In case you haven’t heard the buzz, seen the trending topic on Twitter or noticed “check-ins” from your friends on Facebook, the internet giant recently launched Facebook Places – and it’s a big deal for local businesses.

For a little background on why it’s important, recent findings have shown that consumers prefer to interact with brands and businesses when they don’t have to leave Facebook in order to do so. With the Places project, ¬†Facebook has essentially just given your business a socially-charged website (think Yelp) directly inside their massive walls, along with 500,000,000 consumers.

That concept isn’t entirely new – businesses have been able to setup Fan Pages for many months, but the value to local businesses just went off the charts with Facebook Places, as it’s optimized for local businesses. In addition to giving your business it’s own profile (complete with map), you’ll now benefit from the highly viral concept of “checking-in” which allows users to notify their friends when they visit your business.

Why is that important? If every customer who walked through your door immediately called 100 of their friends and told them where they were, do you think it might do something for your business? That’s the net effect of a check-in.

Places are also easier for businesses to manage, less intensive to setup (in fact yours might already exist) and give the users an easier way to get involved with your business. They can just grab their smart phone, press a button – and you’ve got free advertising. For more on why check-in’s are a local businesses best friend, read this.

Yelp has been great to your business (we hope) and recently, applications like Foursquare & Gowalla, have been similarly useful.  Facebook Places is like rolling all these apps into one, but with a much larger audience.

It will be some time before Places has more impact on your local businesses bottom line than a long history of great Yelp reviews, but it probably won’t take as long as most think.

Summary – it’s great for your business and here’s how to get started.

Claiming and setting up your Facebook Place

You don’t have to claim your Facebook Place profile, but local businesses should, as it allows you to manage your Places address, contact information, business hours, photo, admins and other settings as well as (in some cases) merge with your existing Facebook Fan Page.

Step 1. Find your Place

There’s a chance that Facebook (or a user) has already created a Places profile for your business. You can search for your business name using the search bar within Facebook.com. You’ll know you’ve found it if the words ‘local business’ appear in the search result. If you find it, you can skip to Step 2.

If you don’t find it, you’ll need to use Facebook’s iPhone App, or point your HTML5 enabled Smart Phone to touch.facebook.com. Double check that your place doesn’t exist in nearby places – then you can click ‘add’ to name a new location.

Step 2. Claim your Place

Once you have created (or found) the Place page for your business, click the link that says “Is this your business” (for new locations, it’s just below the map). *Note, this link will not appear in mobile browsers

Facebook Places - Is this your business?

The next steps in the process of claiming your Place appear to vary depending on if Facebook has a phone number for your business already on file. If so, you’ll either be prompted to enter an access pin which is delivered via old-fashioned phone call. If Facebook doesn’t know your phone number, you’ll be asked to submit paperwork proving the existence of your business – which I expect they will simplify at some point.

Step 3. Spread the Word

Post a link on your fan page, email your friends, encourage customers to check-in (some ideas for doing so can be found here), and ask your current Facebook fans to ‘Like’ your places page, which helps with the viral nature of being involved with Facebook and their massive audience.

Merging Your Fan Page with your Places Page

The details aren’t clear on who can and can’t merge their existing pages, all we’re told is that if it’s an option, you’ll be prompted to do so. It’s a good idea for a single-location local business as it will bring over all of your user history and create one place to focus your efforts. For multi-location businesses (or those not prompted to merge the two), Facebook currently suggest managing Fan Pages and your Facebook Place separately.

Below is an example of a Facebook Place that has been merged with a Facebook Fan Page – you’ll notice the additional elements such as a wall and reviews (which we haven’t confirmed actually exist yet).

Facebook Places - Place

Any other questions? Just ask and we’ll see if we can hunt down the answers for you. We’ll keep you posted as new developments and features are added to Facebook Places in the future.