If you’re still skeptical about Facebook, consider the size and growth of its audience. Facebook passed Google search in early 2010, as measured by number of visitors. Since then, the social network has continued to expand its audience and share of Web traffic. While both Facebook and Google are growing, Facebook shows no sign of slowing down and is now clearly outpacing its rival. It’s no surprise that each new slice of the youth market picks up the Facebook habit as it comes of age. But Facebook’s growth among folks in their sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond is pretty robust as well—and we’re talking prime voting demographics here.
 
Last month in this column we talked about Facebook’s “news stream”—the constant flow of comments, links, photos, videos and messages posted by one’s friends. As Facebook continues to update its platform, this stream is becoming more central to its members’ experience and to their navigation of the Web. We described this news stream as America’s national water-cooler conversation, where the interactions of a person’s friends with a particular item in the stream (whether by “liking” it or posting a comment) amplifies and extends its reach. As folks are barraged with an increasing amount of information, this “friend filter” comes to play a key role in determining the value and veracity of information as well.
 
So how do you get folks to notice you on Facebook? Put it another way—do you wonder why some candidates or organizations have thousands of people who “like” their Facebook pages while some pages are effectively sitting in the corner by themselves? To answer the first question, you need to advertise. It’s not difficult. You upload a small image, write a short headline accompanied by a description of a few dozen words, pick your target audience and set how much you want to pay. If you start early enough and select to pay only on clicks, you can attract an audience for pennies per head. It also helps to have something to say on your page. Use Facebook’s FBML feature (Facebook Markup Language—similar to HTML, but a lot simpler) to create a custom welcome tab for new visitors. That way you’re not just dumping new folks into the conversation on your wall, but instead delivering a targeted message tied to your advertising.
 
Once you have folks paying attention, what do you do with them? Let’s start with some advice on what not to do: Don’t ignore them. Facebook is a two-way medium, so you can encourage folks to talk back and comment. Watching who responds to your messages is a great way to identify potential grassroots leaders. Of course, you’ll need to publish interesting material to stimulate this conversation. Photos and news from real-world events are always a good place to start. Posts about your organization interacting with people seem to trigger a lot more comments and tagging than campaign press releases—go figure. Encourage your supporters to share your campaign or organization’s activities with their network. As an example of the value of having friends talk up an event, the ticketing service Eventbrite reports that each “share” of a link to an event on Facebook is worth precisely $2.52 in ticket sales.
 
As it grows, Facebook also has a habit of frequently revamping its service and launching new features. In late 2010, the company announced a new approach to messaging, promising to unify multiple message streams; shortly after, it introduced a new layout for members’ home pages. While each change tends to cause grumbling among traditionalists, most Facebook users see these changes as a chance to experiment. The new group functions that Facebook also rolled out in late 2010 are particularly ripe for exploitation by political campaigns and organizations. Offering a mix of social networking, closed-group messaging (think private e-mail lists) and document collaboration (think the volunteer spreadsheets you’re constantly updating), this new style of Facebook group could be the next big thing for campaigns. Look at it this way: If you want to organize online, you have the choice of convincing folks to join yet another specialized service—or you can plug into where everyone already hangs out. Perhaps you can lead, follow and stay out of the way all at the same time.
 
Steve Pearson is the president of CivicNEXT (www.civicnext.com), a provider of practical online communications and social networking solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a C&E 2010 Rising Star, is the founder of ProjectVirginia.com, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter.