook held a two-day Community Boost event for small businesses at the University of Pittsburgh which was attended by more than 350 people. The conference, which had already traveled to several dozen U.S. cities, included lectures and demonstrations on ways that Facebook says small businesses can connect with customers and market themselves on the massive social network.  

The nationwide Community Boost tour comes as the tech titan is unveiling a raft of new tools they say will allow businesses to move even more of their operations directly onto the Facebook mobile app.

According to a blog post on the Facebook business website from Aug. 6, merchants will now be able to sell tickets, book appointments and schedule deliveries all from within their business page. From Facebook’s perspective, these tools mean that small businesses may not need their own websites — a Facebook page, they say, can increasingly serve the same purpose with no hosting costs.

Speaking at a panel with other small business owners at the start of the day, psychotherapist Laura Roman of Wexford extolled the many ways that posting on Facebook has grown her private practice. In the coming year, she plans on using the new business options to offer more “in terms of classes and online coaching.”

These improvements are a small part of our commitment to help businesses connect with customers,” Facebook said in the blog post about the tools. “We’ll continue to work on new ways to make these connections easier and more valuable to help all businesses grow.”

By encouraging businesses to drive traffic to their Facebook pages, of course, the company then encourages users to spend even more time within its virtual world.

While Facebook continues to be one of the largest and most dominant tech firms on the planet, it has been dogged by negative press and increasing regulatory scrutiny for much of the past 18 months over its role in spreading false and malicious news content, both in the United States and abroad.

In response, Facebook says it has taken steps in recent months to change its algorithms to focus less on news and more on local and personal content.

In addition to the several dozen small business owners and entrepreneurs gathered at Pitt’s University Center for the conference, the kickoff session on Thursday was attended by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Congressman Mike Doyle.

“Your businesses,” said Congressman Doyle to the assembled crowd, “are the engines of our economy.”

Speaking before the day’s first panel, both Democratic leaders described Facebook’s business tools as a critical way for small and medium-sized enterprises to stay relevant in our rapidly changing city.

“How do we ensure the success of small businesses as a part of a world driven by big business?” asked Mayor Peduto. “Technology can make that happen.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.