By Jennifer James

In only four years Facebook has exploded as one of the most popular online social networking sites, attracting over 250,000 members a day with its super-inclusive “Anyone can join” slogan. As a result, it is now one of the most complete online communities with members from 31 countries.

With 120 million active members as of November 2008, Facebook is a marketers dream. Turning from its roots of being a vehicle to connect real-life friends, the social network is now a place to meet up with people who have similar interests. Building on that idea, Facebook “fan pages” – groups that companies create and manage – are fast becoming the best way for brands to effectively (and cheaply!) use Facebook for business. A recent eMarketing report unveiled that 32% of U.S. retailers and 59 of the top-100 online stores maintain a fan page. There are currently more than 150,000 company-managed pages.

In addition to being able to send company updates to fans directly to their inbox, one of the biggest benefits of fan pages is that they are all public, allowing search engines to index the page, adding google juice to any brand.

Because Facebook is a social web, almost everything that a member does within the community is published on the news feed (a running list of activities that is viewable by all friends). As soon as someone joins a fan page, all their friends, often hundreds of people, are notified, adding a viral element to fan pages that raises brand awareness (and probably membership!).

The top 50 fan pages combined, including “adidas Originals”, “Apple Students” and “Barack Obama”, have over 30 million fans. However, attracting (and keeping) members does take a lot of work. Simply creating the page and leaving it will probably not help to drive business or customer engagement. In order to successfully leverage the value, companies must use the page to create dialogue, adding fresh content and actively participating in conversations.

What is great content? Offer polls. Add contests. Upload videos. Allow members to post photos. Encourage and engage in discussions. Check out the Dunkin’ Donuts fan page for a great example of an active and well-maintained fan page that extends the brand through this exiting new marketing channel.

Setting up a fan page is easy. All you need is a Facebook account, imagination and time. Need help navigating the Facebook fan pages waters? Contact us!

(Jennifer James is a Communications Strategist with market2world communications inc., Ottawa, Canada's tech PR and product marketing agency.)