The Power of Facebook for Small Businesses

You probably already use Facebook to peruse family photos, keep in touch with college friends and maybe even check up old flames--but if you're a small business owner and you aren't using Facebook to promote your company, you are ignoring a powerful and inexpensive marketing tool.

Today Facebook claims to have more than 500 million users and falls only behind Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) as the second most-visited Web site in the U.S. And this should grab small business owner's attention: Facebook users spend an average of six and half hours a day on the site--that's about as much as the average American sleeps.

Meet these three small businesses harnessing the power of Facebook to boost their bottom lines.

Ralph's Famous Italian Ices of Point Pleasant Beach, Fans:  574

Who needs a Web site when you have a Facebook page? For no cost at all, Facebook enables Ralph's Famous Italian Ices to interact with customers and quickly relay information.

The New Jersey Italian ice shop knows its audience is small and niche, and embraces it by interacting directly with customers. Ralph's posts a "beach fan of the day" every day and offers specials to fans on rainy days.

The shop even uses Facebook as a way to interact with other small businesses, by "liking" their Facebook pages. And according to owner Charlie Giordano, Facebook pages are the new Web sites.

Sweet Palms Fans:  728

The idea for Sweet Palms began when the Gannon  family decorated their Christmas tree in 2009 with pearlized sea shells decorated with Swarovski crystals, which the mother-daughter duo handmade.

After receiving requests for the ornaments from family and friends, Karen and Tia soon realized there was a real market for their product.

Tech-savvy Tia convinced her mom they should start a Facebook page, instead of building a Web site.

Sweet Palms updates its page with photos of products, trunk shows and schedules of where customers can buy their product.

Customer engagement even inspired Sweet Palms to expand their brand to a new line: necklaces.

"Initially, we were making little shells as ornaments, but numerous people contacted us asking if they could be made into necklaces. It was something we had not thought of before, but we listened to what people had to say and they have been very popular," said Tia.

Facebook has also enabled them to grow sales and brand equity. In fact, most of the orders they receive are from people who viewed Sweet Palms on Facebook, according to Tia.

Facebook has also helped the Hilton Head - based company to attract a global clientele.

"People from all over the world have contacted us asking about the shells. Without Facebook, this would not be possible," said Tia.

Back 9 USA Fans:  829

Golf fans have a new place to shop for hats and apparel: Back 9 USA. The aptly named company sells golf paraphernalia with -- you guessed it -- a backward 9.

Founder Andy Hydorn says many of the same rules that apply to a sales pitch apply to creating a Facebook page, and that the most important thing is to let customers know "who we are."

Back 9 USA brands it business by displaying its logo as its profile picture and including its mission in Facebook info.

The company uses Facebook to generate customer input on color and design and even posts photos of its customers wearing its products.

Facebook also help Back 9 USA to build customer loyalty. "Client loyalty is one of the most important building blocks for a brand like ours. Having the opportunity to interact with our customers through Facebook is a great way to build on that relationship," said Founder Andy Hydorn.

It's not just the interaction; it's the specific niche of customers it's interacting with. Hydorn says Facebook has proven particularly beneficial in connecting with its target market.

"Facebook is a powerful medium in that you can make a communication and receive feedback from the very people you are trying to reach," said Hydorn.

You named your small business, you set up a Web site, and you even started seeing profits from it. What's next? You could set up a profile page on a social networking site, such as Facebook or Myspace. And/or you may want to head to Twitter, the member-based site that boasts of allowing you to virtually shout your company's message from a technological rooftop.

Every week, Fox Small Business Center will highlight companies that are making their brand known through social media. As small businesses, you are on the frontlines of re-starting our economy, and we want your voice to be heard.