Keeping up with the Facebook may not be at the top of your to-do list, but your business could well depend on it. Companies across the globe are suddenly finding themselves with a presence on Facebook, where customers – not employees – are crafting their public image.


Good Business? While the vast majority of Facebook users are individuals, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed at a conference earlier this year that no fewer than 10,000 companies participate on some level. That’s only an estimate, and Facebook does not collect data on the national origins of corporate users, but it’s safe to say that if Canadians represent 10 per cent of its 30 million-plus users (and they do, according to Facebook), then 1,000 of those companies are located in Canada. Additionally, since Vancouver is the third most popular network in the Facebook empire, with about 407,000 members and counting, it’s another safe bet that B.C. businesses are facing up to the new reality and signing up with the networking behemoth.

Coast Capital Savings Credit Union’s Anne-Marie Palma was surprised to hear that the venerable West Coast financial institution had what looked like a corporate group page on Facebook, the online social networking site that’s bound and determined, at least according to founder Mark Zuckerberg, to “hook up the world.” It was news to Coast Capital’s communications coordinator, and a major marketing effort like a Facebook site is something she’d be expected to know about. “I’ll have to get back to you,” she promised. After doing a little checking, it turned out Palma was in the know; Coast Capital does not have a corporate-initiated group on Facebook at all, despite the fact that a group page does exist on Facebook and looks as official as company letterhead, complete with the Coast Capital logo and a link to the company’s website. “The Facebook page you forwarded to me was in fact initiated by a member,” she explains, adding, “We think that’s great.” Good thing, because like it or not, Coast Capital and a lot of other companies here in B.C. and around the world are now represented on Facebook, where fans and detractors alike are discussing the relative merits of firms with a candour that can be either extremely complimentary – the kind of PR money can’t buy – or excruciatingly painful. While the conversations about Coast Capital tend toward the complimentary, other local companies haven’t fared so well. Case in point: a Vancouver pub that recently had a group page dedicated to it entitled “F*** that… I will never pay to get into the [name of pub].” Pub practices that irked the Facebook group’s creator include instituting a cover charge and introducing an ID-scanning program. Other alleged shortcomings include not having drink specials, the fact that the band is “older than my grandma,” the attitudinal shortcomings of the bar’s bouncers, the proscription against table dancing and a rule forbidding men from wearing hats. The most amazing thing about this site is the number of members it has: almost 1,200. Many member comments echo the complaints, especially with respect to the bouncer issue. “Their abusive attitude toward customers is bullshit,” says one, while another complains that designated drivers are charged for glasses of water after 9 p.m. [pagebreak]

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When contacted, the manager on duty for the pub, who asked that her name not be used in this story, would only say that, as far as she knew, the group was started by “some little 19-year-old who tried to get in without proper ID.” Has it affected business at all? “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t really know anything about it. We don’t pay any attention to it; as far as we’re concerned it’s just a bunch of crap.” Not paying any attention to getting slammed on online social networking sites such as Facebook might not be the best strategy. Once upon a time, a disgruntled patron would have little recourse other than to tell a few friends, who might tell a few other friends. Sooner rather than later, the whole thing would be forgotten. Not anymore. Now, as the unfortunate pub owners found out, our disgruntled patron can start a Facebook group, fill it with screed and convince 1,200 people to join her little pack using this relatively new and increasingly powerful medium (not to mention the wandering eyeballs of countless thousands of Facebook members trolling the social networking platform for news, views and gossip).

Pretending that what this rather large, literate and Web-savvy group of consumers is saying about you doesn’t matter is the kind of head-in-the-sand mentality that can hurt you in the long run

Pretending that what this rather large, literate and Web-savvy group of consumers is saying about you doesn’t matter is the kind of head-in-the-sand mentality that can hurt you in the long run, warns Darren Dahl, an associate professor of marketing at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Facebook and similar sites like MySpace are giving more power to the consumer,” says Dahl, who maintains his own Facebook page to keep in touch with current and former colleagues and students. “The tricky part for business is figuring out how to take advantage of that.”

Face Facts Originally developed in February 2004 as a kind of cyber rolodex/social activity planner for university and college students, Facebook set out to conquer the world in September 2006 when it allowed anyone aged 13 and older with a valid email address to create their own profile page. It now has 37 million active users in more than 200 countries. Only individuals can create profile pages, but once you have one you are free to create a group, an application multiple users can join and use to connect and interact with others around an interest, issue or topic, such as the virtues (or lack thereof) of a particular manufacturer’s athletic wear. Some of these group pages have a very corporate look and feel; an indication that they were created by individuals within companies for public-relations purposes. Locally, group names range from Abbotsford Moms (60 members) to Where the Weed At, This Is BC (17 members). These pages can include links to offsite locations, including corporate websites or blogs. Privacy controls allow users to restrict who has access to both profiles and groups. Members can also join networks based around a region (such as Vancouver), a workplace or a school. Being a member of a network grants users permission to view most of the profiles in that network and join most of the groups. Facebook recently introduced Facebook Marketplace, allowing users to post free classified ads under the headings For Sale, Housing, Jobs and Other. Facebook is not without its critics, some of whom suggest that it is subject to government surveillance and that personal data is being sold to corporate interests. Potential users are advised to carefully read the Facebook privacy policy, and keep in mind that while Facebook allows you to “deactivate” your account, personal information is not deleted from company servers.

While some Facebook users may be little more than cranks using online billboard space to settle scores with their enemies, the majority represent a demographic that is, by and large, unreachable through any medium other than the Internet. If Facebook is where your customers are hanging out, Dahl says, you had better hang out with them and find out what they’re talking about. The beauty of it is that you can also talk to them at the same time. In fact, Matt Hicks, Facebook’s Palo Alto-based senior manager for corporate communications, says if corporations use Facebook the same way individuals do – to create a two-way dialogue – they can profit by finding out first-hand what clients, potential or otherwise, are thinking about them and their products. Currently, only a handful of B.C. companies have waded onto Facebook and started their own corporate group pages or networks (BCBusiness is one of them), but that’s likely to change as Facebook’s influence increases. And it’s growing fast. Membership is increasing at the rate of 150,000 new members a day, and Hicks says total membership is currently 37 million. A lot of those users are Canadian. Canada has the most Facebook members outside of the U.S., with more than 5.7 million listed as active (meaning they’ve logged on in the past 30 days), and they’re growing at a rate of four per cent a week. Four Canadian cities are among the top 10 regional networks worldwide, including Toronto (1), Vancouver (3), Calgary (8) and Ottawa (10). All you have to do to profit from the phenomenon is pay attention to it, says Lululemon spokesperson Sara Gardiner. For example, once you’ve registered with Facebook, enter “Lululemon Athletica Inc.” into its search engine, and you will find that there are nearly 200 groups associated with the word “Lululemon,” ranging from Addicted to Lululemon (1,300 members) to the picaresquely named I Said Lululemon Gym Bags Were Unforgivably Ugly, and Then I Bought One. None of these groups was initiated at the corporate level by Lululemon, says Gardiner, but you can bet your last sweat sock that the company is paying attention to the gossip, and profiting from it. “We don’t have anything official, but we know there is lots of stuff there on us, and it’s great to see what people are writing and saying about us,” says Gardiner. If nothing else, it provides inexpensive feedback, like the conversation that got started on the Addicted to Lululemon page that revolved around the topic “10 things I wish Lululemon made.” “We took that straight to our design people,” says Gardiner. So why not start a corporate-inspired site on Facebook and be a part of the conversation rather than just a fly on the wall? “I think what’s cool about it is that it’s really consumer driven,” says Gardiner. “Advertising, and that’s what a corporate site [on Facebook] would look like, is really just forcing people to listen to your opinion; a conversation allows you to listen at the same time.” She adds: “There’s no real incentive to start a corporate group because what appears on Facebook is organic; you don’t want to make it look contrived – that would just turn people off.” She’s onto something, says UBC’s Dahl.“The point for business is that if you want to appeal to the demographic that’s using Facebook, then you have to have an awareness of the rules of the game. If it just looks like a big ad, people are not going to go there. The consumers using this are very astute when it comes to marketing and tactics that are employed, and they don’t take kindly to people who are trying to put something over on them.” One local company that has started a corporate-initiated page is Helijet International Inc. Jay Minter, the company’s manager for product sales, says it was designed to serve as a meeting place for current and past employees. He adds that at least one customer has joined the group. “So at this stage, we’re just watching to see where it goes,” he says. “If we see some potential somewhere, then we’ll consider doing something different. One area where I see possibilities is in event promotion.” Once again, an astute call – just ask Noel Fox of Cowie & Fox Creative, a Vancouver ad agency. For the past five years the company has been sponsoring a barbecue at Spanish Banks that typically attracts about 100 guests. This year the company promoted it via its Facebook group and more than 400 people showed up. “It was almost too much,” Fox says. The company has also used Facebook to promote its Wakefest event in Kelowna, to great success. “We had an intern put together a page, and it got 2,500 members.” That’s pretty good promotional value for an intern’s wages. “Facebook is a good way to create community,” explains Fox, who adds that using the online tool is a bit like planting a seed. You can set up a group and watch the membership grow. “You get in front of people you might not otherwise have been able to reach,” he says.

“if you want to appeal to the demographic that’s using Facebook, then you have to have an awareness of the rules of the game. If it just looks like a big ad, people are not going to go there” – Darren Dahl

Right now Facebook is definitely the hot ticket with Internet users, making it an object of interest to business. That heat is being generated by membership and the company’s interface options. However, whether or not Facebook will continue to sizzle remains to be seen. It’s a safe bet that other developers are watching closely and preparing their own spin on the theme in the hopes of redirecting the Internet’s fickle users in their direction. In the meantime, because Facebook is password-protected, every business would do well to appoint someone to create a personal profile in order to have access to the network’s search engine and thereby monitor what’s being said about them. To do otherwise in this socially connected day and age would be folly. Editor's Podcast Series: Click here to hear a discussion between the editor and writer on what it took to pull this story together. Click here to join the BCBusiness Group on Facebook! Tell us what you think! Use the comment form below to give us your feedback or email us at bcb@canadawide.com.