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Facebook Widgets Simplify SMB Fan Page Administration

North Social packages up the most common apps businesses need to build their social media fan base in an easy-to-use bundle.

Top 15 Facebook Apps For Business
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Slideshow: Top 15 Facebook Apps For Business
What are some of the ways you might build the audience on your Facebook business page? Besides inserting a welcome message urging people to click the "Like" button, you might want to entice them with a sweepstakes, show video demos, maybe even try to get visitors to buy something on the spot.

As an organization trying to do business on Facebook, you could study tools and techniques for developing effective Facebook page tabs. Or you might want to sign up with North Social, which will sell you a whole library of Facebook apps representing all the most common goals businesses have for their Facebook pages.

"With one account for your business or fan page, we give you access to all 18 applications, and we've made them as easy to use as Blogger or WordPress," North Social managing partner Alex Bernstein said in an interview. Accounts start at $19.95 per month for a single page with up to 1,000 fans and scale up from there to support major brands and agencies that support dozens of pages.

North Social was acquired in February by Vocus, a powerhouse vendor of software and services for public relations and marketing. Bernstein quoted the price as $25 million (reportedly broken out as $7 million cash plus up to $18 million conditional on achieving milestones spelled out in the contract).

You can see examples of North Social applications in action on the Facebook pages of Sanuk Footwear, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Power Rangers, and Osiris Shoes.

For example, on the Sanuck page, the welcome image encouraging you to register and the "Shop 'til you Flop!" sandal store are powered by North Social apps. Big 5 Sporting Goods uses the North Social coupon tab.

Administration of these apps is done entirely through Facebook--when you are logged in as an administrator, each page tab displays a link to the corresponding editing utility. For the most part, configuring or updating a tab requires nothing more than filling out simple forms and uploading images to be displayed within North Social's template. For something like a sweepstakes that requires an HTML form for entries, you paste in a little bit of code, but North Social provides a form generator to assist with that process.

For the most part, Bernstein said the system is designed to not only avoid complex coding but to discourage it. Some of his competitors who allow more freedom for customization also have to charge higher support fees, he said. The simplicity of the North Social system is what makes it affordable and accessible to small businesses, but some large companies have also adopted the tool as an alternative to paying a digital agency to custom-craft each new message they want to put out.

The nature of Facebook dictates "higher turnover in terms of creative," Bernstein said. Building most of the content around uploaded images, rather than fancy HTML, JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheets code, means putting out a new campaign is as easy as designing it in Photoshop and uploading the image.

For example, Big 5 Sporting Goods uses the North Social coupon app to publish a new coupon every Thursday and do it cost effectively. "We limit customization so you can get your content up quickly, knowing you're going to want to take it down in a week anyway," Bernstein said.

While many of the technical limitations of what you can do are melting away with changes in the Facebook platform, it still doesn't pay to get too fancy. For example, the North Social Shop & Share app offers a relatively simple way of presenting a few featured products with a "buy now" button that links to your own website.

"Facebook is not really designed for you to recreate your entire product catalog," Bernstein said. "It's more like, 'Here are my best, most amazing offers for you, the stuff you're going to want to share with your friends.' Nobody is going to say, 'Here is this great wingnut I found for 99 cents.'"

When you try to pack too much into what ought to be a simple Facebook application, the result is often "like a pizza with 100 toppings," Bernstein said. Not very appetizing.

One footnote on reliability: while browsing North Social customer pages as part of the research for this report, I encountered what looked like a momentary service outage. Over about a 10-minute period, I tried several tabs on several pages using both Firefox and Internet Explorer, and none of them were displayed as anything but a blank page. Given the vagaries of the Web, I can't be certain whether this was a glitch caused by overloaded servers at North Social, a failure of the Facebook systems, or some network glitch keeping everything from working together. However, I did stumble across a tweet from a couple of days ago where someone wrote "Hey @northsocial, all of your apps are currently down. Any update on a timeline for a fix?"

When I queried North Social, Bernstein said in an email, "we are currently overpowered on the hardware front with massive capacity we built out for 10x our current usage. Facebook itself has some load issues, which users often mistake for our issues. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference since we are built on top of Facebook."

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