Likeable brands: Debating the true value of Likes.

If brand owners are buying Likes on Facebook, what are they actually worth?, asks Alexis Dormandy in this recent article in The Telegraph. “Can we really value a ‘Like’ or a ‘Follow’ when so many of them are bought rather than earned?”

Dormandy’s question goes to the heart of the marketing community’s ongoing fixation with volume and to the business world’s fascination with social metrics. With marketing managers under huge pressure to build and participate in scaled brand communities, perhaps it’s inevitable that fast-track approaches to ramp up fan bases have become more popular.

There’s good, bad and ironical news in this.

Let’s start with the good. Slowly a real value case for using social media seems to be emerging. In a recent post on the RICG blog, comScore’s Linda Abraham and Buddy Media’s Mike Lazerow reference research showing that a “share” on Facebook can lead to $2.10 in incremental sales, and drive up the average conversion rate to 10.2 percent per share.

A key reason Abraham and Lazerow give to factor social media into digital marketing programmes is that “social media is the No. 1 online activity today,” accounting for almost 20 percent of the time consumers spend online.

They go on to say that there are three steps in social media marketing:
1. Cut-through, or the brand messages that fans receive in their news feed;
2. Engagement, or what fans say about a brand or product’s news feed content; and
3. Amplification, where fans share the content they like with others in their network.

However, they also point out that “most brands skip over those “intermediary steps,” and instead think the process only involves getting fans and then seeing a marketing ROI”.

And when getting fans involves buying their loyalty through incentives, that’s when Dormandy seems to believe the illusions of success start. Yes incentives and giveaways work, but as his article points out, generating Likes and Follows through mechanisms like contests rather than through unprompted affinity must beg the question: how much do consumers truly see these marques as likeable brands and to what extent are they more interested in the likeable giveaways?

That in itself raises a wider concern. The bad news.

With the introduction of marketing moves like Sponsored Stories and the use of incentives to gain community memberships, reviews and WOM, there’s a very real danger that authentic endorsement – the sort members of the online community truly value and want to share – is under threat. As Dormandy puts it so well: “for products, services and brands, the Facebook Like provides little indication of what your friends want or would recommend. In the quest to be endorsed on Facebook, brands have devalued those very endorsements. Buying a Like doesn’t mean you’re liked.”

So Like could no longer mean ‘like’ in its defined sense. And Follow could easily mean Follow for Now, or until the competition ends. There’s a transience to that commitment that is disquieting because by extension endorsement no longer means endorsement either. It simply means participation.

If that’s the case, what are marketers buying beyond a momentary measure? What can they bank on?

And is the very fact that they continue to seek out Likes and Follows making Liked brands less reliable and Followed brands less charismatic?

Leading perhaps to this irony: the more consumers Like your brand online in the minute (because of the incentives you offer), the greater the risk that they might not actually value it over the longer term.

Not dissimilar in many ways to how consumers behave in sales – it isn’t the brand they are buying, it’s the discount. Only in this case, it’s not about the discount but rather the incentive.

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