Is there value in a social media “like”?

Via Harvard Business Review: Each day enormous amounts of brand-generated content—articles, photos, videos, and so on—appear on those pages and on other social media platforms, all designed to entice people to follow, engage with, and buy from brands.  But is there value in a like?

According to the logic of “liking” a brand on social media recruits who socially endorse a brand by, for example, 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 cascade of new business. A recent influential 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 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 nonfollowers. In 23 experiments conducted over the past four years and involving more than 18,000 people, HBR used an A/B testing method to explore a crucial counterfactual: what followers would have done had they not followed a brand.

Research has shown 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.

In one of our first studies, conducted by researchers and Harvard Business School, half the participants were invited to like a new cosmetics brand on Facebook; most accepted. … This finding held in subsequent studies, in which we increased the length of time between proffering the invitation to like and extending the coupon offer; it also held when we ran the experiment with a variety of new and existing brands.

Facebook’s algorithms determine what content appears in a user’s news feed, and a user’s liking of a brand is broadcast to only a very few friends (without this intervention, users would be exposed to an average of 1,500 posts daily).

To find out, they invited all new Vitality customers to participate in an online survey about Vitality and Facebook, during the course of which a randomly selected group was invited to like Vitality on Facebook, with the others forming a control group.

But unless customers intentionally visit the page, this content is unlikely to appear in their news feeds, even if they have liked the company; Facebook’s algorithms will probably filter it out. … Indeed, when they compared the two groups of participants, they found no difference in behavior; those who had been invited to like the Facebook page accumulated no more points than the others.

Another reason why liking a brand does not influence online friends is that liking is a very weak endorsement; their research shows that it doesn’t carry the same weight as a real-world recommendation. One experiment demonstrated that people were more likely to download and use an app if a friend recommended it than if they were merely told that their friend had downloaded it. ... For example, a study found that 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.

Their 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.

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