It used to be that if you wanted to take your business online, you bought a domain name, hired a developer and then--after much testing and many iterations--launched a website. That no longer needs to be the case. Increasingly, entrepreneurs are turning to social media platforms--in particular, Facebook--as an easy, quick and inexpensive way to launch an online presence. Since there's no geek gene required, a business can create a functional Facebook page with little or no web-development cost.
So do you really need a stand-alone website? Or will a page on Facebook--with its 1.19 billion monthly active users, ease of social selling and targeted marketing tools that allow you to build momentum and community--suffice?
Ordinarily, I would argue against building your business on "rented land" (that is, a platform that you don't own and control). But I'm starting to rethink that position.
Nine months ago, Corey O'Loughlin (a colleague of mine at MarketingProfs) and Nina Vitalino launched their Facebook store Prep Obsessed; they are on track to record sales of $500,000 this year, with a healthy profit margin. Their startup represents a new business model that was all but unthinkable a few years ago: an online company without its own website.
It is indeed possible to run a business solely on Facebook. But there are ways to do it right.
Tap into existing communities of potential buyers. Prep Obsessed's founders connected with Facebook communities of preppy women before launching their business. "It seemed more natural to develop a community where our customers already were, vs. forcing them out of an environment they were comfortable in," O'Loughlin says.
Target by niche, not by numbers. With the enormous amount of demographic and behavioral information it has on its users, Facebook makes it relatively easy to target customers according to very specific interests. The key to success is being clear on who your potential customers are.
"This is where a lot of companies fall apart on Facebook, because they focus on growing the number of likes vs. building an audience that's more likely to purchase," O'Loughlin explains.
Prep Obsessed targets a relatively narrow user profile: U.S. women between the ages of 20 and 50 who have expressed interest in specific brands (Tory Burch, Lilly Pulitzer) and categories (including fashion and home and garden). The company also goes after those users' friends.
Remember that it still costs money. Facebook isn't a free network--it's only a free platform. That means you'll need a marketing budget.
Prep Obsessed spends $40 per day on Facebook ads, nearly $15,000 annually. That may seem like a lot, O'Loughlin admits, but it has paid off: In nine months, the strategy has netted the fledgling company 33,000 fans. And it's a highly engaged audience. (Facebook measures engagement with its "People Talking About This" metric. Prep Obsessed's is a relatively high 10 percent.)
Content is key. Prep Obsessed's growth rate of 600 to 700 fans a day isn't due solely to advertising. Two-thirds of fans come organically via awareness generated by content posted on the company page--mostly quotes and images that O'Loughlin describes as "rallying cries that unite the audience."
One recent posting, "She who leaves a trail of glitter is never forgotten," netted more than 50 shares.
An authoritative online tone is also important. A company needs to present itself as a knowledgeable curator and resource for the items in which it specializes.
"We never ask what [our customers] want us to offer them," O'Loughlin says. "Instead, they are confident that we know what they want because they're confident we love the same things."
Pick the right vendor partner. For its social commerce function, Prep Obsessed uses a vendor called Soldsie, which enables comment-selling--that is, allowing users to make a purchase by commenting "sold" under the image of a product. The benefit of such a system is that consumers aren't forced to leave Facebook to complete a transaction. (The tool also supports commerce on Instagram.)
Prep Obsessed plans to launch a website this spring, but Facebook will remain its key platform for selling. O'Loughlin says she doesn't fret about the risk of building a business on a platform she doesn't control: "To me it seems like Facebook is only looking to expand e-commerce; I have no reason to believe they will be pulling the rug out from under us anytime soon."
So why have a website at all? Owning an online presence is always wise; successful companies will eventually need to create communities in more than one place online. O'Loughlin, for one, believes her company's community will support the new presence.
"Our fans have loyalty to us--not Facebook," she says. "People feel really connected to us, because we are real people on Facebook. We are two friends running a business. There's something about Facebook that feels more personal, less like a business. That's helped us."