The Limitations of 'Like'

Posted on July 25th 2012

The Limitations of 'Like'

credit: Business Insider

Whenever anything happens 3.2 billion times per day, you have to wonder whether its recurrence diminishes its significance.

Specifically, I’m talking about Facebook’s inescapable LIKE button (perhaps you’ve heard of it). The average Facebook user clicks ‘like’ 3.5 times every day — anything from friends’ wedding photos to slapstick status updates to videos of innocent childhood relics getting blown apart by explosives. Like. Like. Like. Like. Like. It’s everywhere.

The ‘like’ button has become so ubiquitous on the web and has spread so rapidly across almost every online experience that trying to explain its purpose or its power or its potentialities is sort of like explaining to your grandmother why the Kardashians have their own television show. It’s just the way things are, the reasoning goes. And when it comes to applying this indeterminate behavior to branded communications, the conversation usually stalls similarly.

Sixty percent of marketers measure their social media success based on numbers linking friends, fans and ‘likes’[2]. In other words, sixty percent of marketers measure their social media success based on a simple, one-click action that takes, quite literally, less than one second. Considering that the average Facebook user logs 8 hours and 18 minutes on the site every month, this seems like a pretty pathetic pittance of individual investment[3].

A while back, Dave Allen described how “social networks are effective at increasing participation by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” — a pretty profound articulation of the conundrum facing many social marketers today. By making the process of connection more seamless, more effortless and more mindless, Facebook is arguably making the outcome of connection more meaningless.

At this year’s Asia Marketing Effectiveness Festival, Rob Campbell and Charles Wigley pointed out that the clay head from Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ video has accumulated over 11,000 Facebook fans. No joke. We are talking about an inanimate piece of pottery circa 1984, folks. Yet this is the same metric that headlines most brands’ social engagement reports and client case studies and agency award footnotes.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece back in 2010 about how the Save Darfur Coalition’s Facebook page had attracted an impressive 1.3 million ‘Likes’ with momentous speed. Yet when Gladwell dove deeper into the numbers, he found that these self-professed activists only averaged a 9-cent donation apiece. Pennies, really. And while it's unfair to generalize success on any one isolated example, this should still serve as a cautionary tale for most brands. People click, but rarely do much else. It appears as though the majority of social media users like becoming a fan more than they do actually being a fan.

The bottom line is that brands need to stop attaching the term ‘engagement’ entirely to quantifiable clicks such as ‘likes‘. It’s not that simple. And it is an extraordinarily lazy way to measure sentiment and enthusiasm and affinity. When brands approach Facebook as though it’s any other digital display ad, it typically returns as little success as any other digital display ad.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s always nice watching the ‘likes‘ tally up after a creative campaign or a recent content plug. But by overstating the value of a ‘like’, we actually undervalue the prospects of deeper, authentic engagement.

It sounds so simple that often times we forget it: if you really want to be loved, you have to be more than just ‘like‘d.




Douglas Kleeman

Strategist, Baldwin&

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Daniel Schiller
Posted on July 29th 2012 at 3:08PM

Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Douglas. This also reminds me of of another Gladwell article- 'Small Change' ( on the limitations of social engagement as a driver of social change. On a grand scale this begs the question of what is the value of a 'like'? One of my fav quips is that social, being the relatively new kid in the media world, is tasked with KPI requirements the other formats can't meet. So in the race to measure, we over value thin engagement. At least a retweet takes some effort. But on the other hand are we unrealistic to expect that user attention spans are capable of much more than a 'Like'?

Posted on August 19th 2012 at 9:18AM

Thanks for writing this piece.  More people need to read this and understand too why purchasing likes is a social media sin and one of the least effective strategies - if it can even be called that.  Now, while "likes" still give some measure, one clear way to measure actual engagement is the "talking about this" number. Good engagement averages 1-5%. If it's true that over 60% of marketers believe it's likes alone, then it shows just how many people are claiming to know more than they actually do. No need to reinvent the wheel, instead follow what the people do who have actually turned start-up companies into million dollar companies in a few short years using social alone without traditional media. Want to know who? Get in touch -> I don't bite ;) Good vibes your way!