By Lance Concannon, UK digital lead at Text 100, a global technology PR consultancy.

Facebook offers businesses a powerful opportunity to engage directly with their customers, but the channel needs to be approached intelligently to generate real results
Facebook is, for millions of users, a great tool for keeping in contact with everybody in their social circle. Its enduring appeal lies in its ability to dramatically reduce the effort involved in staying up to date with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of friends and because of this people tend to view their Facebook experience as an intensely personal one.

Facebook is a place they go to have fun with their friends, not to be marketed at. So what’s the opportunity for businesses in this space?

First let’s talk about what the opportunity isn’t. A lot of marketers view Facebook as a kind of massive broadcast channel and approach it with the mentality of: “Millions of people are on Facebook, so if we put our business on Facebook we’ll be able to reach them all with our messaging.”

It simply doesn’t work like that. But that’s not to say Facebook can’t be an incredibly powerful marketing tool if it’s used well, so let’s look at how we can get some value from the site.

Facebook offers companies the opportunity to build a presence on the site with ‘Fan Pages’ which can be thought of as brand microsites that live within the Facebook platform. When a Facebook user ‘Likes’ your Fan Page (simply by clicking on the ‘Like’ button displayed on the page) all of the new updates you post will be displayed on their own page and will be visible to all of their friends.

You can build a simple Fan Page quite easily using the tools Facebook provides, which will allow you to post news updates, company information, photo and video content, discussion forums and add your own branding. This is a straight forward process for anybody with a little technical ability and is free of charge.

That’s as far as most companies go on Facebook and it serves their needs perfectly well. But you can also build sophisticated apps for your Fan Page, such as games or all kinds of interactive widgets (pricing calculators, for example), although this requires software development skills. Most digital agencies can offer Facebook application build capabilities, and some PR agencies (such as Text 100) now partner with digital agencies to offer applications as part of their broader campaigns.

Put your audience first

That outlines the mechanics of what brands can do on Facebook, but how do you get your customers to actually engage with you? If people go to Facebook to catch up with their friends and family, why would they connect with a brand’s Fan Page?

For some companies it’s easy. If you’re a cool consumer lifestyle brand, you won’t have to try very hard to get people to like your Fan Page since the brand loyalty and desire to engage with the brand already exists. If you do not enjoy this kind of brand equity, then you will need to give people a really good reason to connect with your Fan Page.

For all brands, the first important step is simply to make people aware of your Facebook presence. Ensure that the address is added to your marketing collateral, email signatures and other places where your target audience is likely to see it; and of course don’t forget to link to it from your corporate website.

Letting people know that you have a Facebook Fan Page is important, but in itself is not going to be enough to encourage them to click the Like button. To do that your page needs to offer content that is interesting to your target audience. This may sound like a simple concept, but it’s something that a surprisingly large number of brands struggle with.

Simply posting press releases or the same product information that can be found on your corporate website is unlikely to excite people. Content for your Facebook Fan Page needs to be interesting, useful and unique. As with most PR activity, it pays to think in terms of the audience’s needs rather than your brand’s needs. What can you offer that will genuinely excite them enough to want to hear more from your brand in future?

There are no easy, universal answers to this question as it will obviously vary greatly for different brands and industries. But the simple rule that all brands should follow is that your Facebook Fan Page should not be seen as a self-serving marketing channel, but an opportunity to drive genuine engagement and constructive dialogue with your customers.