Practical Ecommerce

Interview: Facebook Application Developer

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace generate huge numbers of visitors. Because of that, marketers increasingly are looking to those sites, and other social networking sites, as channels to promote ecommerce products.

Nicholas O’Neill

In May 2007, Facebook “opened up” its platform to third-party developers who can build “applications” and “widgets” that appear on Facebook itself. One such developer is Nicholas O’Neill, who not only writes custom Facebook applications but also blogs on everything Facebook, at Allfacebook.com. We asked O’Neill to explain the Facebook marketing potential to us.

PeC: What’s a Facebook application?

O’NEILL: In simplest terms, a Facebook application is a website that exists within Facebook. Facebook has opened its platform to enable businesses to create interactive content within Facebook itself. You can place pretty much anything in your application and the Facebook blue frame still wraps around your content.

PeC:Is an application the same thing as a widget?

O’NEILL: Applications and widgets are extremely similar. A widget is a self-contained unit of content that can be distributed to multiple locations (blogs, other social networking sites and other websites) across the web without changing the design, structure or format. Currently, Facebook applications cannot be easily distributed across the web. The primary benefit of Facebook applications is that they can provide users with a more robust interactive experience.

PeC: Say I sell cooking supplies from an ecommerce site. How can a Facebook application help my business?

O’NEILL: A creative Facebook application can be used to drive users to your website. Eventually, Facebook will add more ecommerce features to enable the user to purchase items directly within applications, but those services are not currently offered. Facebook applications should be seen as another channel for marketing. Facebook applications alone may not be the single solution for increasing your business.

Currently there are the following ways to promote your business within Facebook:

  • Creating branded groups (for free) and inviting users
  • Creating a Facebook Page for your business. Facebook Pages are similar to user profiles except rather than showing personal information it shows information pertaining to your business (e.g. your web URL, logo, description, history and so forth).
  • Facebook SocialAds – SocialAds is Facebook’s advertising system that enables companies to target individuals based on their interests (e.g. cooking), age, gender, geographic location, political views, relationship status, workplace and educational background. This is highly targeted advertising that can be used to help businesses reach its target demographic.
  • Facebook applications – Branded Facebook applications can be used to help grow brand awareness and drive traffic to a company’s website.

If you are looking to grow your ecommerce website’s exposure on Facebook, applications are only one way to do it. I highly recommend testing out Facebook SocialAds prior to making any significant investment in developing a Facebook application.

PeC: What is the programming code for developing widgets and Facebook applications?

O’NEILL: You can program widgets and Facebook applications in pretty much any program language. The primary languages that I’ve seen them developed with are PHP, .NET and Ruby on Rails. Facebook has provided developers with the libraries for .NET and PHP.

PeC: Do any other social networking sites use similar widgets or applications?

O’NEILL: MySpace has had widgets prior to MySpace officially supporting them. Friendster has launched both a widget and application API. Google’s OpenSocial project should help developers rapidly deploy applications across multiple social networks but don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. It will be a few months before Google is ready to go.

PeC: If you owned an ecommerce site, would you use Facebook applications, and how?

O’NEILL: I would definitely use it to promote my products. I know a number of individuals who are selling thousands of products through affiliate programs. One example of an application that is generating high sales volume is Visual Bookshelf, which provides a method for Facebook users to show, on their Facebook pages, the books they are reading. This is an expression of identity for these users to show books that they are interested in. But, each of these book’s titles link back to Amazon, which generates sales to Amazon and affiliate commissions to Visual Bookshelf.

In fact, for ecommerce owners, I’d encourage them to develop applications that both promote their products and provide a method for Facebook users to express their identity. To use your cooking supplies example, an ecommerce site that sells cooking supplies could develop an application that allows Facebook users to list the type of, say, cooking supplies they use. This listing could then link back to the ecommerce owner’s website.

Practical Ecommerce

Practical Ecommerce

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