When I discuss social media marketing with my students, I begin by asking how many of them follow at least one brand on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or another popular platform. Inevitably, most of my millennial students raise a hand. I then ask them how many of them do this so they can have conversations with the brands and other customers. The hands go down.Social media spending is on the rise. Recent research by the CMO survey indicates that spending on social media is around 12% of the marketing budget on average. This same research shows, however, that most firms haven’t figured out how to effectively integrate social media with marketing strategy as a whole.
Part of the problem is that social media tools can do lots of things, and it’s not clear which objectives (promotion vs. conversation) should take precedent. And, unfortunately, many firms aren’t even using objectives to guide their social media actions. A favorite quote related to this that I like to reinforce with my students is from the book Contagious by Jonah Berger: “Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies” (p. 12).
So I was very interested when I came across a recent publication in the Journal of Marketing Research entitled, “What Are Likes Worth? A Facebook Page Field Experiment.” In a controlled experiment, but using a real company and customers, the paper gives insight into whether there is a benefit from customers liking a company’s Facebook page and how any benefit ties back to the potential uses of the Facebook page by the company.
Here’s the quick summary: Getting customers to like a Facebook page has a positive and meaningful impact on customer behaviors related to the brand. However, this positive effect comes entirely from the Facebook page being used as a promotional tool that exposes customers to useful brand information. It does not come from customers engaging in online sharing with the brand or other customers.
The Field Experiment
The researchers ran the experiment “in collaboration with Discovery Vitality, a large-scale and long-running incentive-based wellness program that is a branch of Discovery Health, a large private health insurer in South Africa. Vitality customers earn points for healthy behaviors such as exercising, purchasing healthy groceries, receiving vaccinations, and engaging in other preventive health activities. An accumulation of points leads to higher status levels, which, in turn, lead to greater benefits and rewards” (pp. 307-308).
The study began with an email and survey link sent to new Vitality customers. The survey was completed by 4,054 customers who had a Facebook page and had not previously liked the Vitality page. These customers were randomly assigned to a treatment or control condition. Quite simply, those in the treatment condition were asked to like the Vitality page (69% agreed to do so) and those in the control condition were not.
Per normal business operations, each customer’s points activity in the Vitality program was tracked for the next six months to determine if and how a like of the Vitality Facebook page impacted offline customer behavior. For the first four months, customers simply interacted “organically” with the Vitality page as they normally would. Customers could go to the page, make comments on posts, share success stories, asks questions of experts, see what others in the program were doing, and so on. During the final two months of tracking, Vitality took the added step of “boosting” two Facebook posts per week so that these posts would be more likely to be seen by individuals who had liked their page.
The two distinct time periods are very important for understanding the value of a Facebook like. As explained by the authors (pp. 309-310), “We predicted that if the Facebook page influenced behavior by providing a platform for customer-initiated social interactions, then we would observe effects on offline customer behavior (i.e., earning Vitality points) during the organic period. If, however, the Facebook page influenced behavior through more traditional advertising channels, such as by exposing customers to firm-initiated promotions and information [citations left out], then we would observe no effects during the organic period but would observe an increase in offline activity during the boosted period.”
The Value of a Facebook Like
The experimental results showed that there was no effect of liking the Vitality Facebook page during the organic period. In contrast, there was an increase of 8 to 10% in points activity during the boosted time period among customers who liked the Vitality Facebook page. These findings “suggest that Facebook pages are most effective when used as a platform for firm-initiated promotional communications, that is, as a form of traditional advertising rather than as a platform for social interactions” (p. 312).
In particular, the promotional effects of Facebook posts were higher among customers who were previously only moderately involved with the program (vs. those who were highly involved) and the posts had a larger impact on program behaviors that were less well known as a means of earning rewards, e.g., having one’s cholesterol checked, getting a flu shot. These results make sense since Vitality’s Facebook posts often contained general brand information that higher involvement customers may have already known.
What It All Means
While certainly not relevant to all situations, these results are likely applicable to a whole host of brands and product categories. They show that a Facebook page ‘like’ can positively impact offline customer behavior. However, this impact is driven by the opportunity to better reach online customers with promotional and information messages via social media. It is not driven by the increased engagement of customers with the brand or other customers. (If anything, Vitality should have had more of this engagement effect than other brands given the general interest among customers in the Vitality topic – personal health.)
Further, the research shows that a simple request by a firm to its customers to like its Facebook page can have dramatic impact. Though not discussed previously, the researchers also A/B tested a couple of different messages in their request email and found that a message focused on potential rewards losses of not liking the page got the most positive response. Other firms should follow this best practice of testing out alternative messages to maximize the impact of their request for likes.
Finally, since the effects of liking the Facebook page were greatest among those with moderate involvement and among those who were less active on Facebook (due to less clutter in their message feed presumably), brands should take these considerations into account as they seek to optimize their boosted promotions on Facebook and other social media.