Here’s an iron for the fire: “Facebook ‘likes’ do not cause increased brand preference or increased sales so marketing campaigns designed to increase the number of ‘likes’ are unlikely to increase brand preference or sales.”
I was moved to develop and explore this hypothesis after reading an article on the real cost of brand building in social media by Mark Ritson who is a professor of marketing, formerly at London Business School. Ritson is renowned for injecting some good solid critical thinking into the often sloppy logic of marketing. Ritson argues that whilst there may be apparent relationships between brand preference, share or sales and Facebook ‘likes’, the relationship between these factors is unlikely to be causal. Causality is important. It’s about understanding the the cause of relationships between variables in order to assess their significance; just because there is a relationship between two things, it doesn’t mean that one of them causes the other. To say with certainty that one factor drives the other, causality has to be proved. Ritson argues that causality is being overlooked or even ignored in studies that set out to consider the value of Facebook likes in relation to brand performance.
There have been a number of studies which show that the most popular brands have the highest numbers of Facebook fans. but this shouldn’t come as a surprise to any marketer with more than a handful of brain cells. Common sense tells us that the most popular brands are likely to have the most Facebook ‘likes’ because they have higher numbers of users and advocates. But we need to remember that these ‘likes’ are an expression of pre-existing brand preference and not a cause of it. Moreover, when studies try to assess the financial value of a Facebook ‘like’ they find that Facebook fans spend more on a product than Facebook users who are not fans. One study found that Facebook likers of Starbucks coffee spent more in store than non-likers. Well that shouldn’t come as a surprise either. Those consumers who prefer certain brands are likely to spend more money on those brands – after all isn’t that the whole purpose of consumer marketing and the process of building brands?
In both cases, there is a relationship between Facebook likes and brand performance but the relationship is caused by the strengths of the brand that almost certainly existed before the impact of Facebook. The Facebook like is not the cause of brand preference but simply a reflection of it.
If we use logic to extend these observations into prediction we can say that if likes do not cause brand preferences or increased sales, then strategies and campaigns that seek to increase the number of likes will not increase brand preference or sales. However, the predictive power of logic doesn’t stop there; brand owners developing social media strategies to grow likes risk creating “false-positive” brand advocates. These false-positives are consumers who have no genuine relationship with the brand or product but simply click the like because they are incentivised to do so. Corralling opportunistic consumers into Facebook fan pages may actually skew the brand’s Facebook page and community away from genuine fans. Worse still, subsequent eCRM activity to develop these prospects may prove to be far less fruitful than initially anticipated.
Marketers, Ritson argues, would do well to remember the factors that really did build their brand preference. These are likely to be product quality, availability, consumption experience and visual branding. They might also bear in mind the fact that research company TNS says that 61% of Britons do not want to engage with brands via social media and suggest that much of what is being build by brands in the social media space amounts to little more than “digital waste”. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that brands need to tread carefully when investing in these areas.