Your guide to a successful online business!

Facebook is great.

Over the last 10 years it has transformed our use of the web as consumers, with an ecosystem of hypnotic content and applications.

It has changed our behavior, engaging massive chunks of our ‘free time’. A spare minute waiting for the bus is an entertainment opportunity.

It has revolutionised our use of mobile phones. We check them close to 100 times per day. Facebook is often top of the list.

And that’s before we even talk about what its done for businesses. A Facebook presence is important, but for a small local business it is vital.

Business’ Facebook pages that are packed with features

Facebook has made it really easy – and free – to get your business onto the Internet, with a Facebook page. These are desktop, tablet, mobile and app ready, built to a format that users are familiar with.

All businesses can show when they’re open. If you’re a restaurant you can publish your menu. If you have appointment slots you can take bookings from customers.

Reaching a massive audience

A Facebook page means that you connect with your existing and potential customers in a place they like hanging out.

And what potential! With more than one billion global users, and around 28 million in the UK, the vast majority customers for every UK business are on Facebook.


Engaging that audience

Facebook pages bring customers into the heart of a business, by showcasing conversations between real people rather than a simple brand broadcast.

New visitors get an instant sense of how a brand deals with existing customers, helping them to decide if they want to come on board.

Brands can use Facebook to demonstrate how relevant they are, by posting images and sharing content they think their audience will find interesting.

And brands can also choose to publish response times, so visitors get a feel of the type of service they might expect if they decide to buy.

Thanks to the ‘like’ button, a brand Facebook page is a free channel to communicate with existing customers in a format they’re familiar with digesting. This takes the message away from traditional channels like direct mail, email and the phone. And it becomes a one-to-one conversation rather than a one-to-many broadcast.

The advertising potential is enormous

Facebook has an easy-to-use, effective advertising platform, coupled to priceless audience insights that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. By sharing our data, us users have let Facebook know about our most intimate interests and desires.

As an advertiser this means you can micro-target prospects based on who they are or what they are interested in. And you can demonstrate your relevance by sharing content that’s tied to those preferences, building an affinity with people who are likely to buy from you.

Thanks to the custom-audience feature you can target existing customers with messaging, or even a prospect list whose email address you’ve gathered. You can even reach people on Facebook who’ve been on your website but are yet to buy. To those people, your apparently serendipitous appearance in their news feed validates your brand as a sensible choice.

The best thing is that right now advertising on Facebook is incredibly cheap. Compared to that other paid media addiction – Google AdWords – the Facebook ad platform comes at a fraction of the cost.


Understanding your audience and your competitors

Finally, Facebook can give you deep insights about your audience – from basic demographics through to detailed preferences. You can understand when your customers are online, what they’re up to, and what they’re saying about your brand.

Last but not least, Facebook allows you to spy on your competition. By watching your competitor pages you can see what they’re up to and who their audience is. What better way to learn how to improve or to validate your success?

Are you convinced? Don’t be. A website beats a Facebook page hands down. And here’s why.

1. The freedom to create

These days its as easy to build your own website, as build a Facebook page. And it can be free. I generally don’t write about our products, but I can’t fail to mention that 123 Reg offers a free website with every domain.

With your own site: you can design anything you like. You’re not limited to a blue-bordered 828 x 315 pixels, with a header image, some thumbnails and a timeline.

Want to go full width? You got it. Full homepage image? You got it. Background video? You got it. A game for new visitors? You got it.

Aside from having the freedom to create exactly what you want, you can integrate with any other site or application on the web.

Facebook is a walled garden of pages and applications that will only work with each other.

But your website is part of the open, publically accessible web and therefore able to integrate fully with the full ecosystem of the Internet.

This freedom to create exactly what you want is central to building a memorable brand. Your website gives the opportunity to create an online experience for your visitors, the chance to plant a unique seed in their memory. It starts with the name and the domain, but that seed grows through the website and later by email.

By contrast, from local businesses to global brands, all Facebook pages are essentially very similar. Users can’t recall one above the other, there’s no stand out. They fail to create a memorable connection with their visitors.

And that’s before we start talking about all the extra functionality that websites can provide. From logged-in customer dashboards, to ecommerce; Facebook pages don’t touch websites for the variety of things they can do. No one goes shopping on Facebook, and they probably never will.

2. The freedom to own that creation

If you create a Facebook page, you don’t own that creation: Facebook does.

Your words & images, your applications, your conversations, your relationships: every piece of content you post is owned by someone else.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything sinister about that. I don’t believe in a conspiracy. I don’t believe it will be used against you.

But the point here is that it puts you at the mercy of their future strategy. What happens if they choose to restrict your content? To change how you can communicate with existing and future customers?

Or to put it another way: what if they do a “Google+” on you?

Lots of people put lots of effort into building their Google+ profiles. Thousands of hours in labour, developing content and building relationships. And because the platform stagnated, Google started slowly pulling the plug.

On Facebook, you’re hanging out with your customers in a café you don’t own. If the menu changes, or the café closes, where does that leave you?

The risk is just too high. You need to own the café, not rent it from someone else. As Avinash Kaushik puts it:

“You don’t own the domain, you don’t own the customer data, you don’t create/own the rules, you can’t influence changes, you don’t have a say in how many characters you can type or how long your video can be or how much creativity you can express. You play by their rules (after all you are just renting).”


3. The freedom to communicate

When your business posts on Facebook, do you know how many people see that post?

Less than 2% of the people that have ‘liked’ your Facebook page.

You read that right. Less than 2%.

A typical local business has around 500 likes. That means that each post is seen by at most 10 people.

All that effort to speak to 10 people! You’d be better off walking the streets dressed in a sandwich board; many more would see your message.

On Facebook you need to ‘pay to play’. If you want more of the people who have liked your page to see your post, you need to get the credit card out. Facebook charges you to talk to people who, by liking your page, have already said they’re happy to have that conversation.

Facebook owns the medium and they want you to pay to use it.

By contrast, your website is virtually free (bar the hosting). Anyone who is on your website gets your message for nothing. When you email your customers it costs your nothing.

4. The freedom to benefit from your efforts

Every time you do something great on Facebook, a part of the benefit goes to you, but another part goes to Facebook.

‘I saw that great thing on Facebook’ is what people say. They don’t say ‘check out this brand’.

This means that just a proportion of your efforts end up benefiting your brand, and the rest goes to Facebook. You’ve helped make their environment a more appealing place for people to hang out. They’re reaping what you sowed.

Or to put it another way: if your business left Facebook, would anyone really care? Most of your customers wouldn’t notice. They’d move on to consume someone else’s content.

Yet every hour you pour into your website will benefit your business. A great blog post, an updated design, a compelling image; all these create a lasting benefit to your brand.

Visitors will remember your name, and when they talk about your business they’ll refer people to your website and not Facebook. You’ll earn the benefit of the referral, and maximise the chance build on it.

5. The chance to build channels

Because Facebook is pay-to-play, you can’t build a lasting communication channel to current and future customers. Every time you want to say something and to actually be heard, you need to dip your hand in your pocket.

By contrast, the effort you put into building your website will turn into organic, free marketing channels between you and your customers. If you create a compelling site or add a piece of great content, its your website that will get shared online.

This in turn will lead to links from other sites, as those discovering you start to write about and link to your content. These shares and links are a valuable and lasting source of referral traffic to your site. On top of that, they’re the backbone to your Search Engine Optimisation strategy and will drive your website rankings ever higher.

Your website also opens up the opportunity to foster relationships on email. By capturing addresses you can build an effective channel, likely to give you the highest ROI of all. And despite the rise of social, email remains the king of one-to-one marketing.

No channel will work as hard for as little.


6. The chance to build relationships

The relationship between brands and customers on Facebook is very transient.

Your business gets in front of your audience for a moment, and is then gone. Even the most compelling posts are viewed for less than a minute. Facebook counts a video ‘view’ at just 3 seconds.

The challenge is that your brand has to be more compelling than your customer’s friends, and to compete in the newsfeed with the latest viral story.

Websites, on the other hand, allow a more persistent relationship with customers. Whilst there are far fewer people on your website than the audience on Facebook, you engage with them on a whole deeper level.

The truth of this is borne out by the average time-on-site stats. A well designed website that addresses the customer need and provides great content, will have an average time-on-site of several minutes.

By throttling access to your audience, and reducing the depth of brand-customer interactions, Facebook limits any businesses ability to form meaningful relationships.

Your business can’t rely on that.

That’s my view, what’s yours?

The Facebook machine is colossal.

Consumers love it; businesses can thrive on it. But compared to what a website can do, Facebook doesn’t touch the sides.

How much of your business comes through Facebook? Do you put more effort in to Facebook compared to your website? What other channels are important to you?

Let me know what you think by responding via @123reg and @Nick_Leech on Twitter.

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