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Facebook: The latest b-to-b frontier?

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Michele Wickum’s company doesn’t seem like a natural fit for Facebook marketing at first —Wickum is the marketing director at SteelMaster Buildings, which produces corrugated steel buildings and roofing.

But Wickum must be doing something right. SteelMaster’s Facebook page has almost 6,500 “likes” (formerly fans) and the wall is a beehive of two-way communication between SteelMaster and its customers.

When asked how she built up a relatively large Facebook following in just 18 months, Wickum said, “We reached out to our customers, yes, but a lot of it is just people coming across our page and saying, ‘This is a cool project. My friends should see this.’ ”

Despite this success, Wickum is clear that Facebook is “not a lead generator” for SteelMaster.

“We do get customers, but that’s not the big reason for it,” she said. “It’s more for brand, and visibility and corporate transparency. Facebook is not the next big source of revenue.”

And therein lies the challenge for any marketer hoping to harness Facebook’s massive power to reach people (the company recently announced it has more than 500 million users). Ultimately, Facebook is a social experience, not a marketing experience; and b-to-b marketers have to adjust their expectations accordingly.

“Facebook requires you to do more than just broadcast your marketing messages,” said Leyl Master Black, managing director at Sparkpr, San Francisco. “You have to provide valuable content and offers, be entertaining or informative, and give fans opportunities and incentives to engage.”

This is just what Buddy Oliver, director of business development at FiberPlex, designed his company’s Facebook page to do. His company produces data transportation devices for use in large venues like stadiums. His potential customer base is “very niche,” but Oliver found it was getting harder to reach them.

“There are a few trade magazines that are icons in my field, but with the collapse in advertising, they’re becoming pamphlets,” Oliver said. “So I pay $3,500 for an ad that people might see once or twice. We’ve really scaled back our print advertising.”

Instead, Oliver moved more heavily into social media because “everybody who needs this technology also has a Facebook account.”

“If I can attract them with one click, then I’m in their face all the time whenever they’re on Facebook, as long as I’m not obnoxious,” Oliver said. “The worst case scenario is that they see my logo every day.”

As part of a social media strategy, like the ones pursued by Wickum and Oliver, Facebook is a great tool for involvement—but neither marketer thought Facebook would become a central element of their company’s marketing strategy.

One of the biggest problems, they say, is Facebook’s lack of analytic tools. It’s difficult to track sophisticated behavior modification on Facebook. The best companies can do is watch the number of their “likes” and monitor activity on the page.

“You can also see how many people come to your website from Facebook,” Black said. “Another idea is to use custom URLs for lead-generation programs, such as discounts, that you post on Facebook. This will enable you to easily the track the lead source.”

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