Looking for ways to connect with small businesses and raise awareness of its brand, Visa Inc. earlier this year set up the Visa Business Network on Facebook—the first time it has used social networking as a major b-to-b marketing platform. “Our overall objective was very much around helping small-business owners to succeed,” said Alex Craddock, head of small-business marketing at Visa. “At the beginning of the year, we began reviewing our payment products and looking at the insight we have into small-business owners. Understanding the power of networking for small-business owners, we wanted to facilitate networking in an online environment.” Rather than building a proprietary online community, Visa opted to create a community on Facebook, which has more than 100,000 small-business owners as members and is growing at the rate of 20,000 small businesses a month. “We felt this would be a lot more efficient than putting significant dollars into attracting an audience [to a propriety community],” Craddock said. “We wanted to go where small businesses are already going online.” So in June, Visa launched its Facebook application, working with its digital agency AKQA, San Francisco, and AllWidgets.com, a social networking application developer. At the Visa Business Network, small businesses can network with other small businesses; get advice from experts and peers on topics ranging from managing money to coping with the economic downturn; and seek new customers and prospects for their businesses. They can also set up business profile pages, find businesses similar to theirs and use tools in an online resource center. To promote the Visa Business Network on Facebook, Visa used traditional advertising, such as print ads in publications targeting small businesses and online ads on sites including forbes.com and wsj.com. But its biggest push was using social media itself. Visa reached out to blogging communities to promote the Facebook application and advertised on Facebook's network, using social media ads that appear in users' news feeds. “Facebook advertising has proven to be the most efficient channel in terms of acquiring new users for Visa Business Network,” Craddock said. “We can be very targeted and pick out small-business profiles we want to send advertising to as a primary target.” “One thing the Facebook platform offers you is a good environment to experiment in,” Craddock said, noting that Visa experimented with more than a dozen versions of social media ads. “You have to experiment and not be afraid to experiment. Users will tell you very quickly if it's not what they want to hear or see.” As part of its promotion, Visa and Facebook offered the first 20,000 small businesses that signed up for the Visa Business Network a $100 advertising credit to use on Facebook advertising. “This gives small businesses an opportunity to try advertising in Facebook at no cost and at a very low risk,” Craddock said. “When we launched the Visa Business Network, the economy was already starting to feel difficult. We wanted to look at how we could help small-business owners innovate from a marketing point of view.” So far the Facebook program has exceeded Visa's goals. It wanted to sign up 20,000 small businesses by the end of the calendar year, and more than 21,000 small businesses had created a profile in the Visa Business Network by presstime. The network has achieved a repeat visit rate of more than 50%, which is higher than the average industry rate of 25%. “After four months, it is massively living up to our expectations,” Craddock said last month.