Hungry, polarised, and seeking answers: Small business owners flock in droves to Facebook communities as COVID-19 anxiety reigns

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Business owner Kevin Gammie has petitioned the state government for COVID-19 grant funding.

Brisbane business owner Kevin Gammie has been running his own companies for 20 years, but his latest gig would have been unheard of when he started out as an accountant in the 1980s.

Gammie is the mind, administrator, moderator and financial controller behind Brisbane Small Business, a Facebook Group he set up on a whim almost six years ago.

Like most social media communities over the past decade, Brisbane Small Business started as a pretty innocuous thing, a small community of business owners sharing advice, tips and tricks about running their companies.

But what started as a few dozen entrepreneurs posting their questions or having a vent has now morphed into an almost 9,000-strong group with dozens of posts shared every day.

“Running this group is my full-time job,” Gammie tells SmartCompany.

“We’re running it really professionally now, and the goal is to help members do more business.”

It seems fairly extraordinary that an online forum could morph into an entire business venture in its own right, but such is the power of the social media age. After all, the vast majority of Australian business owners are already on Facebook and are just as hungry for advice and answers to perplexing questions as ever.

And now, that rings truer than ever, Gammie says, as the COVID-19 pandemic prompts a flood of new activity into the group.

The crisis has driven interaction up exponentially, with about 75% of members engaging daily, up from 30% previously.

“People are really hungry for information,” the group’s owner says.

There’s plenty to chew on at the moment for business owners across the country, whether it’s the ins and outs of the $130 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme, incoming cashflow support or myriad state-government stimulus initiatives.

Hundreds of threads have popped up on Brisbane Small Business and other similar Facebook groups across the country in recent weeks, including Small Business Owners Australia, which has more than 9,000 members, and the Melbourne Small Business Network, with over 4,000.

More than 200 new members have joined Gammie’s group in the past two weeks, he says, while more than 500 have signed up to Small Business Owners Australia.

The activity highlights not just the confusion the coronavirus outbreak is causing for independent businesses, but also the emotional strain.

Tensions run high at times, as entrepreneurs vent about everything from the failure of state governments to the COVIDSafe tracing app, unveiled by the Morrison government last week.

“I always encourage cool conversation,” Gammie says.

“But there’s a need to moderate things.”

Gammie, like other group owners, has a strict no-advertising policy, and is reviewing and removing in excess of 50 posts each day before they see the light of day.

“People have been very keen to find out how they can go and get help and survive,” Gammie says.

“People are very emotive around the COVIDSafe app — it really has polarised people.”

He says business owners are cottoning on to what download rates for the app, now several million, means for their prospects of returning to normal trading in the coming months.

“Part of the lifting of restrictions is going to be tied to this app,” he says.

“Before we can go networking again, we need to be able to know how safe a room is.”

Gammie has developed a monetisable business directory on top of the group, in order to fund the hours each day he spends moderating posts.

Basically, he’s turned running an SME-focused Facebook forum into a small business itself, diligently watching user growth and post metrics in the same way an e-commerce business would monitor sales.

One unforseen side effect of the pandemic has been a flood of users in the Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne groups offering services like web design and SEO to members free of charge.

Threads fill with hundreds of comments in the space of a few hours as business owners come out of the woodwork from around the country to take advantage of a good deal.

“It’s an extraordinary experience, just trying to keep up and ensure information is accurate,” Gammie says.

NOW READ: “They come here to talk shit and hang out”: Local community rallies around small business that’s more than a store

NOW READ: ATO extends JobKeeper deadline for April amid concern businesses are struggling to front wage bills

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