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How Small Businesses and Organizations Can Stay Ahead of the Facebook Changes

The biggest loser in the recent Facebook changes is small business. Many of you were relying on Facebook as a free platform where you could develop a loyal community of fans that might “like” and “share” and “comment” in the hopes that others would see and do the same, and ultimately be converted into a regular customer. Facebook has just made that harder for you, especially if you are new to the platform, have under 500 or so fans, and are not an advertising partner. There’s a lot of great information out there explaining the new changes including this basic piece from Mashable. It’s going to be important to get past the inconvenience of change and look at what opportunities and obstacles it presents.

First Glance

So why is small business the Biggest Loser? If you look closely at the changes, you will notice that they are designed to benefit two important groups (to Facebook): developers and enterprise level advertisers. What the “open graph” does, in the form of the new timeline, is encourage everyday users to post more information about themselves and connect to friends’ information on a level that we haven’t seen before.

But, remember all that information is available to advertisers and developers through Facebook’s open graph. Facebook is encouraging large advertising partners to pinpoint key influencers and their communities and begin to develop specialized “experiences” for those communities. Developers can put together applications (which is another big emphasis) that encourage users to share even more information around a common experience and spend more internet time connected to Facebook. Users will be able to watch movies, TV, listen to music, get the news, book a trip, buy a product, and play games without ever having to leave Facebook.

By separating out important news into the news feed and mundane news into your ticker, Facebook has changed the way you receive information to benefit those two important groups. It’s not clear yet what algorithms are used to determine these separations and rank stories, but my guess is that the old Edge Rank will still be a good guide until we all figure out the new system. So what are some of the obstacles and opportunities the changes present to small business owners?

Obstacles

1. The learning curve: The biggest obstacle for small businesses and organizations might be stubbornness. All these changes are going to require you to quickly learn the new system. Get past the inconvenience and dig in. Read everything you can and educate yourself. Change is a constant in social media, and you’ll have to scratch out some time for learning.

2. Learn to love the numbers. If you haven’t already, learn to use your Facebook Insights now. This data is your biggest guide to what works and what doesn’t. Learn what days of the week you get the most interaction, what types of posts people like and comment on, what the demographics of your fans are—and start keeping track, either by hand or on an Excel spreadsheet. Here is a basic explanation about Insights from Facebook . Search the bigger social media “how-to” sites like Social Media Examiner, YouTube, Hub Spot, Mari Smith (follow her on Facebook), and All Facebook for good tutorials. The more you know your way around your own data, the more successful you will be. Believe me, in the long run it will save you time.

3. Organic growth is a dream of the past. You can no longer afford to nurture your fans along like seedlings, feeding them engaging bits of user polls, asking for their opinions, posting links to pieces you think might interest them in hopes they will pass them along. Small businesses and orgs that rely solely on organic growth (your fan numbers growing naturally) may fail in the new system. Identify key influencers in your fan base and begin to learn how to use them (and reward them) for amplifying your messages.  If you don’t want to put the time in to learn how to grow your numbers purposefully using the system, you may want to downgrade Facebook’s importance in your online marketing plan.

4. Bad content will be the death of you. Because small fan pages are getting squeezed out in the middle of the changes, you will need to be more savvy than ever. Become familiar with the concept of content marketing. Read all you can, and start with Content Rules by Handley and Chapman. You can take the concepts you learn there to other venues to kick start your online presence.

Opportunities

1. The good news: Facebook is not the only kid on block. If you’re not already, think about developing an online presence in other venues. Start monitoring other channels, and look at what businesses like yours are doing. Search for blogs (Technorati), set up a Twitter account and use it to search what’s going on there–you don’t need to tweet to be there to learn. Look at YouTube for ideas on how you can use video. Is it time to start thinking more mobile? Talk to other business owners and organizations and see what is working for them. Does your town have a social media network or discussion board? My hometown has two good discussion sites on Facebook: Bozeman Social Media Marketing (group) and MT Social Media Network (page). Both are good resources for local small organizations that need help.

2. Find strength in numbers. You may want to consider partnering with like businesses. For instance, local restaurants could set up a Facebook page (or a Twitter feed) that operates like a news/menu/event co-op. Set up non-competitive posting guidelines so fans aren’t overwhelmed, and share monitoring duties. Businesses can set up geographic pages or blogs: Southside, Downtown, whatever. Building social alliances can help your reputation as well. People are drawn to friendliness and cooperation.

3. Think event instead of constant presence. Social media is great for events, especially with location-based applications. If you haven’t already, start taking advantage of the event piece of Facebook. Claim your physical venue on Foursquare and learn how to use it. Become familiar with Twitter hashtags for events and experiment using them.

4. Get familiar with the three-legged stool of social media optimization. Jay Baer calls this the holy trinity of search, content, and social. Become familiar with SEO—the piece most small businesses neglect. Buy a Dummies book if you have to or use Google search to find beginner tutorials.

5. Start amping up your home base. Social media should always be just an outpost. Become familiar with the concepts of inbound marketing. If you don’t have a website or blog, start one. Find someone who is good at WordPress and get one set up. Take a class, attend a workshop. Make it your number one priority. If you have a website, make sure that it is social—interactive—updated and dynamic. Make it a center of value-added information for everyone that goes there. Make it about your customers, not about you. If you need help, find an expert that knows what they’re doing. Look around on the web for businesses like yours that catch your eye. Chances are, they are catching the eyes of others. What can you copy from them? Don’t reinvent the wheel.

6. Experiment. In his recent book, Hierarchy of Contagiousness, social media scientist Dan Zarrella says experimentation is the beginning of success. Try different things and keep track of what works and what doesn’t. Even though social media is a science, it isn’t an exact science. Don’t be afraid to try something different, and don’t be afraid to dump it if it fails.

This is just a short list of opportunities the new changes present. Have you thought of any that you could share in the comments?

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