Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Absolutely Meaningless Facebook Like

I have long felt Facebook made a huge error with their "Like" button; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Facebook's mistake was in failing to provide other options for following brands and pages other than the "Like" button. In furnishing no other ways for users to follow or subscribe to brand fan pages, Facebook has taken something that could have been truly valuable and made it insignificant or, worse yet, disingenuous.

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."


Tac Anderson said...

Great point Ray - "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"

Would love to see this implemented. Maybe Twitter could capitalize on this with their rumored UI changes.

Augie Ray said...

Great thought, Tac. It is hard for Facebook to move backwards--to undo the damage done to the "Like." But Twitter can get it right--having started with "follow," it could easily implement a "Recommend this brand" or "I'm a fan" and create the value Facebook promised but has not yet delivered for brand advocacy.

Tom Snyder said...

Brands have historically always overestimated the opinion that the market has of them... on all levels. Generally, they believe they're more visible, well-liked and have higher customer satisfaction than is actually the case. So anything that backs up those false beliefs is automatically regarded as reliable. The beauty of the web is its trackability and measurability. But businesses still rely on the stuff they can fudge: boasting about "hits" rather than tallying "page views", "bounce rates" or "conversion ratio."

A Facebook like is the perfect measurement for those businesses, and the Social Media snake oil salesmen they hire. While "likes" do give you a quantifiable metric, it's important to keep it in its true perspective when viewed in the context of what it does, and does not mean.

Eric Wittlake said...

So true. I had not seen the ExactTarget stats before, reading them another way, you could say "61% of people who like brands do not intend Like to be a recommendation"

As you say, that makes Likes not only useless, but outright misleading. And campaigns like the Photo Contest you mention are the result, with marketers chasing Likes when they really should be focused on driving the emotion like could have represented.

-- @wittlake

Augie Ray said...

Tom, a brand recently collect two million new fans in one day. One day! This was done via a deal with Zynga and a Farmville promotion. The games being played (no pun intended toward Zynga) with "likes" are ridiculous, and I'm with you--there's a lot of snake oil being sold!

Augie Ray said...

Eric, thanks for the comments. It's been interesting to see the positive comments here and on Twitter. Apparently I am far from alone in feeling Facebook "likes" have missed the boat. It really is too bad, since Facebook could've derived even more value out of allowing consumers to designate the brands in which they have true trust and affinity!

Glen said...

FB could easily enough implement some of the suggestions, putting in a recommend button or " it could easily implement a "Recommend this brand" or "I'm a fan"" as stated. It would simply depreciate the like button. Would not be the first time a company does that. Wouldn't that throw the snake oil salesmen for a loop?

Augie Ray said...

Glen, I like the way you think, but I'm not holding my breath. I think the chance Facebook decides to replace the "like" button at this stage of the game is very unlikely. But, it would be a great sign of Facebook's commitment to accuracy and authenticity if it chose to implement different levels of following/liking/recommending a brand.