The US Embassy in Pakistan has just cracked a diplomatic milestone, becoming the first mission in the world to pass 1 million fans on Facebook.

Its rise to top spot has been swift. The Embassy only decided to make social media a priority in late 2011. Following a request to Washington for technical assistance from a social media expert, Tim Receveur was sent to Islamabad, moving the page from 20,000 fans to more than 500,000 when he left in the summer of 2012.

Its closest competitors are also all majority Muslim states led by US Embassy Cairo, which has around 800,000 fans, Jakarta (just under 600,000), Dhaka (around 530,000) and the Consulate General in Lahore (383,000).

The success of the page has in some respects been against the odds. Its audience is young (half are 18-24 years of age) and 93% are located in Pakistan (Saudi Arabia and the US are the next largest audience locations). Yet in contrast with the anti-Americanism commonly associated with Pakistani views of the US, in an email interview for this post, Kellee Farmer, a press officer with the US Embassy in Islamabad, wrote: 'the main surprise is how active Pakistanis have been in sharing their stories and experiences on the site. We have thousands of young Pakistanis who sincerely seem to be interested in interacting with us.'

Technical hurdles have also been overcome. As Farmer noted: 'Our biggest surprise has been how fast social media has expanded across Pakistan despite massive and ongoing electricity shortages and limited information infrastructure, such as the lack of a 3G network.'

Getting to 1 million has involved a range of techniques. The Embassy attributes it to initially bringing in a social media specialist, targeted Facebook advertising and an emphasis on compelling photos. Regular postings and constant engagement were also important. As Kellee Farmer put it:

We post content at regular intervals, primarily in the evenings when our audience is online, and try to engage consistently on each one. Every post elicits questions or comments that can easily be addressed and, while we do not respond to polemics or vitriol, we try to answer all the questions that we can. We don’t remove comments critical of the US or its foreign policy.

So what's been the point behind building this capability? Farmer answers:

While social media has helped bridge the 'last three feet' with Pakistanis on a daily basis, it has also served as a major tool to engage face-to-face with other entities in Pakistan who are also trying to figure out how to best use social media to reach audiences. Our social media team actively reaches out to bloggers and prominent social media personalities in Pakistan as part of our media outreach. We have also conducted briefings and workshops for numerous entities within the Pakistani Government, non-governmental organizations, media organizations, students and political parties across the spectrum.

Social media allows us to reach out directly to – and engage in a dialogue with – young Pakistanis that we might not be able to reach through traditional media. It is one part of a wider public affairs strategy to reach the broadest number of Pakistanis that we can on all media platforms.  This site is a force multiplier in promoting directly to Pakistanis the value of the US-Pakistan relationship.

The US mission in Pakistan's Facebook page has a few lessons. First, with a good strategy and interesting content, a large audience can be built relatively quickly, even in apparently difficult operating environments. Second, with the top five US diplomatic Facebook pages in Muslim majority countries, there appears to be a concerted effort to strengthen ties with young populations in the Muslim world (these five sites account for 16% of the State Department's 20 million total Facebook fans). Finally, it shows the advantage of social media as a tool for communicating with large and young populations that have traditionally been beyond the reach of diplomatic posts.

This piece has been cross-posted on the Brookings Institution's UpFront blog.

Photo by Flickr user The Reboot.