Facebook recently launched a new feature called Facebook Places, which lets Facebook members tell each other where they are, what they're doing, and who they're with.
The impact for local merchants and small businesses is that you're now more likely to be included in the conversation among Facebook users, because they'll be able to automatically tell each other where they are, not just what they're doing.
The good news is that there are opportunities to use Facebook Places in your marketing strategy. But it will require some work.
What is Facebook Places and how does it work?
Facebook Places is a new addition to Facebook's iPhone app its mobile website, which lets users "check in" from their current location, using the location signal from their phone. A message goes out to the user's Facebook friends, including the name of the venue they are at -- a restaurant, bar, store, museum, park, etc. And depending on users' privacy settings, it may include the names of people who are with the user. (For more details about how Facebook Places works, and a step-by-step guide to using it, click here.) This is similar to existing apps you may have heard of, including Foursquare and Loopt.
How does this affect local merchants and small businesses?
For starters, the name of your business will now be included in more messages on Facebook, so more people may be aware of your establishment. (This could be great word-of-mouth marketing, but because it's private, people may also be describing negative experiences -- be aware.)
Facebook also creates a "Local business" page for each of the Places that are listed in Facebook Places. Whenever someone "checks in" to your business, it will include a link to the Facebook page for your business in the message that gets blasted out to their friend.
For example, here's a link to a page for a Starbucks Coffee location in New York. On the page is a map of the location, aggregate information about the total check-ins, and for users who are logged in to Facebook, information about their friends' check-ins at that location.
What do you have to do to participate?
Facebook is letting merchants "claim" their pages by clicking on the "Is this your business?" link at the bottom of a places page. If you already have a Facebook page for your business, you'll be able to merge it with your new Places page.
If you claim your page, you'll be able to manage your Place's address, contact information, business hours, profile pictures, and some other settings; get some aggregate information about how your page is used; and you'll be able to blast messages onto your page.
You'll also be able to advertise your Place on Facebook, which is one of the reasons Facebook is so excited about Places. Facebook's goal is to get local merchants to care as much about their Places pages as they care about their reviews on Yelp and their Places page on Google. (For more information, check out Facebook's Places for Advertisers FAQ.)
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