August 5, 2010, 6:14 PM

One new fan? That’ll be 20 cents, please.

USocial.net delivers Facebook fans to clients at a cost of $197 for 1,000 fans.

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USocial.net, an Australian social media marketing firm, delivers new Facebook fans to clients, in bulk, at a base cost of $197 for 1,000 fans. The service, however, is raising eyebrows at Facebook and among marketers.

Leon Hill, uSocial.net’s CEO, says his firm does nothing more than direct traffic in targeted directions. He counts about 1,000 individuals and businesses that already have popular, well-trafficked pages on Facebook as his partners in the venture. “These are all real people with real friend pages who already have anywhere from 50,000 up to 10 million fans,” Hill says.

In exchange for a fee or uSocial’s services to boost their own Facebook popularity, these partners will become a fan of uSocial’s client and post messages recommending the client to their own Facebook contacts. The partners post one to two messages a month about the client and, by virtue of adding their influence, some of their followers typically go to the client’s page where they can decide whether they also want to become a fan. The directed visitor is not compensated in any way and may not know that their friend was compensated for his endorsement. Hill says it’s preferable if the referring site makes known that it’s being compensated, it is not legally bound. "We do say to them, ‘If you want to, do it.’ A lot of our partners don’t, but some do" he says. "We can’t force them to do it.”

USocial is operating in a murky area. Shortly after the service launched last year, the firm received a cease-and-desist notice from Facebook about its operations violating several of the social networking site’s rules. Hill says it has been in contact with Facebook and has modified its methods, which used to include the client turning over his user name and password so that uSocial could manage and optimize the client’s Facebook page. “That’s not to say we’ve been approved to provide the service, but we are complying with Facebook’s terms,” he says. Facebook did not immediately respond to inquiries for comment.

Dave Balter, founder and chief executive of word-of-mouth marketing firm BzzAgent, says services like uSocial run against the spirit of social media and Federal Trade Commission guidelines . “Everything about it screams terrible to me. It’s almost everything word-of-mouth stands against, and it’s certainly against what the FTC stands for,” he says. The FTC last year introduced guidelines that direct bloggers to disclose any compensation they may receive in exchange for a post.

Hill says about 90% of his clients are based in the United States and include e-retailers, charities, musicians, military organizations and B-list actors. He declined to disclose any specific clients. USocial now offers packages of up to 2 million fans, which Hill says could take up to two years to generate. It takes about 10 days to deliver smaller packages of 1,000 to 2,000 fans. The firm also sells packages that generate followers on Twitter and views on YouTube.

Balter contends that counting fans as currency is passé. Citing the growth of your fan base as a measure of success is “quickly becoming yesterday’s value. … If you have 1,000 fans, how many are doing something valuable for the brand?” he says.

Hill looks at it differently. He sees the acquired fan base as a new form of an e-mail distribution list for clients. “Once they are delivered, it is like having a targeted market list and you’ll have them for a long period of time. There’s no reason they will un-fan [the client’s page] provided [the client] provides them good things,” he says.

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