What’s the secret to success on Facebook? Having a pre-existing fan base. It also helps if you’re a Fortune 500 company. At least that seems to be the conclusion of new research on the social network.

While brands have helped increase their reach and engagement, research from both Slate and social media monitoring and analytics firm Sysomos show that it’s big brands that get the most out of Facebook — not upstarts that get the word out through their Facebook pages.

According to Slate’s The Big Money, massive brands that combine their own content with user uploads have seen the best results on Facebook.

Twitter may let small companies add extra heft to their marketing
plans, but The Big Money found that brands that get the most bang for their buck on Facebook
are the same ones that have been around for years.

Some quirky brands, who already had strong followings — Chick-fil-A,
Dippin’ Dots, Pop Tarts and Dr. Pepper — also did well. But that gets back to the point that brands who were already popular with consumers are the ones that do best on the social net.

The Facebook 50 study posted by The Big Money lists big brands — the top five are Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Disney, Victoria’s Secret and Apple iTunes.

Criteria for the list included Facebook profiles with at least 200,000 fans, The Big Money then evaluated them based
on the frequency of their status updates, growth rates, and creativity
according to a panel of outside judges.

Meanwhile, Sysomos analyzed 600,000 fan pages on Facebook and came up with the
following distribution curve:

Sysomos found that the vast bulk of fan pages have
between 10 and 1,000 fans. Only 4% of fan pages have more than 10,000 fans,
and less than 1/20th of a percent have more than a million fans. Meanwhile, celebrities only make up 7% of all fan pages. But they have the bulk of fans on the network. 

And once you have achieved a large base of users, they will help perpetuate popularity. According to Sysomos, pages with more than one million fans have nearly three times the owner-generated content as the average Facebook page. But pages with that amount of fans have the benefit of active users as well — bringing in nearly 60 times as much fan-generated content
as the average Facebook page.

And frequent posting doesn’t do much to help a page’s popularity. On an average Facebook Page, administrators create one wall post
every 15.7 days. On pages with more than one million fans, a wall
post is created for every 16.1 days.

According to Razorfish, 40% of Facebook users “friend” brands on Facebook. That’s compared to 25% who follow brands on Twitter. But there’s a big difference between what friends and followers do.

From TechCrunch:

“Facebook fan pages tend to be updated only once every 16 days.  And
that’s really the big difference between Facebook fans and Twitter
followers. On Twitter, you follow someone because you want to hear what
they have to say. On Facebook, you fan them just to show your support
of affinity.  Too often, it’s a throwaway gesture.  But then, fame is
fleeting.”

Of course fan pages are not the only way to reach consumers on Facebook. But spending resources — even if they are just resources of time — on updating fan pages may not be the best use of your time.

Images: top, TheBigMoney. bottom, Sysomos.