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Facebook and your business – part 3

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Some of the most powerful groups agitate to get a problem solved or a grievance repaid, and it’s these that really demand your attention. When HSBC changed its policy on free overdrafts for graduates, 4,000 people joined a group entitled “Stop the great HSBC graduate rip-off!”

This was widely reported in the press and eventually forced the company into a Uturn. It publicly held Facebook responsible for the switcheroo. As did Sky Sports, viewers of which successfully rallied to change the location of the on-screen score during football matches.

Meanwhile, the 15,000 or so people who joined groups calling for the return of Wifacebookspa bars convinced Cadbury to give them another try. A trial run of 23 million bars is about to kick off. This is how customers get their voices heard, and as the site grows the reputation of big businesses will be sealed and burned.

But small businesses should take note, too. While you might not become the victim of a smear campaign, you could get valuable information about your customers and competitors through Facebook groups.

It costs nothing to invite users to join a group, but a small number of dedicated customers will offer a goldmine of information about your products and services.You can test the water with new product ideas, get them to evaluate your new website or invite them on jollies.

Ray Poynter, director of online research firm Virtual Surveys, sums up the opportunities on offer: “The first question a small business has to ask is ‘are my customers on Facebook?’ and if the answer is no, the next question should be ‘are there people on Facebook who are like my customers?’ If the answer to the first or second of these is yes then Facebook can help provide answers.

“Facebook is very strong in terms of developing conversations with customers but not very good at providing quantified answers. If you want to know whether an idea is appealing, or whether it is understood, or perhaps whether it seems to be value for money, then you can use Facebook polling to great effect.

“If you use polling to test an idea and everyone hates it, it is probably a bad idea (or at the very least, badly communicated). However, if most people like it, you probably want to test the idea more formally.”

Guerrilla marketing works here, too. Start a group with some frivolous yet titillating purpose and watch as people flock to it. Make sure it’s updated with new content regularly, include a sneaky link to your website, and you’re laughing. Keep in mind that the most popular groups are those with no meaningful point – but are invariably funny.

Can’t be bothered to start your own group? Then piggyback someone else’s. Each group has a “wall” where members can chat publicly. Well-used walls attract spammers, who write stuff like “great group” and attach a link to their own site. You’ll need to be more creative than this, though.

If you don’t want to connect with Facebook’s wider audience, you can always use it to communicate with your own employees (they’re on there anyway). Big names like Ernst & Young and BT use closed networks like free intranets, flagging up important news and upcoming events.

Company networks are also a great way for new recruits to get to know the business, so make sure yours puts your business in a positive light. And remember, there’s a good chance that job candidates, potential customers and business partners have a Facebook page – so you can snoop right back.

If you take one thing away with you, make it this: Facebook is symptomatic of the way people are interacting. It’s never going back to the way it was and, if anything, communication will become even more intrusive, frivolous and regular.

Like it or not, your business has to go with this flow to take advantage of the opportunities constantly being uncovered. Just make sure you don’t fall over one of social networking’s many stumbling blocks.

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