The Value of a ‘Like’

Billions. That’s the amount of dollars spent per year by brands on elaborate efforts to establish and maintain a social media presence.

According to the Harvard Business ReviewFacebook continues to be the preferred platform as 80% of Fortune 500 companies have active Facebook pages.

And every day, large amounts of brand-generated content—articles, photos, videos, etc.—appear on those pages and on other social media platforms.

The content is designed to convince people to follow, engage with, and buy from brands. Even the U.S. State Department seems enamored of acquiring followers, having spent $630,000 from 2011 to 2013 to garner Facebook likes.

Marketers often justify these investments by arguing that attracting social media followers and increasing their exposure to a brand will ultimately increase sales.

According to this logic, those who socially endorse a brand by liking it on Facebook will spend more money than they otherwise would, and their endorsements will cause their friends (and friends of friends) to shop —creating a domino effect for new business.

At first, the evidence may seem convincing. Many brands have discovered that customers who interact with them on social media do spend more money than other customers. A recent study by comScore and Facebook found that compared with the general population, people who liked Starbucks’s Facebook page or who had a Facebook friend who liked the page spent 8% more and transacted 11% more frequently over the course of a month.

But merely liking a brand on Facebook doesn’t change behavior or increase purchasing.

That study however, contains a fatal logical flaw: They confuse cause and consequence.

It’s possible that getting people to follow a brand on social media makes them buy more. But it’s also possible that those who already have positive feelings toward a brand are more likely to follow it in the first place, and that’s why they spend more than non-followers.

You see, social media doesn’t work the way many marketers think it does. The mere act of ‘liking’ a brand does not affect a customer’s behavior or lead to increased purchasing. Endorsements with branded content, however, have much more significant results.

The Effects of ‘Likes’

Common sense can tell us that liking a Facebook page could indeed change behavior and increase sales. Research shows that people experience “cognitive dissonance” when their actions don’t reflect their beliefs, so it would stand to reason that a social media user who endorses a brand on Facebook would be more likely to buy it. Yet that’s not what the research found across 16 studies -no evidence that following a brand on social media changes people’s purchasing behavior.

ROI on Facebook Likes


There is a way to convert likes into meaningful behavior: It’s called advertising.

Unlocking the Power of Likes

There is a way to convert likes into meaningful behavior, and it’s straight out of the 20th-century marketing playbook: advertising.

Each year Facebook collects more than $22 billion in ad revenue. Most of that comes from brands seeking to circumvent the platform’s algorithms by paying to guarantee that their content will be prominently displayed to large numbers of users.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear about the end of “push marketing” (in which brands promote and advertise their goods and services) and the rise of “pull marketing” (efforts to draw customers in through social media and other channels). “More judo, less karate” became a popular saying but research suggests that marketing on social media will be ineffective if it uses only pull tactics.

The modern social media marketing playbook should combine new and traditional approaches.

Make likes work for you

Facebook does not currently give companies the option of paying it to highlight the posts of engaged customers, something HRR research suggests could provide significant value by influencing behavior. You can overcome this obstacle by monitoring your social media channels for eloquent endorsements and integrating those endorsements into your marketing messages.

You can begin by collecting favorable customer-generated content by tracking hashtags and re-sharing it. Some fashion retailers add customers’ Instagram photos to their product pages. More brands could also adopt the increasingly common practice of “seeding” social endorsements by paying influencers to try the brand and send endorsements to their followers.

Make Endorsements Meaningful

Another reason why liking a brand does not influence online friends is that liking is a very weak endorsement. Research shows that it doesn’t carry the same weight as a real-world recommendation. Endorsements and referrals more generally, can spur action. Just think about it, you are more likely to download and use an app if a friend recommended it than if you’re simply told that their friend had downloaded it. Other experiments indicate that “deeper” social media endorsements could close the effectiveness gap between real-world and digital recommendations. For example, Facebook posts indicating that a Facebook friend is using a product—not just that he or she likes it—increase the chances that a member will use the product too. The effect is pronounced when product users send their friends personal messages of recommendation.

Use “Pull” Marketing to Find Your Best Customers, and Listen to Them

One reason Facebook advertising can be effective is that a brand’s social media page reaches a highly desirable audience; likes illuminate a path for targeting ads. Yet even if a brand decides not to spend money advertising, it can use its social media channels to gain intelligence from its most loyal customers.

You don’t have to recruit new followers through flashy content; in fact, such tactics might backfire by attracting people who are not strongly attached to your brand. If you’re pursuing this option, favor organic growth, let customers seek out your brand. Almost by definition, the people who go to the trouble of finding a brand on social media will be its most devoted and valuable customers. As a group, these customers are a great asset: They will happily provide feedback to improve product development, management, and delivery. They will also defend the brand against unjustified complaints and be early adopters of and evangelists for new offerings.

Lego for example, uses its social media channels to gather customers’ ideas for new products and to promote new product lines. Knowing that their voices will be heard can make customers more willing to offer information and might even cause them to be more civil when they have complaints.

As social media marketing channels have grown, so too has enthusiasm for its potential to drive sales.

If you can’t quantify your efforts and are finding yourself frustrated by social media, you simply may be using it the wrong way.

Remember: Amplifying your efforts with advertising can provide higher ROI while creating an opportunity to connect with your most-loyal customers.

Data info credit: March–April 2017 issue (pp.108–115) of Harvard Business Review.

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