Facebook is often referred to as a “walled garden,” an enclosed ecosystem all to itself, where users are purposefully kept within its confines to maximize the amount of time they spend on-site.

But within that garden, users talk about all kinds of things that take place in the outside world, including, of course, companies and brands. A new study from Griffith University in Australia explored the world of Facebook pages, both those created by brands themselves and those created about brands by regular users, and tried to determine best practices for companies on Facebook. Ultimately, they found that Facebook, when managed correctly, can lead to the best kind of referral generator: old fashioned word of mouth.

This week’s insight: When engaging with customers on Facebook, brands are expected to weigh in on the discussion and actively talk to users— but don’t over-do it.

Research study: “Knowledge sharing in online brand communities” by Sarah Sloan, Kelli Bodey and Richard Gyrd-Jones, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, May 2015. https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/QMR-11-2013-0078

What they did: The research team studied comments and interactions on several Facebook pages, including the official P&O Australia cruise line page and a series of user-created Facebook pages about P&O, like this one.

What they found: On both pages, researchers found nervous customers frequently asking questions about upcoming voyages with more experienced customers responding with advice and encouragement.

Brands are expected to weigh in, too, by asking customers to share their experiences and asking for feedback, according to Sarah Sloan, but shouldn’t be too heavy-handed.

“Brands should use the knowledge base of your consumers to your advantage but don’t over exploit it,” she said. “Sharing experiences and learned knowledge about your brand’s service acts as a great form of word of mouth.”

Among the recommendations Sloan makes for brands using Facebook are to ask questions that require thoughtful responses, contact and thank customers that take time to contribute their experiences online and give customers fun reasons to contribute, like online contests.

Most of all, she said, brands need to create an environment where customers feel comfortable.

“Overall facilitate a community where sharing is encouraged,” she said.

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