November 17, 2010, 11:18 AM

The Like button suddenly is even more important

Facebook Messages will force retailers to figure out ways to get consumers to Like them.

Imagine that the only people who could e-mail you were those who you had stored in your contacts list. Sure there would be some benefits. You could avoid the messages from the annual fund of a charity that you once gave $10 to in 1998.  You could avoid the never-ending political messages that plague you leading up to Election Day. You might even be able to avoid the out-of-the-blue message from a long-lost friend who was long-lost for good reason. But you would also be missing opportune messages that you don’t expect. Say, 25% off at your favorite store.

Unless retailers can convince consumers to click that they Like the retailer on Facebook, consumers might soon be missing out on those types of communications. That’s because one of the primary draws of Facebook Messages, the social network’s new messaging service, is that it allows consumers to control their privacy settings to set who can send them a message. The social network says it is preventing marketers from using Facebook Messages to contact consumers without their explicit permission, such as the consumer clicking that they Like a particular retailer. That could seriously hamstring some retailers’ e-mail marketing campaigns.

Just today I was talking to a retailer who was embarking on a number of initiatives, such as negotiating with daily deal sites to get the e-mail contacts for the consumers who buy his company’s voucher, in order to bolster his e-mail marketing list. Those efforts are time-consuming, but worthwhile, he says, because his monthly e-mail blasts have a conversion rate between 3% and 5%. But if he couldn’t compel consumers who only vaguely know of his company to click that they Like his business, depending on the user’s settings, those messages either wouldn’t be received or would be filed in a second-tier “Other” folder .

That could put a significant dent in his bottom line—particularly because consumers’ uptake of Facebook initiatives is likely to be quick. Heck, even if a small fraction of Facebook’s more than 500 million users decide to use an @Facebook.com e-mail address, it will quickly force retailers to figure out ways to incentive consumers to click that they Like their business. Because if they don’t their message might not be heard.

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