The widespread use of social media serves as both a challenge and an opportunity to all businesses. As with any new platform, the difficulty is in finding the best way to squeeze value from it.

It's easy to apply basic traditional marketing theory to Facebook: the greater your circulation ('likes'), the greater your rate of conversion. But is it as simple as that? How does Facebook rate as a tool to create new customer relationships?

You may be hearing buzz around 'buying' Facebook likes. There's little science to it: you pay a guy $50 and he finds people to like your page with no consideration of your target. What you therefore get for your money is a slightly larger group of people who don't care about your messaging.

There are arguments for renegade Facebook 'like purchasing', of course.

A larger audience will help to attract organic engagement - people are more inclined to like a page that already has thousands of likes. The chances of finding someone, anyone who is interested in an offering is increased just through basic probability. But the actual quantifiable increase in conversions is negligible.

So the question remains: is a bigger Facebook audience enough?

Mirelle Sutton, 35, is a typical Facebook user. She “likes” around 15 brands and businesses on the social network. She has made purchases as a direct result of some activity posted on Facebook - usually a sale or newly-stocked item that has been highlighted.

“I've liked brands that have mentioned Facebook in their traditional advertising, mainly so I can get a discount on a purchase," she says.

"And I will more than likely make a purchase from Facebook in the future - as long as I've used that business's services before.”

That's because, tellingly, Ms Sutton has never had a transaction with a brand on Facebook that she did not have an existing relationship with away from social media.

“I actually find Facebook-specific adverts really annoying,” she says.

“I don't interact with businesses on there unless I already know them.”

Rachel Reynolds, 20, agrees. “It is more common for me to like a page that comes up in my news feed if someone I know has already liked it," she says.

"Unless the brand or picture appeals to me very specifically, I don't interact with pages of brands I've never heard of.”

This approach to engagement with brands on Facebook is echoed by both agency and client-led social media activity.

Nick Morgenstern, the managing director of Aptivate.me, a digital agency focusing almost solely on Facebook application development for brand-led engagement, says businesses are taking a closer look at how best to attract genuine followers.

“Clients are starting to request deeper analytic integration into our apps, so they can better gauge the relationship between Facebook and conversions (and) goals on-site,” he says.

“Our larger clients are looking at ways to move beyond basic community engagement and management, and provide deeper engagement that develops the relationship.”

Morgenstern says it's important to understand the difference between likes that are 'bought' and those 'earned'. An earned fan, he says, has engaged with a business because they actively like the brand, promotion, offering or activity. It is not one who has liked your page because he or she has been paid to.

“A genuine - or 'earned' - fan has chosen to associate themselves with your brand in a public and open context. If the brand has meaningful, genuine and valuable dialogue with these fans, they are more likely to become customers if they're not already,” he says.

Recent social media activity by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation reflects this attitude.

In 2010, the corporation employed its first digital coordinator, who was tasked with creating and cultivating a Facebook audience.

Rather than 'buying' likes, the AGPC chose to find, listen to and engage with fans in what was an intensive but ultimately valuable campaign. While the audience was comparatively small at 20,000, it became one of the Australian sporting industry's most engaged and far-reaching audiences.

Two months later, mid-range grandstand ticket sales for the Formula One event had increased by 40 per cent.

What should businesses take from all of this? It's simple: Facebook should form part of an integrated marketing strategy.

On its own, its best use is to support current and potential customers through genuine engagement. Its value is not in large - but ultimately disengaged - audience numbers, but in cultivating relationships with the ones that are inclined to become an active community of customers and advocates.

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