The controversy following Facebook’s floatation on the stock markets may have caused some companies to hesitate before using social media as a business tool. But if so, they are missing out on a major opportunity.

Janet Garcia, director of MindLeaders, explores how small businesses can use Facebook to gain a commercial advantage. MindLeaders combines talent management and elearning into one platform, and was founded in 1981.

The controversy following Facebook’s floatation on the stock markets may have caused some companies to hesitate before using social media as a business tool. But if so, they are missing out on a major opportunity.

Facebook now has around 900 million users worldwide, so there’s an excellent chance that these will include a business’s core market. To reach these prime targets, businesses can specify the ages, locations or interests of those they wish to reach. It means that marketing spend can be much more precisely focused on those prospects most likely to become customers.

In a recent real-life case, an Irish hotel demonstrated the potential to earn over three-quarters of a million euros in just 24-hours after an offer was claimed by around 27,000 people by careful Facebook targeting. The hotel wasn’t large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to take up the offer, but its success does illustrate the power of advertising this way. If an ad or an offer is attractive enough, others will do the work by recommending it to their friends and distribution becomes viral across a network of like-minded people.

However, using Facebook to advertise and market a brand can be confusing for a newcomer. Research shows that the majority of small businesses now have a Facebook Page, but they are not using it to engage with their customers. A study by Recommend.ly found that 82 percent of company and brand pages post less than five updates a month.

This is understandable; creating a Facebook Page is free and, while businesses don’t need to pay to keep posting new content, it does take time and effort to keep it current. However, to put it in perspective, businesses need to balance this use of time against the benefits of having an ongoing dialogue with customers. Market research surveys are expensive, but this way, businesses can enjoy ongoing grass-roots feedback on what their key markets think of their products and services – and importantly, about other related issues too.

It’s a forum for photos and videos too – and as a business establishes a fan-base, its news will become part of its customers’ news feed and so its story will spread.

So far, so straightforward. Many businesses get this far, yet don’t go any further. But Facebook wants to see more small businesses using Facebook to reach customers and has been developing different ways to help them build customer loyalty – and new sales leads - using the site.

Optimising Facebook for business does require a consistent strategy surrounding brand personality, style and tone. It takes time to continually feed a page with updated news and relevant content to help establish a valuable fan base and keep a brand name continually on the news feeds.

However, time and effort will be repaid with tools such as Sponsored Stories or interactive advertisements linked to a friend’s ‘likes’ or recommendations. It has been shown that people are far more likely to remember the name of a brand when it is linked to a friend’s name and four times as likely to buy from that brand.

In other words, there’s a real difference between just having a Facebook presence and proactively seeking to optimise the opportunities it presents. So how does a small business with limited time and resources get to do this? Outsourcing the work to an agency specialising in social media is one option. However, inevitably this will be expensive – and in many cases unnecessary - as using the social network isn’t complex and there are currently many courses available for businesses wanting to learn more.

But evaluating these can be time-consuming in itself. What to choose depends on time available and how best an individual learns. For a small business, elearning courses are probably the most practical as they can be fitted around a working day and addressed in small chunks to prevent learning overload. They also enable you to revisit sections that most interest you whenever you need to. The best use a variety of media such as video, images, narration and interactive screens to engage with their audiences.

Look for a course run by training companies that are already experts in delivering elearning – and one that offers not just tips and tricks but also suggests ways to develop a cohesive overall strategy. Preferably, choose a course that has been developed in co-operation with Facebook as those without this can soon become out of date. Finally, don’t be duped into paying too much, even the best online courses are very affordable to ensure users get return on their investment as soon as they start making money from their efforts.

In short, generating revenue from promoting your business on Facebook is simple, once you know how. But learning how isn’t difficult – or expensive – either. Don’t let lack of time or knowledge mean that your business misses out. It’s an opportunity that’s there for the taking.