Facebook is the hot social-networking site of the moment. With the site's incredible growth in recent months, many marketers are scrambling to find a way to access the site's millions of users who could be potential customers.

But as with any online community, marketers must take great care in how they attempt to approach and interact with the community's members.

This article won't tell you how you, as a marketer, can use Facebook. But it will walk you through the steps necessary to successfully use Facebook to better reach and understand your customers, as a fellow member of the site.

1. Check your marketing hat at the door

If your primary reason for joining Facebook is to promote your company and your products to existing Facebook members, don't even bother joining Facebook. It isn't built for marketers; it is built for people who want to stay in touch with their friends and meet new ones.

If you want to be a member of this community, you have to use Facebook as the other members do. You have to go in with the mindset that you want to use Facebook as a tool to meet and understand your customers.

If done correctly, your time spent on Facebook can lead to more efficient communication between your company and its customers, and it can lead to increased sales. But that only comes if you are willing to use the site on the community's terms, not yours.

Action point: Use Facebook as its members do. View the site as a way to meet and better understand friends and potential customers, which will in return lead to their better understanding you—and, by extension, your company. Remember that you are joining a community, which that has rules, written and unwritten, that you must abide by.

2. Build your Facebook profile

Your profile will be your "home base" for Facebook. This is where you will aggregate all the information about yourself, your company, your interests, and your friends. As you spend more time with Facebook, you will find that you will want to change your profile constantly, adding features that you discover along the way.

At the heart of the Facebook profile are applications (apps). These apps allow you to share information and content about yourself, your company, and your interests. New apps are being created every day for Facebook, each one providing new features and experiences.

Action point: When first joining Facebook, make sure to spend time completing your profile. Be sure to include an actual picture of yourself. Also, include at least one mode of contact (preferably an email address) and, if possible, a phone number. Make sure to clearly identify who your employer is and include links to your company's Web site and blog, if it has one. When you first join Facebook, make sure to identify who you are, who your employer is, and how you can be contacted. If you are already using other social sites, such as Twitter, or your company is blogging, you can add apps that let you move that content to your Facebook profile.

3. Add as friends people who know you

If you think that the person receiving a friend request from you has to think hard to remember how or whether s/he knows you, it's probably best not to invite that person to be a friend. Or, if you choose to invite such acquaintances, add a note reminding them how you know them.

Remember that the point of Facebook is to keep up with your current friends and contacts, and to meet new people. Resist the urge to add popular bloggers or journalists simply because you want to contact them about promoting your products.

That not only won't work but also could cause a backlash if members feel that you are just trying to use them to market for you.

Action point: View Facebook as a way to keep up with your current friends and contacts. If you are unsure whether the person you are attempting to add will remember you, then add a message explaining who you are and how the person might know you.

4. Add friends of your friends

After adding in your friends, see which people they have listed as friends. If you see that several of your friends have befriended the same persons, consider inviting them to be your friends as well. Those people likely share personal and professional interests with you and are a great way to expand your community of friends/contacts on Facebook.

Action point: When you send a friend request to persons who are mutual friends of several of your friends, explain that you have friends in common. Otherwise, not knowing who you are, they might not add you as a friend.

5. Find out what groups are on Facebook that are related to your company or industry and your personal interests

Among the great features of Facebook are the thousands of groups organized around every subject, personal or professional, under the sun. These groups are a great place for you to meet new friends and gain knowledge from fellow members.

But groups can be a big stumbling block for marketers if they aren't careful. Groups are like any other area of Facebook: You create and share value first, then receive value back. You might be tempted to use groups to simply promote your company and products, but this would likely cause a huge backlash.

Remember that the driving forces behind Facebook are connections and community, not commerce. You have to use Facebook as your customers do.

Action point: Facebook's groups can be an incredibly powerful tool for marketers, if approached properly. Instead of attempting to use groups as a promotional channel, use the groups as Facebook members do. Find ways to contribute to groups by answering questions and asking your own. When you begin to create value in groups, you will find that users will respond positively to your efforts, and many will probably want to "friend" you. As with every area of Facebook, consider what you can give to the community, with the idea that the community will respond by giving back to you.

6. Monitor the News Feed to see what your network of friends are up to

Notice the Facebook logo in the top-left hand corner of the site? If you move your cursor just to the right of the logo, you will see the picture of a small house pop up (home). Click on that symbol, and you will be taken to the "News Feed" for your network of friends.

This is a great way to keep up with what your friends are doing. Here you can track comments left on your profile (via your Wall) or those that friends have left on those of other members of your network. You can also discover when friends have posted links to videos, blog posts, upcoming events, or have added applications to their profiles.

The News Feed is a great one-stop area for seeing what your friends are doing on Facebook.

Action point: Regularly check the News Feed to see what your friends are up to. This is a great way to discover interesting items such as groups and links to articles. Add to your profile any relevant information that your friends are sharing, or post a link there. Notice whether your friends are adding the same person as a friend; you may want to add that as well. Also, the News Feed will let you know which of your friends has upcoming birthdays, so be sure to wish them Happy Birthday by leaving comments on their profiles.

7. Bring your coworkers and customer evangelists together

If there are several members of your company already on Facebook, discuss the possibility with management of creating a group for your company, if one doesn't already exist. This could be a great way for co-workers to share not only information and news about the company, or to bring each other up to speed on using Facebook. Also, you can bring your company's evangelists into the fold, by either creating a separate group just for them, or by inviting them to join your company's group. In either case, the idea is to create a sense of community for your company, both internally, and externally.

Action point: Make use of Facebook groups as an internal and external communication tool. If your company has multiple workers on Facebook, you can create a group just for your company, where you can exchange company information as well as information about using Facebook. You can set the privacy settings so that membership is by invitation only. You can decide to make the group "closed," meaning that non-members can view the group but not reply to posts or leave comments. Or you can make the group "secret," meaning that non-members cannot view the group and it will not show up in public searches. Consider giving your customers access to at least one group where members of your company are participants as well. This is a great way to bring customers in and give them a voice where they can discuss your company. That is especially helpful if your company isn't blogging, as it gives your company a way to have an online conversation with your customers.

8. Add Applications to your Profile

We discussed filling out your profile in step 2, but after using Facebook you will quickly discover many different apps and will likely want to add some to your own profile. The great thing about Facebook's applications is that so many of them bring to your profile content that other members have created, or give your friends the ability to add content. These apps are a great way to build community and receive valuable feedback from friends.

Action point: From your Facebook profile, click on the Applications section on the top left-hand side of your profile. This will take you to an area where you can browse the thousands of apps for Facebook. The best ones, such as Ask a Question, or Blog Friends, allow you to give your friends a way to give you feedback, or bring your friend's content to your profile. Applications are great for giving your friends a sense of input into your profile and can also keep you up to date on what your friends are doing.

9. Have fun!

Facebook can be a valuable tool to grow your business, but it's also a great way to meet people and make new friends. Remember that Facebook's users aren't there to "buy stuff" from you, they are there to connect with friends and meet new ones. Never forget to work within the community's rules to accomplish your business goals. Besides, customers want to buy from companies that they trust and like. So remember to represent your company responsibly, but also make sure to be approachable and create an open environment where your friends and customers enjoy your company on Facebook!

Lessons learned

If you are considering joining Facebook, do not view the space as a potential selling channel for your company. Instead, view Facebook as a vibrant community where you can come in contact with your customers and better understand them (and they you). The indirect result of this mutual understanding will likely be increased sales for your company.

But the key to having success on Facebook is to use the site as its members do. Consider ways that you can create and bring value to your fellow users, as in many ways Facebook is a community that rewards its members based on the good that they each bring to the larger group.

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image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier