business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

When I logged on to my Facebook page last week, there was a post from Starbucks that summed up the reach of social networking in three short lines:

“We just passed 5 million fans on Facebook. We just want to take a moment to say thank you. We're honored and humbled.”

And clearly on a roll, having signed on an additional 44,109 fans in the past week. There is only one company, in fact, with a larger presence on Facebook - and that would be Facebook itself, with 5,734,989 followers.

While Michael Jackson reigns as the King of Facebook fan pages with more than 10 million “fans” (trailed by Vin Diesel and Barack Obama), the ranks of corporate success stories include Coca-Cola, Pringles, Adidas, Red Bull, Nutella and In-N-Out Burger (my family’s favorite burger).

For readers unfamiliar with Facebook nomenclature, personal pages count “friends” while pages sponsored by brands or other groups count “fans.” (On a related note, the Oxford English Dictionary yesterday named “unfriend” the 2009 Word of the Year. Wonder what Nathaniel Hawthorne would have thought have made of that particular word...)

Facebook re-launched its fan pages earlier this year, making it much easier to get in the game. But once you create a page, the key is to get your followers to sign on and remain engaged. This is where social networking changes the traditional relationship between a retailer/manufacturer/service provider and a consumer. It becomes a two-way street, and this dialogue allows “fans” to cheer what they like and jeer what they do not. Notable marketing missteps aside, there more cheers and “thumbs up” responses on these pages. And if your customers are jeering, you hear their complaints immediately and have the opportunity to respond.

Starbucks’ page serves up a masterful social media blend of product news, reviews of new music or books for sale at its cafes, the occasional coupon or discount, and reports on its charitable efforts. A recent post prompted 4,150 “thumbs up” and 439 comments.

The Coca-Cola page, with 3,997,137 fans from around the globe, celebrates the iconic product. The original page was created by “Dusty and Michael, just two guys who love Coca-Cola.” Rather than trying to buy them out or create a competing official page, Coke partnered with the two fans, and one click reveals a wall of videos and photos posted by fellow aficionados.

Humorous videos set the tempo of the Pringles page (2,788,587 fans). The videos are light-hearted and comedic, thus more likely to “go viral” and be shared with others.

And in the know-your-demographic department, Red Bull (1,625,119 fans) has clearly fashioned a page geared to its young, hip customer base, and even goes so far as categorizing itself under the business-type “pharmaceuticals.” It also integrates Twitter feeds from its sponsored athletes such as snowboarder Shaun White to maintain the action on the page.

What do these pages have in common? (And many of you drinking your morning coffee may have noticed that three of these four case studies are fueled by caffeine). Actually, the key ingredient is conversation, which leads to a sense of community and brand loyalty. It’s enough to make you a fan.

The question is, are you willing and able to enable and embrace that conversation. If so, it will allow you to engage with customers in a new way, changing the essential nature of the relationship that can be positive for both sides. If not ... well, the risk is growing irrelevance to shoppers who do not want to play by the same old rules.

You decide.

You can reach Kate McMahon via email at .
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