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VIP help female business owner reach online customers

Two women stand on either side of a machine.
Becky Tatum (left), owner of Delta Grind

After Becky Tatum acquired Delta Grind in 2008, she wanted the wholesale cornmeal production business to remain true to its roots, but she also had her own vision for what it could be. She made a few tweaks, one of which was upgrading the early 20th century Meadows stone gristmill that is the centerpiece of the operation. But the changes she made were hardly limited to how the product was made.

Tatum became proficient with social media outlets and started accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest as they emerged and used them to expand the business southward. She now caters to more than 50 restaurants from Memphis to the Gulf Coast and uses an electric-powered gristmill to produce fresh yellow corn, polenta, and masa to order.

While social media outlets helped, one digital medium issue nagged Tatum.

“I knew absolutely nothing about building and maintaining a website,” she says.

That changed last year, thanks to a chance encounter in Water Valley. During a visit to the town’s Main Street Association office, she ran into Lara Bowman, an instructor with Extension’s Center for Technology Outreach. Bowman was starting a new project designed to help small Mississippi businesses use online resources to enhance exposure and profit. She planned to introduce the Virtual Incubator Program, or VIP, in Yalobusha County.

“Our goal is to help existing and potential businesses,” Bowman says. “I’m not just wanting to target brick and- mortar businesses, but individuals as well. In Becky’s case, she already had an established business. She had a website, but she couldn’t edit or change it. She was just wanting to improve her visibility online for people who wanted to learn more about Delta Grind.”

VIP has grown to assist more people like Tatum. Bowman recently began a second version of the program in Clarke County. Five business owners—ranging from retailers to garden nursery owners— are participating.

“We’re trying to grow businesses both at the base level of the community and in the online market,” Bowman says. “Incubating a business into an online environment means your market does not have to be limited to your community anymore. If we can help a business grow into an online market, we’re helping them reach those new audiences to help them expand their services and sales.”

The nine-month program is divided into two phases. The first phase includes 12 workshops taught by Extension faculty over a three-month period. After the courses are finished, Extension faculty continue to work with participants for six more months to help them use the coursework information to increase online traffic and sales.

“This program taught Becky how to start and change her website so she could have complete control of the content and the skills to edit her own site,” Bowman says.

She said Tatum’s situation was unusual in that she was already familiar with social media platforms but unaware of how to create a website. She said is more common for business owners to be familiar with websites only or to be unfamiliar with both social media and websites. In Tatum’s case, after she purchased a domain name for her online presence, Bowman showed her several website-building programs and let her pick the one she thought would be easiest to use.

“It was important to have Lara there to guide me through that,” Tatum said. “There is a lot involved that you need guidance with if you don’t know exactly what you are doing, and she was a lot of help.”

Tatum said her new site, http://deltagrind.com, has been up and running for more than six months. The site has links to her social media accounts, allowing her to get the best out of each online outlet she has.

The new website has generated an extra connection to prospective customers, evidenced by the increased number of emails Tatum receives from people interested in learning more about and buying products from Delta Grind. “I think the website serves as an introduction to Delta Grind,” Tatum said. “Other resources, like Pinterest and Twitter, are more geared toward immediacy and are good to have so I can keep people updated on what I’m doing, but the new website is more personal and makes for a good home base.”

MSU Extension Service
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Extension Matters Volume 1 Number 2.