Why likes matter less than we’d like

I’ve long thought that measuring social media marketing success solely by counting the number of likes a page, post or tweet racks up is the wrong approach — or an incomplete approach at best.

I’m not the only one with this view. Way back in 2012, Facebook itself shared research indicating that likes were a less effective measure of social media success than shares. That’s because sharing a post indicates that the sharer has more genuine interest in the brand.

Now, new research suggests that likes alone don’t translate into increased sales for a brand. (Substitute “enrollments” or “gifts” for “sales” to get a sense of what this might mean for higher education.)

In 23 experiments involving 18,000 people over the past four years, researchers Leslie John (@lesliekjohn), Daniel Mochon and Oliver Emrich sought to find out “what followers would have done had they not followed a brand.” In other words, does liking a brand’s social media presence make a difference in consumer behavior as opposed to not liking that brand on social?

Given the millions of dollars in marketing budgets that flow to social media at many companies, the distinction is not trivial. It has enormous implications for marketers’ resource allocations and for how they manage their brands’ social media presence.

Details on the research are spelled out in this Harvard Business Review article, What’s the Value of a Like? If we’re talking about sales, the short answer is, “Not much.”

“The mere act of endorsing a brand does not affect a customer’s behavior or lead to increased purchasing, nor does it spur purchasing by friends,” write the researchers.

One reason: A social media like is a weak endorsement. It doesn’t carry the weight of a real-world, word-of-mouth endorsement.

The Harvard researchers suggest combining social media endorsements with a tactic that is “straight out of the 20th-century marketing playbook: advertising.”

“Our research suggests that when it comes to highlighting customers’ engagement, brands will find it fruitful to choose online postings and other user-generated content that are more creative and meaningful than simple likes,” the researchers write. They point to a few firms that are successful with this approach.

The athletic apparel brand Lululemon collects favorable customer-generated content by tracking hashtags (such as #thesweatlife) and retweets it. The fashion retailer Free People adds customers’ Instagram photos to its product pages. And in a holiday promotion, Lamar Advertising’s billboards displayed photos that people had tagged with #ThankfulThisHoliday. 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. This tactic has spawned several new platforms, such as ReadyPulse [now Experticity], that automatically match brands with appropriate influencers.

The HBR article doesn’t indicate how much these strategies of combining endorsements with traditional advertising contribute to the bottom lines of Lululemon, Free People and Lamar Advertising. But the value of endorsements, like the value of traditional advertising, may lie more in raising awareness and, um, likeability for brands. “[G]iven that social media pages are gathering places for loyal customers,” the researchers write, “they can offer brands a unique source of customer intelligence and feedback from a crucial cohort. Armed with this knowledge, marketers can build new, more successful social media strategies.”


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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