In May I got a call from a marketing agency working with American Express letting me know that Spoonflower, an internet-based custom fabric printing company I co-founded three years ago, was being considered to be one of 10 finalists in the "Big Break for Small Business" contest they were running with Facebook. The prize was $20,000, and a "social-media makeover" in the form of a visit to Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto to work with their experts on social-media marketing. There had been, we were told, more than 11,000 applications. My business partner and I were flabbergasted.
Up to this point, Spoonflower's Facebook page -- like the business itself -- had grown almost entirely through word of mouth. As a young, bootstrapped manufacturing business, almost all of our profits go toward purchasing equipment to expand capacity, while our marketing budget consists of initiatives that cost time and effort rather than money. That means we rely almost entirely on social media for growth.
This is a strategy that has worked pretty well: Fabric, it turns out, is a very social product. People are proud of creating or discovering unique fabric designs, which makes them want to share the fruit of their creative efforts with other people via photos of and blog posts about the fabric they've designed and the things they've made with their printed fabric. Every week we hold a fabric-design competition around a theme, and designers who enter these contests spread the word and ask their friends to vote for them. When we were selected as a Big Break finalist we had around 11,000 fans on our Facebook page.
For three weeks following the announcement of the 10 Big Break finalists, the contestants were urged to use social media to campaign for votes, aided by a professional video created for each business by an agency handling the campaign. Each of the 10 finalists received a $2,500 Facebook advertising credit, which I put to work immediately in a test campaign to drive to our Facebook page people in the U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia who are over age 22 and like sewing, fabric or quilting. We also used our weekly email newsletter -- with about 80,000 opt-in subscribers -- to bring out the vote.
During the voting, we experimented with a couple of the options in the Facebook advertising arsenal. Two of them were sponsored stories, the category of ads generated when people who like your page take actions related to your business. In one case, we tried an advertisement triggered when a Spoonflower fan commented or liked a news item posted on our page. The downside of this approach was that the specific action being promoted -- something along the lines of "Jane Smith likes Spoonflower's link: Spider Silk Fabric to Be Exhibited at London Museum" -- was not very effective as an ad. The text included links to different pages and lacked a clear focus or call to action. But another form of sponsored story in which an ad shows up on the newsfeed page of friends who have liked your page -- one that simply says "Jane Smith likes Spoonflower" -- turned out to work extremely well. It became somewhat less effective the longer we ran it, but initially we were paying only $.16 per click and less than $.45 per conversion, by far the most economical advertising option we had tried. The number of fans of Spoonflower's page soared. By the end of the voting period, we were close to 18,000 likes and in the weeks immediately after, we passed 20,000.
The third week in July, AmEx tallied up the votes and announced the five winners. They included, in addition to Spoonflower: Hopelights, a printer of customized magazines for kids with special needs in Plano, Texas; Fat Brain Toys of Elkhorn, Neb.; and Distinctive Gardens, a garden center in Dixon, Ill. The fifth winner, and the celebrity of the group, was the larger-than-life owner of Big Daddy's Bar-B-Que, a restaurant in Gary, Ind., that had started in a flea market. While Big Daddy admitted that he was more or less lost with respect to some of the technical details of Facebook -- logging on, for example -- his wife had clearly mastered the art of engaging with customers online.
We would all spend an intense day-and-a-half of sessions at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto getting an overview on the guiding principles of Facebook's marketing ecosystem. The program included a short visit from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who stopped by to meet the winners and to share her thoughts on Facebook's mission of making the world more connected. Each business was then paired with a group of expert advisers from Facebook's youthful team of marketing whizzes to work through strategies for everything from managing a business page to implementing the Graph API, the set of tools Facebook offers that allows other websites to show customers what their friends are buying. It didn't hurt that Spoonflower's account manager turned out to be a quilter and fabric lover herself.
In addition to a few meals in Facebook's storied free cafeteria, we walked away from the "Big Break" experience with a list of new things to try. These included refinements to our ad strategy that will of course cost money to evaluate, but also an array of features we plan to integrate with our site that offer the possibility of an equal or even greater benefit that will cost us nothing but time and effort. While experimentation with Facebook's advertising products is relatively cheap and easy, their major drawback is obvious. Despite the fact that we're entirely an e-commerce business, we still can't assign a dollar value to the page likes we're spending so much time trying to foster.
As nice as it feels to be "liked," the one thing Facebook doesn't offer is the ability to measure customer conversions using the cold, hard financial calculus that makes Google's Adwords program so appealing.
Having said that , Facebook's marketing tools are still in early stages. After my trip to Palo Alto, I'm certainly a convert. But then again, Spoonflower is a social business to its core. Our success thus far is entirely a product of the impulse that Facebook is doing its best to bottle and put at the service of small businesses everywhere.