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Businesses Buy Facebook Fans

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Taking a new tack on the adage that nobody wants to eat in an empty restaurant, small businesses are taking big steps to increase the number of fans on their Facebook pages to garner attention and potential revenue.

Facebook "Like" pages, formerly known as "Fan" pages, allow Facebook members to declare, via the click of a virtual button, that they approve of a particular product or company. About 11.8 million Facebook users "like" Starbucks (SBUX); the company's "Like" page includes information about a Facebook app that lets customers monitor their Starbucks spending habits.

Coca-Cola (KO) has 9.6 million fans on its "Like" site -- which was created by fans outside the company -- easily trumping Pepsi's (PEP) 848,269. Kraft's (KFT) Oreos have 7.9 million fans, although Kraft itself has only 359,409. Skittles have 7.8 million fans (while parent company Mars has only 146).

The need to be liked has become important enough that some businesses are willing to pay for Facebook popularity. Advertising Expert, a small firm in Boynton Beach, Fla., is among a growing number of companies in the popularity-sales business. Others include USocial and Socioniks. Through a network of outsourced Facebook users, Advertising Experts garners fans for its customers, ideally those who already "like" products or companies in the market that the customer is looking to serve. Customers can order 500 "likes" for $55 or 10,000 "likes" for $900.

"The cost of this is insignificant compared with the cost of a postcard," says Joel Arberman, president of Advertising Expert. "The acquisition of the fan is less than the cost of a stamp."

He notes, though, that Advertising Expert charges a premium to find geographically viable fans.

"An ice-skating rink in New York isn't going to want a bunch of fans in Egypt or Mumbai," Arberman says. "That's not helpful."

Arberman says his firm makes a point of trying to get fans who are actual people. Other firms have been rumored to create millions of "likes" simply by creating phony Facebook accounts. That's why Mike Corrales steers clear of buying fans directly.

"I would rather have 2,500 real, authentic people than have 250,000 fake ones," says Corrales, vice president of marketing at BillMyParents, a company that helps parents manage their kids' finances and helps kids spend their parents' money. The "teens" section of the site has a target audience of 13- to 18-year-olds. In other words, those for whom online popularity is especially important.

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