Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo Explain How to Engage the Facebook Community

An Excerpt from Friends with Benefits: A Social Marketing Handbook

By Mary Rotman
November 18, 2009

In today's networked world, connecting with customers has never been easier. Savvy marketing professionals know that they must engage with individuals directly on the Web, and smart businesses know that their customers can be their best friends--with benefits. Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo have specialized in social media for years, beginning with their first blogger outreach program in 2002.

In their new book from No Starch Press, Friends with Benefits: A Social Marketing Handbook these experts guide you through the social media landscape, where authenticity and connections are more important than the size of your marketing budget, and real results can be just a few clicks away.

In this excerpt adapted for the web, Barefoot and Szabo explain how to engage the Facebook community without alienating your fans with media releases and old-school marketing techniques.

Market Passively
More than other parts of the Web, Facebook and other social networks are virtual hangouts. Their purposes vary tremendously, but more often than not, users visit Facebook with informal and playful goals in mind. They want to catch up with their friends, play their next move in Scrabble, or upload photos and videos from their vacation. Facebook is a recreation center, clubhouse, and neighborhood bar
rolled into one.

Keep this in mind when engaging in the basics of Facebook marketing. We encourage our clients to market passively on Facebook. What do we mean by market passively? Create groups and event pages, and invite your community to join. But only invite them
once or twice. And after you've built a presence on Facebook, don't constantly hound your fans or group members with messages sent via Facebook mail. Remember that, depending on your industry, you may already be connecting with these people through an email newsletter, Twitter, or your blog. You don't want to send them the same news twice (or more!).

Instead, make your Facebook page an interesting, useful place to visit. At a minimum, post compelling company and industry news that your community will definitely be interested in. One of our clients, an outdoor sporting goods company, posts short how-to videos like "how to patch a bicycle tire" or "proper care of your wooden canoe" to its Facebook page. If you run a restaurant, create a special offer that's exclusive to Facebook users and post it to your page. Maybe you run a landscaping business, and you can encourage your clients to upload photos of your work. Why not offer them 5 percent off if they post a photo? In short, think of these Facebook pages as a blog. You're inviting people to become regular visitors, not jamming media releases down their throats via Facebook mail.

Case Study: Chicken, Biscuits, and Facebook
Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits is a chain of more than 400 fast-food restaurants based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The company wanted to experiment with social media, so it worked with Matt Hames of Eric Mower and Associates to develop a strategy.

Matt first surveyed the landscape of existing Facebook groups related to his client. They were manifold and fervent: "Hello my name is . . . and I'm a Bojangles addict," "bojangles is more than just food," and "I Love Bojangles" were just three examples of groups with hundreds of devoted members. Clearly an untapped affinity group existed, and Bojangles' needed to join the ongoing conversation.

Starting simply, Matt created a Facebook page for the restaurant, featuring events, advertisements, photos, and links to the company website. To promote the page, he contacted the passionate administrators of the existing Facebook groups. He quickly recognized that idiosyncrasy of Facebook marketing--you often can't hide behind
your corporation. "When I contact people on Facebook, I'm Matt Hames from Buffalo, New York. And Bojangles' is a southern brand. I explain why a Buffalo guy [and not someone from the South] is speaking for Bojangles'."

Clearly Matt's northern roots weren't too much of a barrier to adopting the new official Bojangles' page. His original goal was to recruit 1000 fans on the page in the first six months. The campaign was far more successful, gathering more than 5000 fans in less than two months.

Bojangles' sees its Facebook fans as ardent supporters, as well as possible participants for focus groups or trial coupon campaigns. Matt Hames cautions against becoming overly focused on sales on your Facebook page. "There is a real tendency among brands, especially retail ones, to turn people into repeat customers," Matt says. "Social
media is a little different and has a different kind of ROI. Instead of Return on Investment, it's more about Return on Engagement. On a purely marketing level, we're really trying to arm the really good fans with the brand's attributes so that they will spread them."

An Appetite for Fun
In May 2007, Facebook launched the Facebook Platform, an API (application programming interface) that enables external developers--you and me and our programming friends--to build apps for Facebook profiles and pages. Apps are widgets or chunks of functionality that users can add to their personal profiles. Anybody can create an app and invite friends to add it to their profiles. Apps have been created for everything--supporting causes, playing games, expressing aspirations, and so on.

According to Adonomics, a Facebook statistics site, Facebook has over 45,000 apps that are collectively used more than 35 million times a day. The top apps developed by third parties have more than a million active users. That's a lot of activity, and apps are a major focus of interaction--among friends and between users and the app builders--on Facebook.

Are these bits of functionality difficult to build? Not according to Boris Mann, Managing Director of Bootup Labs:
"It's very easy to get simple applications up and running. From there, it depends on the complexity of the applications. There are libraries and helper functions available for lots of different programming languages and platforms.

Don't Be Apprehensive
So what gives a great app staying power? Jenn Lowther, social media marketer at 6S Marketing and Facebook power user, thinks three elements are key:

  • "The application interacts with the user. Static applications are interesting for the first couple days. After that, the novelty wears off and the app gets deleted. Apps that have stayed on my profile for an extended period of time have an interactive quality, either with the application itself or with my friends. Good examples of these include Booze Mail, Free Gifts, and Super Wall."

  • "The application is very personal or supports something you believe in. These are the Dogbook, Picture Mosaic, and Causes-style applications. I have added the Dogbook application and filled it with pics and info about my dog. I never really look at her page anymore or add new pics, but I'll never remove it either. Friend Wheel is another app that falls into this category."

  • "The application fills a need. This element is the hardest for a company to satisfy. Apps that fill a need are the ones most likely to have extended staying power. Super Wall fills the need and desire to share videos. Free Gifts allows users to save money and, at the same time, send their friends gifts."

Phillip Jeffrey, a University of British Columbia graduate student researching social media and user-generated content, says the most popular applications are "visibly social." That is, they display interactions with your friends and other users on your profile. Visibly social apps also provide constant, unmistakable evidence of your
popularity. They're the virtual equivalent of having flowers from your boyfriend or girlfriend on your desk.

Here are some other characteristics of popular Facebook apps:

  • They're fun. Consider the current most popular apps: Super Wall, FunWall, SuperPoke, and so forth. Don't they sound SuperFun?

  • They have a low usage barrier. The popular apps don't require much time to run or figure out. Sending a virtual hug to a friend is much easier than assembling a list of your favorite novels.

  • They allow you to reveal yourself and your affinities. Apps like Movies and iLike enable you to talk about yourself. Who doesn't like to do that?

Facebook apps are great for building your brand's visibility, and if they're used properly, they can even act as yet another communications channel with your users. Based on the research we've done, they're not fantastic engines for driving traffic to your website. Simply put, when users are in the world of Facebook.com, they prefer to stay. They're disinclined to leave Facebook for your site, particularly if they're playing with an entertaining application.

On the other hand, we really like Facebook apps for social marketing, where you're attempting to change people's minds about something. For example, Facebook has a popular app called (Lil) Green Patch. Users tend virtual gardens and send plants or green gifts to their friends. Sponsors of the application donate to conservation groups based on the app's usage statistics. The more people use it, the more donations these environmental groups receive. Although this app by itself probably isn't going to change anybody's mind, you can let friends know your concerns about climate change and
sustainability. And if they respect your opinion, you might even change a mind or two.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, please purchase Friends with Benefits.

You might also be interested in The New Community Rules and The Social Media Handbook from O'Reilly Media.

You might also be interested in:

News Topics

Recommended for You

Got a Question?