Facebook is a terrible thing to waste

Written by Rick Spence

Two years ago, I broke a promise. At the beginning of 2008, I told 80 daily readers of my blog, Canadian Entrepreneur, that I’d be exploring a key theme that year. I boldly predicted that Facebook would soon become an essential business tool, and I pledged to explore the many ways entrepreneurs could profit from this brave new bullhorn.

But within weeks, I had Facebook fatigue. Companies were staying away. The business applications I expected to see never sprouted. And I decided my Facebook friends didn’t need to know what I had for supper. So, I moved on to explore other shiny frontiers (mobile! video! Twitter!) and left Facebook to wither away.

Turns out I was right the first time. In two years, the number of Facebook users has jumped sixfold to more than 400 million. Almost one-third of Americans use it, and more than 40% of Canadians. Facebook is finally emerging as a big-time business tool. It’s time your business climbed aboard.

What makes Facebook special? Beyond sheer size, it’s the Swiss Army knife of social media. Facebook provides customized personal networks and opportunities to collaborate, chat and share photos and videos. It also offers time-wasting apps that range from quizzes and games to running a virtual farm. It’s even become the go-to site for social movements. (The Facebook group “Canadians against Proroguing Parliament” amassed 225,000 members in three months.)

And talk about momentum. This year, Facebook overtook Yahoo and then passed Google to became the most-visited site on the Web. And, more important, no other site engages visitors like Facebook. In January, says Boston-based Web analytics firm, Facebook accounted for 11.6% of all time spent online.

Facebook has gathered many, perhaps most, of your clients and prospects in one place. But how does that help you turn them into better customers?

To serve businesses, Facebook last year crated “Pages” for people and companies wishing to promote themselves to “fans,” rather than simply share stories and photos as equals, the way individuals on Facebook do. A Facebook Page is your free mini-website on Facebook’s platform. A typical Facebook Page is a rather rambling, text-heavy design, onto which you post news, pictures or videos, or encourage conversations with your members.

What’s more, you don’t need to hire programmers and designers to create these sites. You just supply the content that populates the various templates Facebook provides — the most popular being the “Wall” or discussion area; background “Info”; “Discussions”; “Events”; and photos, videos and the occasional software app.

Here’s an incentive: whenever you update your page, your fans receive an alert through their Facebook news feeds — something the older Facebook “Group” doesn’t do. And now that Google has started including Facebook content in its search results, your page updates may actually rank higher than your website.

But your Facebook Page doesn’t replace your website. It becomes the friendly, social side of your business, where customers gather to be insiders, to feel special. You don’t just run press releases on Facebook; you engage with your fans. Treat them not as sales leads but as valued partners. They want to know more about you and get more from your products. They want to tell you how they use your wares, and how to make them better. They want to share your journey. (Don’t believe it? A 2008 survey by Boston-based Cone Inc. found that 85% of social media users believe companies should interact with consumers via social media.)

Sadly, after browsing through hundreds of Canadian companies’ Facebook pages, I can’t say many are doing a great job of connecting. When a Calgary bank branch launched its Facebook Page last November, it invited visitors to ask questions. So far, none of its 88 fans has done so. What would it take for staff to write up a few FAQs to get the ball rolling? Last summer, the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont., asked Facebook fans what concerts they would like to see the arena hold. Six months later, it had just 12 responses. Maybe that’s because centre staff never bothered to thank contributors or explain how those suggestions would be used.

It’s all about interactivity. Nanaimo Martial Arts Supply launched a fan page just before opening its store in Nanaimo, B.C., last summer. Owner Mike Tremblay posts regular updates on his wall about new products, upcoming classes and events. Customers respond actively, asking for specific products and sizes. Tremblay answers their questions promptly on the page. In nine months, Tremblay’s openness has attracted more than 300 fans, putting him way ahead of the Nanaimo art gallery, the Rotary Club and most local car dealers.

Tremblay can’t identify any new sales generated by Facebook. Still, some customers have ordered products through the page rather than by phone, which suggests he’s on the right track. And it hasn’t cost him money, as did the newspaper ads he invested in — or even the pay-per-click ads he’s bought on Facebook.

Facebook may not be an instant money-spinner. But Tremblay is convinced it’s the future: “It’s only one component of your strategy, but it has to be part of what you are doing. If you ignore Facebook, I think you are making a mistake.”

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