Take, for example, my recent "Like" of the Gerber brand. If you know me, you know that I do not have children, so why am I fan of Gerber? Well, I'm not; or rather, I am a "fan" on Facebook but not a fan in any other sense of the word. A friend's child is in The Gerber Generation Photo Search and I wanted to vote for her, but in order for my vote to count, I was required to "friend" the brand.
Had Facebook provided a means for people to follow a brand without clicking the "like" button, the meaning of a "like" would be indisputable--a true signal of a person's affinity for the brand. But there are no other ways to follow a brand on Facebook, so users click the "like" button for all sorts of reasons. According to an excellent ExactTarget study from last year, the top reason people "like" a brand is to receive discounts or promotions. While the number two reason was to show support of the company to others, this was closely followed by getting a freebie, staying informed about company activities, getting updates on future products and sales and for entertainment. There can be no doubt that a Facebook "like" is not a true "like" by any non-Facebook definition of the word.
What's the harm if someone doesn't really like a brand when they click the "like" button? The problem is that Facebook attempts to define users' "Likes" as something more than they really are. Facebook promotes a "like" as a relevant signal of affinity; their Sponsored Stories ad product turns users' "Likes" into ad impressions. When I see these ads, I am supposed to believe that my friends possess deep, warm feelings for the brands they like and, as a result, I should consider the brands for myself. But should I really care that my friend clicked "like" on a brand page simply because they wanted some Farmville trinket or a discount?
The fact a Facebook "Like" is meaningless at best (or misleading at worst) upsets me for several reasons:
- As a consumer, it could be truly helpful to know what products and services my friends like sufficiently to recommend, but that isn't at all what Facebook "likes" offer.
- As an employee responsible for a brand's Facebook page, I'd like for my company to collect true recommendations from customers and then use those to raise awareness of the brand; however, since a Facebook "like" has been rendered useless, I must find other, more meaningful ways to identify brand advocates and reflect true brand affinity.
- And as a marketing and communications professional, it upsets me that brands would encourage people to share "likes" with friends when those "likes" are not authentic brand recommendations. A very exacting read of the FTC Guidelines on Endorsements might suggest that my "like" of the Gerber brand be accompanied by a clear and conspicuous disclosure that I received something of value--a vote in a contest--in return for my endorsement of the brand.
It is probably too late for Facebook to solve this problem, but adding a "subscribe" feature for fan pages would be a great step towards differentiating those who want to follow a brand from the real brand advocates. Facebook may believe it is redefining what it means to "like" a brand in the social era, but all they've really done is devalue the term "like."
You can see this for yourself--visit your Facebook profile and under "Activities and Interests," click the "Show Other Pages" link (and then, if present, click the last link in the series, which says something like, "And XXX more.") Do you really like all of these brands? Would you recommend them all to your friends? No, but Facebook and many advertisers assume you would, and therein lies the true lost opportunity of the Facebook "like."