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Should You Be Facebook “Friends” With Clients?

Discover the pros and cons of connecting to professional contacts on Facebook.

If you’re one of the 100 million people worldwide who belong to Facebook.com, you might consider it a guilty diversion. Perhaps you’ve logged on to the wildly popular social networking site just to update your status (e.g., “Amanda Vogel is writing an IDEA article”). Or maybe you find yourself uploading heartwarming photos of your kids or scenes from a recent vacation. Perhaps you’re a casual visitor, checking in every now and then to respond to messages or view the “news feed” of what your Facebook friends are up to.

Regardless of why you first joined Facebook or what you use it for now, it’s likely that either you have one or more clients on your “friends” list or you’ve grappled with whether to even accept a client’s friend request. This article explores both the benefits of and challenging situations associated with opening your online social network to clients, customers and prospects—that is, the people who are in a position to hire you, buy your products, attend your fitness events/classes or refer your services to others. (If you haven’t yet joined the ranks of Facebook members but are curious about using the website to promote fitness, this article can help you make an informed decision about whether to sign up.)

Benefits of “Facebooking” With Clients

Facebook fans say the site is a convenient way to stay in touch with friends and family, make new acquaintances and reconnect with old pals. For example, you can e-mail Facebook members directly from the site instead of having to exchange or remember individual e-mail addresses. You can post photos for people in your social circle to view and comment on.

But Facebook is more than a cyber–
meeting place for people who are already your real-world friends. For some fitness pros, Facebook is less of a social diversion and more of a networking platform. For example, it’s easier to introduce yourself to new contacts when you have one or more friends in common (Facebook will show you if you do). In that way, Facebook is an obvious venue for expanding your sphere of influence as a fitness expert. You can use the site to get closer to clients and also closer to their friends. With online social networking, receiving referrals for your business has never been easier; clients can quickly
introduce you to their contacts with the click of a mouse.

Once you’re in clients’ and prospects’ networks, you can build online relationships with them while promoting your services and resources. However, promoting yourself on social networking sites like Facebook goes beyond traditional marketing strategies. People don’t want to be bombarded with sales pitches (although Facebook does allow you to create ads). Facebookers want content that entertains and/or educates them. Think short instructional videos, links and photos. Think resources that people can apply to their lives, comment on and—most importantly for your marketing efforts—share with others.

Marketing on Facebook can go beyond showing just your professional side to clients and prospects. Allowing them a glimpse into your personal life can positively influence your bottom line, as well. When clients or prospects peruse your profile, view your vacation photos or read a humorous status update you’ve written, they get to know you better. And people are more likely to buy from those they know and like.

Of course, the same tools that make Facebook so powerful for strengthening ties with clients and drawing in prospects can have an impact on your professional image in less positive ways. Plenty of fitness pros find themselves teetering on a precarious line between their personal lives and their professional lives on Facebook. And that’s when it’s tough to know whether to accept a “friend” request from a client.

Handling Tricky Situations

If you’ve ever found yourself detagging (i.e., removing your name from) unflattering photos of yourself at a friend’s birthday bash or deleting questionable “wall” posts from old high-school classmates, you know the perils of having your life so publicly accessible on social networking sites. Marketing to clients on Facebook is all fine and dandy until clients are privy to the photo your cousin tagged of you scarfing down a chili cheese-dog at last Saturday’s family reunion.

Of course, before you and clients can be part of the same network, you must accept each other as cyberfriends. And that’s a slippery slope in itself. Take my example. I initially joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends I actually know in real life. Then I started receiving friend requests from clients and customers. On the one hand, I saw the networking value of opening my social circle to colleagues in the industry, and I thought it would be nice to know my professional contacts better. On the other hand, I wasn’t crazy about my personal and business worlds commingling.

Think about your own clients. Would it be an affront to certain individuals if you didn’t accept their friend requests on Facebook? Sure, it would! It’s a rejection of sorts. With that in mind, I used to write personalized messages explaining why I wasn’t accepting professional contacts into my cybercircle of friends. I even set up a special Facebook Group especially for colleagues and customers. But sending personalized messages got too time-consuming. With trepidation, I began accepting friend requests from prospects and clients, some of whose names I admit I didn’t even recognize because I didn’t know them personally. However, while others upload silly videos or post dozens of photos of their kids and family get-togethers, I am keeping my Facebook contributions scarcer for now. Still, I know fitness pros who frequently add personal items to Facebook as a marketing tactic. And even though Facebook has settings that limit how much certain “friends” are exposed to your personal postings, some fitness pros flat out refuse to mingle with clients on Facebook.

Before You Click “Confirm”

If you do decide to accept friends into your Facebook community or they’re in it already, consider the following tips to help you put your best cyberfoot forward.

Analyze Your Image. Facebook is a place to show your casual side if you want to. Just be aware of what your profile photo says about you. Do you look like a hard-body gym rat? Serious professional? Sports enthusiast? Proud parent? Party animal?

Consider Your Profile. How much is too much to share with clients and prospects? Do you want them to know your political leanings, religious views, relationship status and/or favorite TV shows?

Take Advantage of Privacy Settings. You can control which friends see aspects of your profile, tagged photos and contact info, and also which of your Facebook activities (e.g., wall posts, friend additions) can be publicly viewed through news feeds on your friends’ home pages.

Introduce Yourself. If you use Facebook to connect with friends of friends as a way to expand your sphere of influence, be sure to write short, personalized introductions. Doing so is a polite way to make a friend request when the recipient might not know you.

It’s Up to You

Ultimately, the degree to which you use Facebook to promote your fitness offerings and/or share your personal life with clients (if at all) may depend on your comfort level, client demographics, business model and reasons for joining Facebook in the first place. All things considered, why not explore how online social networking can grow your business? After all, we could all use a little help from our friends.

Sidebar: Alternatives to Befriending Clients on Facebook

Even if you’d rather not mix business with pleasure on Facebook, you can still benefit from online social networking to garner professional contacts. Here are a few alternatives to adding clients/prospects to a Facebook friends list:

  • Sign up for LinkedIn.com, which is a professionally focused social network. Invite clients who approach you on Facebook to join your LinkedIn network instead.
  • Set up your own network specifically for clients and prospects so you can cater to their needs and interests without worrying about crossing professional boundaries. Try these free sites: Ning.com or Meetup.com.
  • Create a Facebook Group (it takes just minutes to set up) and funnel clients into that network. Hosting a Facebook Group allows you to stayed connected to clients without having to add them to your friends community. You can e-mail all members of the group at once, start discussion forums and post videos and photos. To see examples, log on to IDEA’s Facebook Group or the Active Voice Writing Service Facebook Group.

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