You’ve seen the eye-popping statistics: Facebook now has more than 350 million active users. If it were a country, it would be the third most-populous on earth, behind only China and India. TechCrunch predicts that “by this summer (2010) well over half of all Internet users will likely visit Facebook each month.” It’s now the second most-visited site on the web, behind only Google.

Given that level of popularity and traffic, it’s no wonder that marketers have embraced Facebook in a big way. What’s curious, however, is that of the top 50 brands on Facebook according to Slate magazine, not one is a b2b vendor. Not even close. And as Mark Schaefer has noted, b2b Facebook success stories are notoriously hard to come by (he found one).

With a mammoth audience and the acceptance, even embrace, of brands there, why is Facebook success so elusive for b2b marketers? It isn’t demographics. Granted, the potential pool of customers for most b2b companies is minute compared to that for major consumer brands, but given the sheer size and ubiquity of Facebook, there are still a lot of b2b buyers using it.

The challenge rather lies in the way Facebook fan pages are used. I’ve heard countless people, within the b2b community, express the sentiment that “LinkedIn is for business, Facebook is for friends and family.” As such, it’s not surprisingly that many of the entries on Slate’s top Facebook list are lifestyle brands. If you buy a new Audi, you might use Facebook to show it off to your friends, but if you’re part if a buying team that just acquired a new enterprise software system—eh, not so much so. And as one more bit of anecdotal evidence, I have my Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook badges all displayed in the left column of this blog. I pick up a lot of new Twitter followers here, and a fair number of LinkedIn connection requests, but rarely a Facebook invitation.

Still, this doesn’t mean that Facebook can’t serve any purpose for b2b marketing. It can serve one helpful role: humanizing a company. As a very wise b2b sales executive said to me several years ago, “people don’t buy from companies. They buy from people.” With the emergence of social media as a marketing tool, that sentiment is arguably even more true today.

Because of the intimate, informal nature of Facebook, it is the ideal venue to showcase personal content related to your company that may not be appropriate on a corporate website or even a LinkedIn profile. Many employees within b2b companies have email communication with customers and prospects, but never actually talk to them. Or they have phone conversations but never meet face to face. Facebook provides an excellent means for sharing photos and even (limited) personal information, to help put a human face on an organization, and “put a face with the name” or voice of an employee for customers and prospects.

Just a few examples of content that work better on Facebook than in more formal settings are:

  • Photos of employees in casual office settings;
  • Photos of employees and customers interacting, or casual shots of a customer using a product (with permission, of course);
  • Trade show photos;
  • Pictures of employees working on community service projects;
  • Company executives speaking, accepting awards, meeting with VIPs, etc.;
  • Photos of production facilities (for manufactured products);
  • Photos taken with resellers or channel partners;
  • Informal or even humorous videos, such as HubSpot’s spoof of The Office or Resco’s “border battle” video shot before last season’s first Vikings-Packers game;
  • And of course, interaction! Most customers and prospects probably won’t want to interact with your brand on Facebook, but for those who do, it’s important to engage them through this channel.

In short, Facebook provides a place to show the human side of your company, to cut loose just a bit and have some fun. While it may produce a lead now and then, it isn’t a very effective lead generation vehicle. Instead, by humanizing your company and giving a glimpse inside, it’s business value lies primarily in lead nurturing—helping move leads through the buying process. It’s more about making current sales cycles more productive than about generating new potential business.

Because the ROI is likely to be difficult to measure with precision, it’s best to keep the “I” fairly modest. Still, with realistic expectations, using Facebook as a means to put a human face (or faces) on a B2B brand can be one effective component of an overall social media marketing strategy.

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