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According to Facebook strategist and CEO of Buddy Media Michael Lazerow, numbers are relative. "If you have 100,000 fans and only 1,000 are engaging with you over the week, that's not as good as having 10,000 fans and having 1,000 engage with you," said Mr. Lazerow, whose company works with some of the biggest brands on Facebook. Mr. Lazerow calls it the "engagement index," a measure of effectiveness on Facebook beyond sheer numbers. It is, in a sense, a reality check on the real value of a fan and a reminder that not all fans are equal.
As Facebook speeds past 600 million global users, the sheer numbers can be staggering enough to send any rational CMO into hyper-competitive overdrive. Some company Facebook pages rack up numbers so large they'd qualify as social networks in and of themselves -- Starbucks has 18 million fans and Coca- Cola has 21 million. (Arguably mass brands are more likely to generate a mass of fans -- but not all. McDonald's has 6 million and Pepsi has 3 million, in comparison.)
But other global companies, such as Starwood Hotels, which has millions of people who stay daily in its hotel rooms in the Westins, Sheratons and W's of the world, has only 20,000 fans -- but boy are they engaged. A check of the W Hotel South Beach page (close to 5,000 fans) shows some active locally relevant fans.
So how to grow engage fans and better tap the fans you have? Marketers have employed several strategies.
Without content, sheer numbers don't mean a whole lot, other than bragging rights, said Dave Knox, who worked on digital business strategy for P&G before heading to Rockfish Interactive to open a Cincinnati office earlier this year. "I ask brands, 'What is the strategy that is underlying that desire for collecting fans?' and that's where it unravels much of the time," he said. "A lot of it has to do with competition -- when cola A sees what cola B's got -- so it has to do with numbers."
Mr. Knox likens the new Facebook counts to a publisher having a high circulation or a blogger having a significant RSS following. Facebook gives brands "a platform from which to broadcast and seed engaging content," he said. "If they can publish this content to a large number of people, it has a higher likelihood to be shared and liked, landing it in the social stream and reaching new potential consumers."
Companies like Sam's Club and General Mills' property Tablespoon.com post videos and holiday recipes on their Facebook pages, creating original content that fans can engage with, respond to and use in daily lives. And a photo is worth a thousand likes. Every Facebook strategist said that photos are the most viral and engaging content on the site -- people just can't resist a photo. In one example, a photo of a Sony Ericsson phone got 4,263 likes and 821 comments when it was posted on October 26.
For Wendy Lea, CEO of social-media agency Get Satisfaction, it's less about raw numbers and more about what they're doing on the pages of, say, Pampers or Tide. "The first thing is to get those fans talking to each other," Ms. Lea said. "It doesn't have to be [about] the product. If I'm a marketer, I'm looking for strategies for fans to stay connected, and those strategies are content-oriented."
Often, it's the banal, non-brand-related Facebook messages that really get people talking. Pampers uses a simple strategy: it asks its fans to help with parents' questions about babies. A recent question from one mother asking how to get her baby to eat real food got 256 comments in less than five hours.
In another example, BlackBerry's posting of a simple Veteran's Day-related message on its Facebook page generated nearly 8,000 likes and more than 500 comments.
"What do you do with those fans? Give them coupons, give them a way to give donations to their charities, give away free music if you're an artist, have them rate your products, the sky is the limit," said Facebook marketer Vitrue CEO Reggie Bradford. "But to me the big insight is that consumers buy products on recommendations from their friends. So if a consumer raises a hand to say 'I like this brand' their friends and the brand's fans are paying attention."
One huge Texas brand, the Dallas Cowboys, got very creative on its Facebook page using a simple idea -- thinking about what its audience likes to see and do. The brand used the excitement around the NFL draft to drive fan engagement by asking fans which player the organization should draft. It received an overwhelming response from its almost 2 million fans -- a reminder that no brand exists in a vacuum and brands can often use external events to their advantage.
Mr. Lazerow said that back in the early days of Facebook, "every brand was guilty of 'beg, borrow or steal' to get friends. That's how the incentivized programs came about -- if you became a fan of Zynga, you got free farmland in Farmville," he said. "But everyone's realizing that fans are good but not the end point."
So don't go after the masses for the bragging rights or to tout in the next press release, without asking yourself what you'll do with them once you've got them.
"If you do it right, you could engage each of the 1 million fans and you're much better off engaging 1 million people than you are engaging 10,000 people," Mr. Lazerow said. "That's what Facebook is for." Go forth and engage.