Facebook? Business? Facebook? Business? These words don’t go together, do they?

In the early days (so many weeks ago), Facebook was just about connecting with friends?. Let’s face it; your business does not have friends. Ideally, it has satisfied or maybe even delighted customers given that you fulfill their needs more effectively than do your competitors. In Facebook lingo, these people are fans?.

That brings us to one of the BIG ideas behind social networking for business. Much of yesterday?s business communications was monologue. Brochures, press releases, direct mail, and advertisements only go one-way: out!

What if you and your team could actually engage in a dialog with your customers and prospects? Yes, it could be a little messier but wow, it would dramatically accelerate organizational learning (important note: only if it is an open and honest conversation).

Get On Board

The faster your company learns, the better it can serve customers. That’s one of the key benefits of engaging in social networking for business. Facebook can be your platform to do this, especially if you’re in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space. For internal communications among a geographically distributed team or in the business-to-business (B2B) space, there are better platforms including Ning to name one.

A key point regarding any social networking initiative: Before beginning, ensure that you have an outstanding product/service that is clearly differentiated from your competition and well serviced with strong customer support. The social web is an accelerator of sorts; it makes strong products better and more successful? and weak products, well, dead.

If you typically start your marketing or communications programs without a plan, budgets, or objectives, go straight to www.facebook.com to get started immediately. The point is? don’t skip these critical steps just because this is a new medium. Even though Facebook is free, engaging in a campaign is not.

Get Your Bearings

On the Facebook homepage, you’ll see a link in the lower right that is relatively new. It says: Create a Page for a celebrity, band or business. Click there.

You’ll land on a page that offers a choice between ?Local? and Brand, Product, or Organization?. Examine the business types listed under each option to determine the best fit for your business. If you’re in a single location serving a very limited geographic area, choose ?Local?, otherwise go with the latter.

There are many benefits of these fan pages relative to friend pages. First and foremost, they are open to everybody, even Facebook non-members. In addition, they enable messaging to fans based on their location, as well as on age and gender.

From there, you’ll find it easy to complete your fan page and to begin customizing content about your company. After that, the fun begins. This is not a build it and ignore it exercise.

Many businesses use their Facebook page to engage bi-directionally with customers and prospects. For a great example, check out Facebook.com/Starbucks. Note to self: Their number of fans has increased from 1,754,451 to 3,406,891 in less than 30 days. Investigate how they drove that.

Most of the action is on Starbucks Wall? and in the Discussions? area. They’re currently sharing descriptions and photos of their CEO?s trip to Rwanda and dialoging with customers about their products. Their newest post says: Discover the Treat Receipt, bring in your receipt from this morning for a Grande $2 cold drink.

Very cool idea? Facebook-only specials. What a great way to attract more fans! Note to self: Earlier question partly answered.

Before you conclude that this Facebook thing is only for the big guys, let me point out that a search for dentist? returns more than 500 matches. Hey, if a dentist can have fans, so can your business. Remember that there are 300 million members of Facebook, 50% having visited in the last 30 days.

In a way, the Starbucks example is misleading. In social networking, quality actually trumps quantity. It’s about creating a real conversation with those people that are most interested in what you offer, accelerating your learning and theirs. It’s easier to sell to and service someone fully engaged in such a conversation because you understand their needs and expectations like never before.

In social networking, don’t be overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once. A journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step. Pick one idea to get started. Facebook could be the right direction for your business.