When Mark Zuckerberg sat in his Harvard dorm developing the origins of Facebook, his intent was to provide a platform limited to the student body of the college. Six years and half a billion members later, Facebook has matured into a grander vision, extending beyond socially connecting users around the world to providing a tool for businesses to engage customers.

Social networking seems at first glance like a frivolous time sink and for individual users that may be true. For that reason, though, the site is also a gold mine for businesses looking to market products and services. Facebook recently surpassed Google as the destination where users spend the majority of their time online, and that means businesses should also establish a presence there.

Build a Facebook Page

The first thing you need to do is to set up a Facebook Page for your business. A Facebook Page provides a forum for sharing information and engaging customers without forcing you to add each of those users' Facebook accounts to your social network. It lets you establish a community, but with a certain degree of anonymity.

Begin by visiting the 'Create a Page' page. Select the radio button to set up a page either for the business as a whole or for a specific brand or product. Next, you can assign the page to a category from a drop-down list of choices. Give the page a custom name and URL and make sure to check the box at the bottom declaring that you are authorised to create a page on behalf of the business, brand or product.

As you work with Facebook, you'll find that it clearly wasn't designed as a business platform and that it has yet to fully embrace such a function. It's sort of like putting a nail in the wall using the butt of a screwdriver: It will work, but it isn't the most efficient way.

If you are already logged in to Facebook, the page you create will be associated automatically with your Facebook profile. If you're not logged in, you will see a screen that will let you either log in to your account or create the page under a limited business account by supplying an email address and password. Navigating Facebook and managing the page is significantly harder using the limited business access though, so I highly recommend using a Facebook profile to set it up.

Be forewarned: If you already have a personal Facebook account, setting up a separate business account can get you into hot water and possibly banned by Facebook. The site considers managing multiple accounts a "serious violation" of its terms of use.

Customise the Page

By default, your business's Facebook Page has a set of standard, and limited, tabs at the top. First is the Wall, where status updates, links, photos and videos appear. The Info tab has pertinent business information, such as the address, phone number and hours of operation. Then you have a couple other rarely used tabs. What you need, though, is a way to break free from these restricted, cookie cutter tabs and customise your Facebook Page.

Thankfully, the service has its own Facebook Markup Language (FBML), and you can also find a Facebook app that will allow you to add FBML tabs to your Page, which you can customise as you wish. You can create a tab for coupons or photos of a recent event for instance, and direct fans to land there first. To start, visit the Static FBML page and click Add to my Page at the upper left of the screen.

On your Facebook Page, click Edit Page on the left under a photo you've chosen to represent your business. You will find Static FBML listed under Applications. Give your FBML page a title and insert your text and FBML code to create a custom page. You can add more FBML tabs by clicking the Add another FBML box at the bottom of the FBML edit screen.

Claim your Facebook Place

The Facebook Places service is a relatively new addition to the social network. Following the trend that sites such as Foursquare and Gowalla established, Facebook now enables users to do location-based check-ins. That means that a customer who visits your business may announce where they are to their extended social network and possibly share opinions and feedback about your business.

If a Facebook Place does not exist for your business, any user who checks in can simply create one for you. Since the Facebook Place will most likely exist whether you like it or not, you may as well claim it and manage it.

A Bing map pinpointing the location of your business will appear at the top of the Facebook Places page. You can enter information, such as the actual address and phone number. The Facebook Places page will display all of the check-ins for your location from Facebook members and you can post status updates to the Facebook Places page.

Unfortunately, Facebook doesn't offer a way to merge the Facebook Page for a business with the Facebook Places page for that business. This overlap and redundancy can create a bit of an administrative headache.

The exposure and word-of-mouth advertising aspects of customers letting their Facebook social networks know about your business is a tremendous benefit, though. And you can use Facebook Places check-ins as a marketing tool by providing incentives or discounts for users who check in, or who do so most frequently.

You'd be wise to post status updates periodically with a link to your company's Facebook Page to drive Facebook Places users to engage there, as well.

Drive customers to Facebook

Simply establishing a presence on Facebook has very little practical value if your customers don't know it's there. Thankfully, Facebook provides a variety of tools and plug-ins that you can use to link to your presence on Facebook from elsewhere, such as from your actual web page.

Obviously, you can simply insert a link to your Facebook Page or Places location on your website. Using Social Plugins from Facebook, though, you can integrate with Facebook even more through elements such as a Like Button or Like Box. You can also display an activity feed, the live stream of updates from Facebook, or display comments or recommendations.

For each of the tools on the Social Plugins page, you fill in the blanks to define attributes such as the width or height of the plug-in, or the colour scheme. You then click the Get Code button for code that you can insert on your web page to integrate that plug-in.

It's also a good idea to include links to your Facebook Page or Places page in your email signature, on business cards and on letterhead. The more exposure it gets, the more likely that customers will visit.

Give customers a reason to engage

Now that you have a Facebook presence, don't make the mistake of merely trumpeting your business or its products and services. Facebook provides a platform to involve your customers and share in new ways that extend beyond simply blasting out marketing sound bites.

It's important to engage the audience and give them a reason to frequent the page. Involve the Facebook community in discussion. Make yourself or a representative of the business available to participate and respond. Provide value for your Facebook audience, and let the power of word-of-mouth marketing take care of the rest.