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Businesses liking their chances with Facebook

Facebook can become a powerful and free marketing tool for businesses as more people join the social network website. But analysts caution that users should keep their business and personal Facebook pages separate. Facebook can become a powerful and free marketing tool for businesses as more people join the social network website. But analysts caution that users should keep their business and personal Facebook pages separate. (Karen Bleier/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / April 24, 2011

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Does your business have a likability problem?

More than a half-billion people worldwide use Facebook, and while the social network was initially about staying in touch with college pals and making sure your old flames weren’t dating someone more attractive than you, it is evolving into something else: a way for companies to communicate with current and prospective customers.

Just as you can “friend’’ someone on Facebook, you can “like’’ a business. And being liked by enough Facebook users can have a powerful impact, helping build awareness without spending anything on marketing.

“Every demographic is moving onto Facebook, so every business should have a Facebook page,’’ says Michelle McCormack, founder of Boston-based digital strategy firm LoveTheCool.

But the rules of effective communication on Facebook are different from those governing a compelling website or monthly e-mail newsletter, says Jennifer Weissman, director of marketing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “We ask questions, we post videos, and we ask people to identify works of art based on a photo of one tiny detail,’’ Weissman says. “It’s more about having a conversation with people.’’ About 35,000 people have “liked’’ the museum’s page on Facebook.

Recently, I asked local consultants and marketing executives about basic guidelines for businesses that want to build a successful presence on Facebook. Here’s the CliffsNotes version of their advice.

Setting up shop
Even if you have a personal Facebook page, set up a separate one for your company. Log out of Facebook, go to the homepage, and click the link at the bottom right to “Create a Page for a celebrity, band or business.’’ If you’re incorporated as Burn Rubber LLC, but your store is known as Speedy’s Tire Shop, you probably want to be known as Speedy’s on Facebook. Fill out everything in the “info’’ section, and be descriptive about what your company does (even including specific products or services), since this text will help attract Web searchers to your Facebook page. Make sure you include a big, crisp image as your profile picture and it doesn’t hurt to have your face in it. “People are more likely to feel that your page is a community if there’s a human being to relate to,’’ says McCormack.

Being liked
When someone clicks the “like’’ button on your Facebook page, that gives you the opportunity to have your update messages show up on the “news feed’’ that people see as their main Facebook page. (You can’t, however, send messages directly to their Facebook inbox.) “You’re not spamming them, but it’s a chance to catch their attention with something interesting,’’ McCormack says.

What to post, how often
No one wants to read a constant stream of plugs for your business. But photos of forthcoming products, tidbits of advice, links to articles about your industry, and short videos made on location can all resonate with the Facebook audience. Circle Furniture, an Acton-based retailer, might ask for opinions about a Vermont-made wood table that has just arrived in the showroom. The Museum of Fine Arts was posting photos as a new exhibit of glass art was being installed, and also shared a video showing the artist at work. The Charles Hotel promotes a Travel Tuesday sale on rooms each week, giving Facebook and Twitter users the first crack at discounts.

Updates should be succinct, says McCormack. Ending with a question is a good way to elicit responses. A sample update she offers for a hair salon: “What do you think of Kirsten Dunst’s hair on this month’s cover of Vogue?’’

Since only the most recent items show up at the top of Facebook users’ news feeds, you’ll want to post a few times a day, and more often on Thursday and Friday, when Facebook usage peaks, says Mike Troiano, a principal at Holland-Mark, a Boston-based marketing firm. Just be sure it’s conversational, and not all about you. You can use free software like HootSuite or TweetDeck to schedule Facebook updates to appear on a certain day or time, which enables you to create several updates in a single sitting, but space publication out over the course of the week.

Liking others
Just as Facebook users can “like’’ your business, you can express affinity for other businesses by liking them or leaving comments on their Facebook walls. “If a musician is coming to the Regattabar, we’ll post a message on their page that says, ‘Can’t wait for the show,’ ’’ says Elizabeth Stefan, marketing manager at the Charles Hotel. Posting comments elsewhere, and liking other businesses, is a way to encourage their Facebook communities to come check you out; just don’t go overboard or you’ll turn off users. (You might also post occasional links to business partners that you work with; for instance, a realtor recommending plumbers and electricians could get them to reciprocate.)

Managing user posts
Unless you block Facebook users from posting to your wall — a good way to discourage them from stopping by — they can leave public messages about your company there. “You should only delete stuff if it’s profane or really offensive to an individual,’’ says John Pepper, chief executive of the Boston restaurant chain Boloco. “Everything else, we respond to. When something goes wrong, we want to apologize.’’

Some last tips
Use in-store signs, your website, and publications to promote your Facebook presence. Once you have 25 likes, you can request a free “vanity URL’’ from Facebook (like facebook.com/acme) for your company. Stay away from politics, religion, and other controversial topics, says McCormack; save hot-button issues for your personal Facebook page.

Finally, no one I spoke to had hired an agency to help with their Facebook pages, and even Troiano, who runs a marketing agency, advised against it. Running your own Facebook page, he says, is “a free way to find out what people really think about your company. Why would you hand off the management of that to someone else?’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.