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Engage visitors and boost traffic with Facebook’s social plugins

Social Marketing is notoriously difficult – but Facebook's new social plugins make engaging with visitors a breeze.

You've seen it all before: an enthusiastic client pours hours into a Facebook page without seeing tangible results. They get discouraged and stop updating, leaving their pages to become little more than ghost towns – not exactly the image they're hoping to convey to potential customers.

Designers, developers and marketers have longed for a way to better engage visitors on social networks – and not long ago, Facebook unveiled a solution.

The leading social network's new batch of plugins allow users to interact with Facebook friends on external web sites, making it easier for businesses to get their visitors involved in their social campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of companies have rolled these plugins out on their sites, with amazing results:

The Washington Post and ABC News saw 250+ percent increases in traffic from Facebook just a few months after adding their plugins.

And it's not just for big media companies – the plugins are a simple and valuable addition to any site, and a great way to help your client kick-start their social media campaigns.

In the next five minutes, I'll show you:

  • How social plugins are dramatically boosting word-of-mouth traffic for all types of companies, from travel agencies to The Washington Post
  • Why these plugins are different, and how they create genuine interaction between visitors and goodwill toward a brand
  • How you can start integrating these techniques on your web site today

With these new social plugins, a Facebook presence that used to be a ghost town can become a bustling metropolis of mutual interests that spur status updates, wall posts and shared links about these newly Facebook-enabled brands. Here's how it all began:

Connecting with friends outside of Facebook

In the past, a company's interaction with Facebook users was confined to the Facebook.com site – you could create a page or an app, but all interaction with a brand was contained within that app. Lots of pages and apps gained popularity, but for each successful one there were thousands that went unnoticed by their target market.

The new plugins, revealed last year and rapidly gaining steam ever since, allow Facebook friends to interact on external web sites – removing the barrier of finding an app, figuring out how to use it and (at best) remembering to use it again.

Most importantly, visitors can see what their Facebook friends are doing on connected sites without even having to log in – creating huge opportunities for networking, sharing and cozying up to a brand.

When Facebook announced these features, they stirred up some privacy concerns, but as the Facebook account has become more ubiquitous and major brands have further embraced social networking as an integral part of their web sites, those concerns have faded and the value of the social plugins has shone through.

Let's take a look at examples of some of my favorites, starting with the Recommendations plugin that has made me an even bigger fan of my favorite sites.

Automatic social proof with "Recommendations"

The Recommendations box is an unassuming plugin that you'll find on newspapers, magazines and content-driven sites – and it's also one of the best pieces of social promotion ever to hit the web.

This plugin, pictured below in a screenshot from WashingtonPost.com, compiles a list of articles that your Facebook friends have recently “liked” or shared – encouraging you not only to check out the stories, but also to engage with your friends to discuss what they've read. On top of that, all the action inspires you to share your own favorite articles so you show up in your friends' feeds.


The Recommendations box on WashingtonPost.com,
showing my friends' latest activity on the site

The Recommendations plugin creates an incredibly strong feeling of social proof: if my friends get their news from The Post or their laughs from The Onion, it must be the right place for me too. Every item in the recommendations list is a testimonial for that site from a trusted friend. What marketer could wish for more?

The plugin turns every reader into a potential promoter, because those shares and “likes” are getting posted to their Facebook accounts, where hundreds of their friends will have a chance to see the article they enjoyed. As an article gets more popular in a circle of friends, it also gets more likely to appear on other people's feeds, creating a positive feedback loop that means more traffic and more engagement. The stats speak for themselves:

The Washington Post's traffic from Facebook increased 280% just a few months after installing the Recommendations plugin.

The Recommendations plugin creates the sense that you're not just on a web site, but also in a coffee shop where you can chat, interact and share with like-minded friends.

The influence of Facebook's social plugins expands far beyond content-driven, article-based sites. Let's take a look at how smaller sites can catch the new on-site social wave.

The tiny, powerful "Like" button

The Facebook social plugins aren't just for sites generating lots of new content every week – there are plenty of options for more-static sites to make their brands “stickier” with a Facebook connection. The simplest and most common is the “Like” button. It may be tiny, but it packs a real punch in terms of engagement with a brand.

The key benefit of the “Like” button is that it's an alternative to soliciting a newsletter or RSS subscription from a user. By clicking this button, a visitor subscribes to the company's Facebook page, allowing future publications to land on that user's Facebook news feed.

Clicking the "Like" button is a very casual action with very powerful results.

Let's look at some real world examples. While traveling in South America this year, I “liked” a few companies via the buttons on their sites. Here's how each kept me in the loop:

  • Alerting me of promotions and deals: Buenos Aires Delivery popped up on my news feed to let me know that sushi deliveries were 20% off – and of course I jumped on the deal.
  • Providing useful and enjoyable content: Vamos Spanish Academy posts weekly language-learning tips – and I always recommend them to friends since they are always top-of-mind. 
  • Whetting my appetite for more: Gate 1 Travel posts promotions and pictures of their many destinations – and it always sucks me in to daydreaming about my next trip.

The “Like” button allows a brand to communicate with a user while they're in their comfort zone – casually checking the news feed, seeing what friends are up to, and now seeing what their favorite brands are up to as well. A single “like” can make a brand a permanent fixture in a visitor's social world.

The “Like” button and its many cousins (check out the Share, Like Box and Comments plugins for more) are fast and effective ways to add social engagement to a web site. If you're in the market for something even more powerful and have the means to do some additional development, you'll like what's next.

The fully integrated Facebook experience

Some of my favorite Facebook experiences don't take place on the Facebook site at all. Instead, they connect me with friends on external sites that I never would have considered part of my social network.

Exhibit A is TripAdvisor – a site that provides reviews of hotels and travel destinations. I've used the site for years, and one day a new social feature caught my eye: TripAdvisor knew that a Facebook friend had recently reviewed the same hotel I was researching! It gave me an opportunity not only to see (and chuckle at) his review, but also to reach out to him if I had questions or wanted to share my own experience.

Again, I got the feeling that TripAdvisor was cool (and trustworthy) because my friends are using it – and the fact that my friends use the same site adds even more value to the overall experience.


Surprise! My friend has already visited the same city, and
TripAdvisor shows me his review front-and-center.

TripAdvisor also takes it to the next level and allows me to use my Facebook account as my TripAdvisor account, eliminating the need for me to maintain a separate password for a relatively low-priority site and hooking me up with even more cool social features.

My favorite is the social travel map, which allows me to post places I've been and see all the places my friends have posted themselves. It endears me to the TripAdvisor brand and keeps me on the site for much longer than I'd otherwise stay.


My Facebook friends have logged their travels on TripAdvisor,
making for a fun and useful social travel map.

The same concept has been applied to thousands of other sites – for another example, check out Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review site that proudly connects me with 182 friends who have read reviews or opined on their favorite flicks. I even used my Facebook account to connect with a site called Push Ups Logger – and when I accomplish my 100-push-up challenge (four weeks left!), I'll be able to instantly post that to my Facebook wall.

You can connect just about any web site or content management system to Facebook in this way.

Wordpress and ExpressionEngine have add-ons that allow users to connect their web site accounts to their Facebook accounts, just like in the examples above. Throw a little more development into the mix, and the possibilities are nearly limitless.

How to get connected today

Among the host of options we've covered here, there's an excellent Facebook plugin for just about every client and every marketing goal.

How can you get started implementing these simple and powerful new plugins onto your clients' web sites? Head to the Facebook Social Plugins developer page, where you can generate code for all the plugins. In many cases, the copy-and-paste code will automatically recognize the URL of your site, allowing you to add a Recommendations box or "Like" button with very little customization or technical knowledge.

Social media has always been trendy – but with Facebook's new, powerful and easy-to-integrate plugins, it's simpler than ever to add genuine social networking value to your clients' sites.

Give it a shot today by adding a social plugin to your site with just a few clicks. And if you have any questions, let me know – I'm always glad to help!

I hope you've enjoyed this article, and I'd love to hear your questions and ideas. Get in touch by phone or e-mail any time. Enjoy your new social connections!

About the Author

Rob Howard

Rob Howard is the web developer design firms count on. As the founder of Howard Development & Consulting, he works exclusively with designers and creative firms to deliver top-notch HTML/CSS, JavaScript, ExpressionEngine and Wordpress content management system development. He's built sites for Harvard, MIT, The World Bank and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and his work has been praised in BusinessWeek, Entertainment Weekly and PC Magazine.

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