Being a small business owner can be a “very lonely walk,” says Visa’s head of small business marketing Alex Craddock. It was with that premise in mind that the San Francisco-based company wanted to create a community for its small business clients, and to reach out to new customers.

This is hardly a novel idea. Several top financial institutions have already gotten onboard the social-networking bandwagon. But what separates Visa from the rest is that instead of building a community on the company’s Web site, Visa chose to team with Facebook.com, the fast-growing, social-networking site. “We thought that there must be a better way to do this,” Craddock says. “We are conscious that small business owners lack time and we didn’t want to create another ‘Me Too’ online community for small businesses to have to find the time to go to and then have to engage with, which is actually quite a challenge when you are setting up a community.”

By teaming with Facebook, Visa will have access to the site’s more than 80,000 registered small businesses and its more than 80 million active, individual users, of which Facebook estimates 300,000 are small business owners.

The networking application is more than a simple, single-page on Facebook. “What we have done here is really innovative; it’s very different,” Craddock says. “We’ve created the first ever dedicated application on Facebook that connects business with business. Rather than it just being a single task focused application, what we’ve done is create a multitude of different tasks and there is no other application quite like that on Facebook at the moment.”

Through the Visa Business Network users get access to content from third-party providers such as The Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur. They will also have access to such Google applications as Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Sites and Google Maps. In addition, small business owners can search the Facebook database to find potential clients and business partners using search tools beyond location and demographics; it also allows them to seek users through their profiles.

To entice those 80,000 registered small businesses already on Facebook to join Visa’s community, the institution is giving $100 in Facebook Ads credit to the first 20,000 U.S.-based businesses that join. Visa wouldn’t disclose the number of users that have taken advantage of this ad giveaway, but Craddock says, “It’s exceeding our expectations many times over.”

While institutions like American Express and Bank of America have communities built into their own sites, they have to find ways to draw owners in. American Express has a healthy 5,500-plus membership but is dwarfed by BofA’s nearly 15,000 registered users, which launched in October and has had about two million page views.

But even the Charlotte, NC-based behemoth may find itself at a disadvantage to Visa, says Christine Barry, research director at Boston-based consulting firm Aite Group, since Visa can piggyback on Facebook’s already immense success. “[BofA] has the challenge of drawing customers to this new site, which is linked to their banking site,” she says. “But with Facebook, Visa has the advantage of an already established community.”

Barry says that she sees more institutions following Visa’s lead because it immediately creates access to a far greater pool of potential customers than they ever could achieve on their own. “Facebook is really attracting younger people. It’s a great, great tool for advertising to younger users,” says Barry, who adds that from the small business’s perspective, “There’s a lot of opportunity for networking and finding potential partners just for advertising their companies.”

BofA spokesperson Tara Burke says that BofA hasn’t had any trouble attracting users because it provides expert guests and forums that discuss taxes, funding a startup business, effective branding, inventory tracking, how to fire a customer, how to navigate the economy and how to cut costs. “We are very happy with the uptick in the number of users,” Burke says. “It just continues to grow on a daily basis,” even though the bank does very little advertising for the site. (c) 2008 U.S. Banker and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.us-banker.com http://www.sourcemedia.com

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