ALTOM: Is Facebook folly or a fantastic marketing tool?

November 21, 2009

It’s getting to be a common story in the Internet Age, where people would rather read about you than meet you.

In 2003, Mark Zuckerberg was a bored and frustrated sophomore at Harvard University. He wanted to create a fanciful page with faces that could be paired to determine which of them was “hottest.” But to get the images, he had to hack into Harvard’s protected systems. Thus does criminality often beget innovation. It expanded, the school cracked down, and the site was throttled almost at birth.

Undeterred, Zuckerberg created “The Facebook,” the first schoolwide online social media application, in 2004. Within 24 hours of launch, the site had nearly 1,500 registrants. He expanded it from Harvard to three other schools a few months later, and within a year was on nearly every campus in North America. It went out to high schools in 2005 and to the whole world in 2006. By August 2008, the company was estimated to be worth $4 billion, and to have 300 million active users, which puts it just past closest competitor MySpace.

Maybe you’re one of the 300 million. But should your company be? As usual, it seems I’m the skeptic in the bunch, because the blogosphere is chock full of advocates who believe Facebook is indispensable. It’s not that I oppose social media. It’s just that, first, social media needs to be done solidly to be of benefit, and most companies don’t do social media particularly well. Second, shaking hands in person has worked to build market share since Hammurabi was in diapers and it’s still the best way to separate customers from the crowd.

If you decide to do Facebook, you’ll be far from alone. According to Inside Facebook (www.insidefacebook.com), nearly 22,000 companies are on Facebook already, and the list is doubtless growing fast. Facebook isn’t a replacement for a Web site for many of these firms; it’s an alternative way of reaching a vast audience. Bigger companies are already swarming in. American Family Insurance, Pfizer, Bear Stearns, Caterpillar and Isuzu all have a presence, for example. The majority, however, are very small businesses.

There are several ways to use Facebook, starting with a simple personal page to get the hang of the place, then setting up a company page. From there, you’re limited only by your checkbook and inventiveness. You can buy ad space, get a vanity address with your company’s name in it, such as www.facebook.com/frodosjewelry, and even get analytics about your click-throughs and impressions of those ads.

Google searches much of Facebook, so your public profile will be available across the entire Web. Facebook can make a fairly good newsroom, where you can not only share what’s happening at your own corner of paradise, you can also solicit feedback to those announcements. Be prepared for brutal honesty. Social media is not for the thin-skinned.

As I say, in my view companies rarely get much benefit out of social media sites, but I also agree with marketing experts who say you get out of it what you put into it. And what you need to put into it is thought. In the business world, I believe thought is the most undervalued asset. Too many decisions are hasty, like springing onto Facebook with no plan for what you want to accomplish.

A functioning Facebook page isn’t passive. It requires care and feeding. It will need fresh news and lots of interaction to produce any return on investment. Your strategy for Facebook will drive the tactical decisions. In turn, the strategy will often depend on your business model and company tone.

Some businesses just look at Facebook as a tunnel of sorts for 300 million pairs of eyes to pass though. They use mostly ads. Others actively troll for friends who can become customers. Many use their company pages as a kind of ongoing fireside chat. Still others like to engage visitors in chatter about the business. But it’s important to know in advance what strategy you want to use. That’s not to say you might not switch strategies later, but have some idea going in where you want to end up. Even Zuckerberg, Facebook’s creator, knew what he wanted Facebook to be when he wrote the code.

There’s no shortage of advice for using Facebook commercially. Web Worker Daily (webworkerdaily.com) lists 32 ways to use Facebook. Mashable, a site dedicated to optimizing social media, lists more than 30 software applications already available on Facebook that can boost business (mashable.com). Open Forum, a site for small business, also has some good input for Facebook use, among many other topics (www.openforum.com).•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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