By
updated 11/30/2009 8:27:46 AM ET 2009-11-30T13:27:46

Lists seem to have an irresistible lure for business publications. Some have been with us for so long — the Dow Jones industrial average, Fortune 500, Forbes’ billionaire list — that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist.

Still, at The Big Money we believe there is room for a different kind of list, one that measures value not strictly through dollars and cents but rather how companies are performing in the nebulous, yet all-important world of social media. Thus, we present The Big Money Facebook 50, a ranking of companies making the best use of Facebook.

Why Facebook? After all, social media is highly fickle; there is some reason to think that as soon as a site becomes an effective platform for corporate promotion, its irrelevance is imminent. That could still happen to Facebook, and in the last several months Twitter has gained a lot of momentum and millions of users. For now, however, Facebook still offers several advantages over its rivals: size, return usage, and the depth and variety of what companies can do.

How did we compile this list? First, we defined a universe: A company did not qualify for this list unless its Facebook page(s) had a minimum of 200,000 fans. Within that universe, we rated the companies using a variety of criteria: how often they update their Facebook offerings; the level of engagement demonstrated by their fans; how fast a company’s site has grown; and how creatively the companies are using their Facebook presence, as evaluated by a distinguished panel of outside judges.

Overall, we believe our methodology is sound and fair. But any time you generate a list, there are caveats. We had to make some category choices that could be debated. For example, the results would look a bit different if we treated band and musician fan pages as promotions for their labels. The chief reasons we didn’t do that are: 1) Not many music fans have any real awareness of labels, and Facebook fan pages do little to change that; and 2) many music fan pages are created organically by Facebook users and reflect little to no coordination by the labels. Should the latter situation change in future years, we’d reconsider. (Don’t agree with our methodology? Log on to The Big Money’s Facebook page, and tell us how you’d do it differently.)

That raises an even more fundamental question: In the context of Facebook, what exactly constitutes a company? A few of the brands on this list are owned by the same parent firm; both Mountain Dew (No. 9) and Gatorade (No. 49), for example, are divisions of PepsiCo. After much debate, we decided to separate out brands, for two principal reasons: First, imagine a huge multibrand company like Viacom. One of its brands, MTV (No. 42), is very popular on Facebook, but most of the rest are close to nonexistent; it seems distorting to give the entire company credit. Second, to the extent that corporate entities are succeeding in building an audience on Facebook, it is almost always at the individual brand level rather than at the corporate level, and so it seems appropriate to reflect that in our rankings.

So what did we learn? Here are a few broad highlights.

Size matters, but size isn’t everything. Nearly all of the companies on The Big Money Facebook 50 are very large, well-known firms. Even though Facebook began life in the quirky, noncorporate world of social media (and is still a place where, say, “Flipping the Pillow Over To Get to the Cold Side” can garner nearly 3 million friends), it has rapidly been colonized by some of the world’s best-known multinationals, including Coca-Cola (No. 1), Disney (No. 3), and McDonald’s (No. 23).

For all the dominance of big companies, though, there are plenty of corporate mammoths who aren’t on this list: ExxonMobil (which appears to have no official presence on Facebook) comes to mind, as does Bank of America (which has a little more than 600 fans). And even within more Facebook-friendly categories like food, Starbucks (No. 2) plays a much more prominent role on Facebook than McDonald’s, even though McDonald’s market capitalization is about four times larger.

There are wide discrepancies in how deeply even Facebook’s most popular brands engage with the site. One feature of our list is that we included only “official” company sites. Many popular brands — such as Nutella and Converse — have large followings on Facebook, but they’re created and moderated by fans, not the companies. That strikes us as leaving opportunities on the table; the companies that score highest on this list are those — like Coca-Cola — that have been able to strike a balance with their fans.

Facebook has become a very handy way to coordinate free promotions on a nationwide, even global level. Facebook is many things to many people, but as you delve into what makes companies like Coca-Cola so popular, it becomes clear that Facebook can be a very effective substitute for corporate activities — like direct mail — that might appear to have nothing to do with social media. Almost all of the companies near the top of this list got there either by having a contest, or giving things away for free. If a company is not in a position to dole out freebies — a car manufacturer, say, or a realtor — it needs to find some other creative method to play at the top levels. Audi (No. 38), for example, has successfully made its Facebook page into a forum where anyone who wants to can join a discussion about the future design of its cars — presumably useful even if few of those Facebook fans will actually shell out for an S5 coupe.

Facebook remains a place where companies can grab a competitive edge. Watching television, you can easily be bombarded by ads for companies that seem to compete head-to-head: Microsoft and Apple, for example. On Facebook, many brands stand far apart from others in their category. On our list, for example, CNN (No. 28) not only handily beats out cable news competitors, but other news organizations in general.

For the next few days we’ll be elaborating on these and other lessons to be derived from The Big Money Facebook 50. For now, check out the list, and if you think something’s wrong or missing, join the conversation on The Big Money’s Facebook page.

Copyright Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 2.44%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.78%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.54%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.57%
13.57%
Cash Back Cards 17.91%
17.91%
Rewards Cards 17.15%
17.15%
Source: Bankrate.com