Small-business owners in the Big Apple are increasingly turning to Facebook to engage new customers and hone a dynamic brand ethos.

This was a key takeaway from a panel at the first-ever Facebook Fit event, held in New York City yesterday featuring four local business owners who said they predominately rely on the social network to fuel their marketing efforts.

From a nascent Harlem coffee shop to a historic theater company to a boutique grocery chain to a yarn retailer, here they share their most impactful strategies:

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1. Incorporate viral content that's already out there -- when it makes sense

Grocery stores may be one of the last great bastions of print media, said Fairway Market’s vice president of marketing, Jackie Donovan, who has made it her mission to breathe new life into the company’s social media initiatives.

But how do you make a supermarket sexy? It turned out to be a lot easier than Donovan anticipated. Sharing a sumptuous succession of food photos even resulted in the reversal of a long-held corporate policy that prohibited photography in stores. “We realized it wasn’t our competitors taking photos,” Dononvan said. “It was our customers who wanted to brag.”

Donovan also said that incorporating existing viral content -- when it jives with your brand identity -- can yield marketing magic. One of the company’s most successful Facebook posts of all time was a re-shared meme of a cat with the caption, “What if soy milk is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish?” 

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2. Stay on top of current events

As the producer of some of the biggest shows on Broadway, like Cabaret, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s digital marketer Alexandra Barber turned to Facebook in order to initiate a larger rebranding strategy last year centered around the theme, “It’s About You.”

Social media represented the perfect tool by which to involve the company’s dedicated customers, Barber said -- who, as theater lovers, naturally sought their 15 minutes of fame. To this end, photo contests inspired by productions also garnered lots of responses.

Above all, Barber advises keeping current and staying on top of popular news events. For instance, during the last election, the Roundabout produced a play whereby consumers could vote on different ending scenarios via Facebook.

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3. Encourage employees and consumers to ‘check in’

After opening his Astor Row Café in 2012, Manny Pena has already attracted the eye of some of Silicon Valley’s most storied executives. In addition to speaking at Facebook Fit, Pena also participated in a panel hosted by Jack Dorsey last year focusing on the budding entrepreneurial community in Harlem.

One of Pena’s favorite Facebook tools? The check-in feature. Not only does he require his baristas to check in in order to encourage a personalized atmosphere, but he asks his customers to do the same. In fact, it’s the only way they can gain access to the shop’s free Wi-Fi code.

As a relatively new business, Pena also said Facebook is vital when trying new menu items or branching out with innovative events. When the café decided to host a Flamenco and Paella night on the first Sunday of every month, Facebook promotion turned the endeavor into one of the Pena’s biggest success stories, he said.

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4. Keep outright promotional content to a minimum

When siblings Tavy and Assef Ronan purchased The Yarn Company in 2011, they were tasked with putting a contemporary spin on one of the most historic yarn shops in New York City. To do so, they opted for a risky pivot: targeting an international community of consumers via Facebook rather than simply focusing on the local market.

However, Tavy said she purposely tempers the amount of promotional content that the company shares on a daily basis. Only about 20 percent of posts reference actual merchandise, she said. The rest are comprised of eye candy, friendly greetings and other shares from around the internet that consumers will likely find of interest.

And even with a textural product like yarn -- which one would assume necessitates real-life interaction in order to fully appreciate -- social media weaves a vivid tale. Generally, Tavy said, lush and colorful images on Facebook garner a far more emphatic response than displays in-store.

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