When facebook first launched in 2004, membership was limited to college students. Expansion to high school students and the public at large did not take long, but for many years facebook was considered a site for “kids;” an informal social forum for the younger generation to share funny videos, photos and anecdotes, but not something that concerned the professional world. In fact, many offices blocked the Web site entirely to prevent their employees from “wasting” company time. The overwhelming popularity the site has amassed, however, and that somewhat addictive quality that compels users to participate on a regular basis (most daily and many hourly) did not escape the notice of marketing professionals for long. And so, companies, including many of the 100 largest security dealers, began putting their “faces” in the book and joining the global discussion on social media strategies.

“What a company stands to gain from the [facebook] page is completely contingent upon what the company decides to do with that page and their commitment level to a true social format,” says Kristi Knight, vice president of corporate communications at APX Alarm, on the utility of facebook profiles. “Companies who create a facebook page for traditional advertising or branding purposes will often miss the boat. Facebook requires a level of interaction and transparency that never existed in traditional advertising or marketing approaches.”

These new approaches and strategies vary greatly. Companies such as Peak Alarm, Monitronics and APX Alarm have discussion forums built into their profiles where customers can share their experiences and request assistance. This high visibility approach has scared off many. One primary reason is because these forums allow dissatisfied customers to be able to post their impassioned complaints for everyone to see. “Facebook places a magnifying glass on who you really are as a company,” Knight says. “You should expect your organizational imperfections will be exposed, and you should be prepared to acknowledge them and respond appropriately. On the flip side, good business practices will also be exposed.”

APX Alarm has gained upwards of 30,000 fans in less than three months. One of the great benefits to the company, Knight comments, has been the feedback received from customers. She adds, “We have strengthened relationships with existing customers and are able to share those interactions with anyone who visits our page.”

Many security companies, including CPI Security Systems, ADS Security and Vector Security, use facebook as a sort of online directory for other marketing resources such as tutorial and informational videos, commercials, and installation photos among other things, which can be linked to and shared on customers’ profiles.

“A great example of being able to leverage facebook is asking a new customer to post a photo (with your sign/logo) on facebook (or even to comment about) after an installation or upgrade,” says Christopher Bernard, vice president of IT and business optimization at Haig Service Corporation. “The potential is that their friends will see what they have done and ask about it and your company.”

Other marketing tools gaining popularity are contests and promotions. By offering prizes, discounts, etc., security companies can drive some of the massive facebook traffic to their profiles, where current and prospective customers will also find information and incentives to give their business to these companies.

Still, facebook isn’t for everyone and Bernard warns that, “Social network sites need to be an extension of your overall company image and marketing plan. If they are not in sync, you will lose the benefit and possibly damage your company image.” Haig has chosen Plaxo and LinkedIn as venues to communicate with their customers. Bernard explains that their business is primarily in the commercial space and Haig decided on a social media approach after researching which sites their customers were using. “These services are not going away, so pick the spaces where your customers are and manage them as you would any other marketing programs and messages.”

Bernard offers some advice for businesses that hope to increase their market share through social media. “If you are going to enter into the social media space, consider the time you need to commit to managing the site — regular updates are important or you will lose interest. You also need to consider how to monitor the site, and respond to both positive and negative comments. Also, you need to consider the image portrayed by how you are linked to other organizations: are you being linked to by a church group, fire department, etc. — or are you being linked to by the local troublemaker?”

Whether a company’s advertising plans include facebook or not, all professionals should be aware of the site’s capabilities for communication with not only customers, but also peers. As Knight said, facebook is about transparency and users should be aware of the information they share and with whom on their individual pages. Companies large and small are developing social media policies that encourage facebook users to keep their professional and personal pages separate and to limit or eliminate mentions of the company in their personal profiles.