Understand what Facebook can offer, or you might get burned

This month, my Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column is about Facebook–what your audience is looking for, and whether it’s right for your business. Are you making Facebook work despite these challenges? If so, tell us how in the comments.

Understand what Facebook can offer, or you might get burned

Facebook is the undisputed social media champion. The site has more than 500 million members, competes with Google for overall Web supremacy and is even the subject of a new movie. In short, if social media sites were the stars, Facebook would be the sun.

In some respects, this is great news for businesses. Companies are using Facebook to build their brands, connect with customers and tell their stories in ways never before possible. However, an increasing number of businesses are struggling with Facebook, including both those without pages trying to decide if they should start one, and those with pages wondering if continuing is worth the effort.

Part of the problem is that Facebook’s stellar strengths have made it almost synonymous with social media as a whole. Many businesses think having a Facebook page is the same as having a social media strategy, and others believe that simply launching a page is enough to draw a crowd.

The truth is, Facebook is no longer a novelty, and it isn’t right for everyone. And many businesses are learning that lesson the hard way only after investing resources into pages that generate very few real benefits.

If you’re trying to decide whether to start a Facebook page, or continue an existing one, it’s crucial to consider a few things before determining whether your efforts might be better spent elsewhere. This begins with an understanding of the three primary reasons an audience joins, and stays with, a Facebook page.

1. The opportunity to celebrate their association with your brand. Until recently, we didn’t “like” Facebook business pages, we were fans. That term remains instructive when considering your opportunities on Facebook. It’s vital that you ask whether the majority of those you wish to connect with are truly fans or merely customers.

Ask yourself a few questions and be objective: Do they actively wish to associate themselves with you? Do they wear your logo as a badge of honor? Do they, metaphorically and literally speaking, want to be seen in public with you?

There’s no shame in forgoing Facebook if the answer to these questions is no. After all, it’s better to have customers and no Facebook page than to waste time on Facebook because you mistook your customers for fans.

2. They want you to hear them and solve their problems. Your Facebook page can be a great place to interact with your audience — if you can stand a little criticism and if you listen intently. When you launch a Facebook page, the implied message is that you want to hear from your customers and that you’re available to them when they have concerns.

If you launch a page without having time to monitor and respond to the audience’s comments and you don’t have the resources to hire someone to do it for you, you may be asking for trouble. Don’t start a conversation you can’t continue.

3. Users want to interact with others as much as (and likely more than) they want to interact with you. Social networks have developed because the user — not the brand — is in control. Consumers have always valued their peers’ opinions more than anything else, and sites like Facebook allow them to connect without gatekeepers getting in the way.

If you want your community to thrive, let your audience take the lead. Listen to what it’s saying, and respond when needed, but allow conversations among others to thrive.

If you take an honest look at your audience and believe you can deliver content that meets all of these needs, your time on Facebook is likely to be very well spent. If you’re unsure whether Facebook is right for you, though, there are plenty of other social media sites that might be a better fit. (I’ll share a few examples next month.) They may not be as glamorous as Facebook, but they’ll deliver better results.

After all, while some stars may not be as bright as the sun, they’re also much less likely to burn you.

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