One of the first marketing tasks given to authors by agents, publishers, and publicists is: Start an official Facebook page.
So far, I have not done this for myself. Instead, I use my Facebook profile with the “following” function turned on. That means I have private friends, but also public followers.
I want to discuss the pros and cons of this choice, but first I’ll describe the history of my experience and how I ended up in this situation to begin with. (Scroll down to the pros and cons if you’re impatient.)
2006–2009: “Real” Friends Only
I joined Facebook in 2006. At first, I only friended people I knew well and had met in person—and I rarely received requests from strangers. These were the days (hard to imagine now) when few people used the site.
As I started speaking and meeting writers at conferences, and especially once I started blogging, I tentatively started friending people I had virtual relationships with, but had not met. It felt a little dirty, because at that time, Facebook used to ask for confirmation on how you knew someone, and if you couldn’t verify it, you received an informal reprimand.
Then I noticed that some of my colleagues with even more liberal friend policies had engaged communities of people around them, and valuable discussions were happening in the comments. So I decided to open the door to anyone who asked. (At this point in the game, Facebook didn’t offer a way for people to “follow” you.)
2009-2011: Everyone’s a Friend!
My Facebook use has been fairly conservative when it comes to the private details of my life. Probably the most personal things I share are travel photos and cat pics.
So it wasn’t a big deal to me to open things up to anyone who wanted to be my friend, and I felt safe doing so, as I had no other privacy concerns or considerations. (This is important to note, because, well, some people do!)
Every time I accepted a friend request, I tagged that person as part of a particular list or group. I had one group that was basically for people I didn’t know, but I assumed knew me from Writer’s Digest.
I started posting about content at my blog, and answering people’s questions about writing and publishing. My use was so consistently related to my work that a friend remarked I was the only person he knew whose Facebook profile was used for professional purposes, and that the last time he checked my profile, a window popped up to accept his credit card. (Ouch.)
Back then, as today, personal profiles max out at 5,000 friends. My reasoning was that I was nowhere near the limit, and until I had a book or a product, it really didn’t make sense for me to manage two distinct presences on Facebook if they would be posting essentially the same thing.
2012: The Great Unfriending
After two years, I was approaching 4,000 friends, and I began reflecting on my growing discomfort with that number, and my lack of control. I was receiving way too many requests (games, messages, events), and I had to mute most of my new friends because I wasn’t seeing anything from my actual friends.
Then, Facebook debuted a new feature called “Subscribe,” which allowed people to follow your public posts. (This is now the “Follow” function.) I was elated.
But I had a difficult decision to make. To unfriend people was going to create ill will—but would it be a more honest reflection of the actual relationship? I also believed a friends number in the hundreds would strongly suggest that people should subscribe, not friend, unless they knew me.
I’m still not confident it was the right solution, but I unfriended more than 3,000 people over two days; those people were automatically turned into subscribers by Facebook (although not counted officially in my public Subscriber number).
2012–present: Friends + Followers
I’ve stuck with a conservative friending policy, although the large majority of my Facebook posts are public and related to the writing and publishing community. My following is now 6,500+.
The Pros of Using a Facebook Profile Professionally
- The biggest advantage, by far, is that you only manage one Facebook account, which saves you time and energy. (Also, I really like having focused attention in one place.)
- Some believe that personal profiles get better visibility in Facebook newsfeeds. It feels like that could be true, but who really knows? Ultimately, I’m not sure it makes a huge difference, because if you post content that people don’t engage with, they will see fewer of your posts over time. That’s just how the Facebook algorithms work.
- By using a personal profile, you can engage with individuals and comment on their posts, and also tag individuals in posts, which isn’t possible with an official page.
- I was able to register with Facebook as a public figure and receive the verified blue checkmark next to my name. This allows me access to Facebook Mentions—and is how I can produce Facebook Live Video—just the same as a business page.
- Frankly, I like mixing the personal and professional. I’m a multi-faceted person, and while the face I present is undoubtedly crafted in some way, everything we do is crafted to tell a story about ourselves. It doesn’t bother me.
The Cons of Using a Facebook Profile Professionally
- The biggest disadvantage: You’ll miss out on the functionality offered by official business pages. You won’t get any demographics or insight into the people who follow you, no information about how many people your posts reach, no access to the advertising tools (although it’s easy enough to work around this last issue). You also can’t add new tabs to the page, and you can’t add a fancy call-to-action button (Buy Now, Sign Up, Subscribe, etc). You’re stuck with whatever Facebook makes available to personal profiles. So there are real limitations if you want to do some hard selling, conduct contests or giveaways, or otherwise be very strategic about making Facebook pay.
- While no one has ever told me this, I must assume that I’ve alienated some percentage of my real friends who have zero interest in posts about writing and publishing. Fortunately, a lot of the people I consider friends also work in the industry, but still: I imagine my public posts can be a mix of dull or irrelevant, which means I risk being muted indefinitely by a fair number of friends. I also typically restrict myself to one post per day to reduce the noise for others, but if I had a business page, I believe I’d be posting several times a day.
- Conversely, if I make a public post that isn’t about writing and publishing, it’s a quick way to get followers to leave. Sometimes when I post off-topic, especially on any issue that might have political tension associated with it, there’s usually at least one person who comments that I should stick to posts about writing and publishing.
A word about the risks of using a personal profile professionally
You’ll find all kinds of warnings about using a personal profile for anything remotely related to business—some say it will get you kicked off Facebook. So I expect the comments of this post to include at least one warning or two from someone who had their personal profile shut down because they ran afoul of Facebook’s Terms of Service.
If you actually read my long history of using Facebook, then you can see it’s obvious I use Facebook for soft forms of marketing without getting kicked off. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself doesn’t have a fan page; he has a public profile with the following turned on, like I do. This use isn’t uncommon among public figures.
Still, though, there might be a risk if the following describes you:
- You aren’t using your real name, or you’re representing yourself inaccurately.
- Your friends or followers consistently complain about your activity or report your posts as spam.
- You try to conduct contests, giveaways, or business activity on your profile.
- You use your profile as a sales and advertising bullhorn. I call this the “hard sell.”
Making the Right Decision for You
So, how do you decide what to do? Here are the 5 biggest considerations.
- If you have privacy concerns, then the answer is easy: Start an official business page.
- If your audiences don’t mix, start an official business page. For example, many teachers and therapists would not be comfortable with their audiences mixing on their Facebook profile. Or romance or erotica authors probably don’t want discussions of their work on a personal profile where grandma might hang out.
- If you have a pen name, start an official business page.
- For unpublished or new authors who want to simplify or streamline their online presence and don’t see the need for the additional functionality of a business page, start with a profile with followers.
- For new authors who have a strong personal Facebook presence, and feel comfortable mixing the personal and professional, start with a profile with followers.
If you succeed at getting friends and followers on your profile, but later decide you need the functionality of a business page, Facebook allows you to convert your profile to an official page. I may do this myself in the future. (However, as Chris Syme points out in the comments of this post, it will involve some level of sacrifice—for starters, you lose all your past posts.)
A final note: It can be very difficult to get likes for an official Facebook page if you’re not already active online. You must promote your Facebook activity on your website, email newsletter, other social media networks, at events, and anywhere else you can think of. You may even end up buying Facebook ads to get the ball rolling. If that sounds daunting, then you might not be ready for an official page quite yet.
I’d love to hear about your Facebook experiences in the comments, especially if you use a personal profile with the following turned on. How’s it going?
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.