Employees, Customers Are Not Your 'Friends'

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- With The Social Network sweeping up awards at the Golden Globes this week -- and probably dominating the Oscar race as well -- Facebook is getting more publicity than ever.

The movie has fostered plenty of debate, including one central issue: In the world of Facebook, what exactly is a friend?

The movie about the starting of Facebook, The Social Network, makes the point that in business, not everyone is a friend. That's also true when using Facebook and other social media.

It's a question that's especially relevant at a time when professional and personal lives are becoming ever more intertwined. Start a Facebook page to keep in touch with out-of-town relatives and college pals and you may find yourself besieged with requests from people you'd consider acquaintances at best. Do customers or suppliers count as "friends"? Do you want employees browsing pictures of your family activities? Reading your thoughts on politics?

"When you open a new store, you expect to be friendly with your employees and customers," says Puneet Manchanda, the Isadore and Leon Winkelman Professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business of the University of Michigan. "If they want to be your friends online, you really have no choice. You cannot maintain that boundary. They'll wonder why you're willing to talk about your family in the store, but not with them on Facebook."

Although Facebook is experimenting with ways to divide "friends" into separate networks (so you can tag who gets access to which posts), Manchanda says we shouldn't expect large-scale changes, because the company's focus will always be on getting the maximum number of people to look at each page.

"They're selling eyeballs," he says. "Facebook is monetizing the fact that huge numbers of people show up. If they make the site experience more complex, fewer people will show up."

One relatively easy solution is to create a personal Facebook page for yourself and a separate "fan" page for your business (following in the tradition of actors and musicians who want to encourage online fan activity without sharing personal information). Should a customer send a request to your personal page, you can refer them to the fan page instead. "It sends the message that you have a separate private life," Manchanda says.

If you liked this article you might like

Benefits Trends for 2013: What You Need to Know

What Really Spurs Small-Business Lending

Why Small-Biz Expansion Depends on a Few High Fliers

Swipe Fees Continue to Sting for Small Businesses

4 Rules of the New Office Holiday Party