What if Facebook ‘Likes’ don’t matter?


Blogger Derek Muller is upset. He paid Facebook to promote his page, and instead got what he believes to be 80,000 fake Likes. You know. From supposed Like “click farms” in Egypt or Pakistan, where the same type of people who call you at home to warn you about a Microsoft update on your PC if only you’ll give them your banking password also click on millions of Likes. Muller’s beef seems to be that Facebook is complicit in enabling such “Like fraud,” in order to push marketers to pay for more real advertising.

The logic is a bit complex, but here goes: Marketers think “Likes” are important on Facebook because they supposedly open the door to a free form of advertising popularly known as “engagement.” (Brand “engagement” is what you do when you try to sell someone something while pretending to be their friend.) When a consumer “Likes” your brand page on Facebook, your brand updates can then organically appear in the user’s stream without you paying Facebook (just as your personal updates appear in front of your friends), and this is IMPORTANT because what marketer wouldn’t want a free onramp into a friendly consumer mind?

Alas, but if many or most Facebook Likes are faked, you’ll appear in fewer user streams organically, you’ll see worse response results, so you’ll have to pay for actual Facebook advertising. And thus, the fraud theory goes, Mark Zuckerberg would laugh all the way to the bank. 

The Washington Post noted in covering this fraud claim that Facebook explicitly bans anyone from paying click farms to artificially boost follower counts, but Muller thinks “page administrators are nevertheless circumventing those rules, creating a market for legions of fake Facebook users that just click ‘Like’ all day.”

Muller actually pulled some hard data to back his case. He spent $50 to get more Facebook Likes, and got a boatload … from Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, countries that he suggests are just where fraudulent click-farms are common. Um, that really doesn’t look good.

But it doesn’t matter, because Likes have little value anyway 

What’s the problem with this complaint? First, no one can prove Facebook is encouraging this, and Facebook is by all accounts fighting spam in its ecosystem just as Matt Cutts over at Google wants to shut down SEO blackhatters gaming paid search. And second, Like spam doesn’t matter — because Facebook “Likes” have almost zero value anyway, and any marketers with smarts will want to pay for advertising in the platform, ignoring Likes altogether.

Here’s the truth, marketers:

1. Likes are fleeting. A consumer who clicks “Like” on your brand has thought about you fleetingly for 0.5 seconds. This is not “engagement” or a “relationship.” This is a consumer mental hiccup. The currency of the thousands of Likes on your brand page in Facebook is worth, oh, about zero cents. It’s the brand equivalent of a personal Klout score, a feel-good, game mechanics points system that doesn’t mean anything beyond pixel dust.

2. Likes translate into infinitesimal advertising value. Facebook wisely limits how often you can go flying around in the main big Newsfeed among your “Liking” brand followers, because Facebook users would get upset if every other post was a big ad, so you ain’t getting in much, anyway. Let’s assume you get to 100,000 Likes. And then 100,000 users see you twice in the next month, as you re-chase them in their Facebook feeds for 200,000 impressions. That’s a whopping low 2x frequency per month, hardly enough to influence anyone. If these free impressions were translated into advertising value at say a $2 CPM, you’ve just gained a whopping $400 in free advertising. That should move a lot of Ford trucks, right? Um, no.

3. Paid Facebook advertising, by comparison, translates into huge value, if you point respondents to your regular brand website set up for sales or lead generation. Every $400 you spend on real Facebook advertising will drive approximately 300 people to your website at a $1.33 cost per click. If only 1% convert to a sale, you have a $133 cost per customer acquisition. The local Ford guy will play that game every day of the week.

In sum, Facebook doesn’t need to defraud you or its system to get you to advertise … because its advertising already works. This is why Facebook made $7.8 billion in 2013, with the last quarter of the year pacing to more than $10 billion annually. Marketers are pouring money into an advertising system that works. The reason it works is not the social sharing functionality of Facebook … it’s simply because Facebook is where consumer attention now resides, for hours a day, and advertisers always do best when they follow their audience.

Sorry, blogger who paid for Likes. Yes, fraud is a nasty problem, and it looks like Facebook may have to address all the suspicious “Likes” popping up from suspect areas of the world. But with real Facebook advertising working so well, it hardly needs to trick you to get you to spend more media dollars there.


4 thoughts on “What if Facebook ‘Likes’ don’t matter?

  1. Hi Ben, I’m curious where you got the stats on the results from the Facebook ads. My own experience was FB ads was not quite so rewarding.

  2. Amrita,

    Those are the results from a cross section of our clients. You can buy the ads on a cost per click basis (right-hand rail) from around $1.00 to $2.00 CPC. A 1% conversion rate after the click is not unheard of given a strong offer. Interestingly, the in-stream ads often perform every better. For many of our lead-gen clients, costs per lead from Facebook are lower than all other digital media.

    Yes, conversion rates can be lower, but testing landings and offers can get that up.

    Not sure what you’re seeing. Cheers.


  3. Yet another great article Ben. It’s been so interesting to watch the tide of public sentiment swell and crash around Facebook this week, particularly with the Veritasium video paired with the WhatsApp acquisition. Too many people are piling on, unfairly, perhaps.

    I found myself nodding along with you throughout the entire article but the one line that really jumped out at me was “Facebook doesn’t need to defraud you or its system to get you to advertise … because its advertising already works.” It seems, to me at least, that this is completely true and completely false, all at the same time.

    Your cost per acquisition example does a great job at validating Facebook’s advertising effectiveness. From a digital media standpoint, the cost per customer pays out and justifies the spend. But I think the bigger problem is that Facebook always positioned itself as a platform that would reposition advertising in the 21st century — it was no longer about spending your way to relevance, rather it was about publishing content that audiences genuinely care about. Organic engagement. Lightweight, common interests. That type of thing. But as Facebook gained mass and monetization became a top priority, organic impressions were overpowered by paid media. That doesn’t mean that Facebook is less effective, it’s just not what Facebook positioned itself as. What was once declared as a new dawn in advertising became nothing more than another digital reach and frequency medium. As you demonstrate, it can still be valuable part of a marketing mix. It’s just not what most marketers were led to believe it was.

    1. Great comment, Doug. (Sorry for the delayed response. Fighting spammers with filters here, and then I’ve been on travel.) You raise a fair point that FB didn’t revolutionize advertising into an engagement platform the way some thought, and is today just another version of targeted billboards. I think the core issue is the supply of marketers who wish to “engage” with consumers greatly outnumber the demand of consumers wanting that “engagement.” When supply outstrips demand, the price falls… or in this case, the value of such advertising plummets.

      As the great thinker Alan Wolk once wrote, “Your brand is not my friend.”

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