Liking Your Likes

Originally published in Express Tribune Blog on June 27, 2012.

Back in 2010, when Facebook first introduced a ‘Like’ button as a way for people to “give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook,” it forever changed the meaning of the word. Or at least, for its 850 million or so active users.

Ten years ago, who would have thought regular people like you and I would exist so publicly online? We use our real names on social networks to share our lives with loved ones; openly show political support, voice our opinions without a second thought, upload pictures of the most important occasions of our lives – we “Like” it when other people share with us, and expect others to do the same when we do.

Of course, marketers and advertisers worldwide drool at the thought. And this is essentially how Facebook makes money: by creating a platform where users generate content that attracts advertisers. The information in your profile is essentially a jackpot of mineable insight. A small price to pay?

A Like is the digital equivalent of a smile of appreciation, a nod of approval or a positive thought. A friend just got engaged? Like. Someone shared an interesting article (such as this one, dare I say it?) Like. Or maybe you want to share your love for your favorite ice cream or video game with your friends. Like! With succinct social shortcuts like these, participating is so much easier.

In marketing-speak, this is a window into the so-called Black Box of buyer behavior; a glimpse into the consumer’s heart. It connects consumers directly with the brand that they love, and gives these brands unfettered access to the most active subset of its fan base. And just to clarify, by brands I don’t just mean companies and products like Google or Ariel; celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Megan Fox, who are both active on Facebook, also fall under the same umbrella, at least for the purposes of this article.

In this day and age where all kinds of success rides on “digital reach,” everyone wants a piece of the pie. It’s not a big surprise then that not a day goes by without at least a couple of pleas in my Newsfeed (and to my chagrin, in my inbox) for me to “Like” this page or that page and share this video or that. I don’t blame the people who do it, though because I’ve certainly done the same once or twice. Everyone does it, but I’m sure most of us are annoyed by it.

The success of a viral campaign can mean raising $1.7 million for an NGO working in Africa; it can rejuvenate a dying brand for an entire generation, launch a band to the top of the charts and help elect a President. But virality does not spring from forced “Likes” and spamming campaigns.

Sponsorship agreements depend on how many “Likes” one party can get for the other, college grades are calculated based on how many times a page was shared, and for most brands the entire social media campaign consists of the advice for all employees to share the page with their friends list every day.

Everyone wants to “go digital” but it seems no one quite knows how to do it. Manufactured virality is fake and insincere, and it defeats the purpose of viral campaigns altogether. You may end up loosely connected with a thousand disinterested and detached users, but they don’t really contribute to the brand.

The real answer to that is content. Whoever said “Content is King” knew what they were talking about, because good content pulls people in. Make something so compelling that I truly like it, and I will “Like” it and tell all my friends about it. I don’t share a music video the band begged me – I do it because I actually do like what they’re doing. I Like that local pizza place because they have good food and they regularly update their Facebook page with their menu and deals, useful stuff.

So to everyone considering a viral social media campaign: Do you want your brand (or what consumers think of it) to be represented online by a couple of hundred disinterested and detached users who add nothing to the community, or would you rather have a couple of hundred actively involved fans who participate in and propagate your brand? How does one create the latter?

And to everyone else: Do you really like your Likes?