Likes Vs. Check-ins? Does It Matter?

Augie Ray over at Forrester Research shared a quick opinion piece this week about Facebook places devaluing likes.  Let’s go through his thoughts, as I’d like to reframe your thinking on the subject.  In essence — the two behaviors are different and I think seeing one as “devaluing” the other is the wrong viewpoint.

The value of Facebook “Likes” is supposed to be clear: My friend likes something, and that is valuable and persuasive information for me. This is idea behind Bing launching social search–if my friends have liked something for which I’m searching, that will be more relevant and helpful information than just another one-size-fits-all search engine results page.

Augie makes a similar assumption as Charlene Li with the statement that there “will be more relevant and helpful” information from social search.  I’ve already fleshed out thoughts why this isn’t really accurate so I’m not going to get into it again too much – other than highlight the search engines take into account hundreds of signals when finding and ranking content.  Your friends endorsing content via a like, by itself, is not the end all be all of search (just like your friends endorsing content via a link is not the only factor that matters either).

An interesting ExactTarget study demonstrated that people may “Like” a brand for a wide range of reasons: To learn about discounts, to earn freebies, for entertainment, to gain access to exclusive content, and–of course–to show support for the company to others.

I don’t know that I’d call this interesting as Augie does.  It’s fairly obvious.  We don’t really need a study to understand that consumers pledge allegiance to brands/give up personal data for a variety of reasons. Consider something like filling out a survey in-person at a retail location and giving up a mailing address to join a fan club for a discount.  Some people are genuinely interested in the brand, some just want the discount.  Human behavior is motivated by a variety of reasons, digitally or physically (although there’s not really a difference, especially to net natives).

Just look at the list of companies you follow on Facebook–do you like them all equally?

Of course not.  We all have different levels of connections with all the brands that we have relationships with.  Again, the digital world is merely a reflection of the physical.

Are there any you’ve followed even though you really aren’t a true fan of the organization or its products?

I’m sure the answer to this is yes for many, they might have liked a page due to an ad they saw, a promotion, etc.  This is more an opportunity than anything else though.  If you’re a brand it’s up to you to win the hearts and minds of your subscribers in any channel.  Users of any network  arrive there via a number of means – whether through push, pull or pure serendipity.  Source of your community, however isn’t nearly as important as what you do to nurture and activate them long term.

The disconnection between “Like” and like will only grow greater in the coming year, as brands looking to expand their pool of Facebook friends reward new fans and followers (an activity I compared to the “black hat” tactic of buying links in the early days of search engine optimization.)

I don’t know that there is a disconnection – this should be pretty clear (does anyone misunderstand this?).  One is opting in to a brand’s messages (people do this for a variety of reasons) and one is to have affinity for. I guess I’m just wondering who is actually confused by this difference in jargon?  Yeah, there is misunderstanding of social metrics in general but that’s nothing new.  I think that most marketers and brands can at least make this particular distinction.

Also, comparing expanding your Facebook following via rewards to buying links is an analogy that doesn’t make much sense.  One has a goal of trying to build a community, one is trying to game the system and the SERPs. They are totally different outcomes and buying links has always been extremely high risk and can carry severe penalties, whereas paid tactics to grow a following are pretty safe.

So if “Likes” are not a true signal of an individual’s actual affinity, what is?  Facebook (and other location-based services’) check-ins seem poised to become the new standard for indicating true affinity.

It’s an interesting signal, but you can understand affinity right now, today.  By creating a measurement program which takes into account qualitative and quantitative data (read Web Analytics 2.0 if you haven’t) you can design measurement metrics that matter.  Don’t keep waiting for future metrics or user adoption of check-ins to reach critical mass, you can get at this information now to better understand your customers.

A brand may reward me for liking them on Facebook; they might even get me to drive to a store and check in once by offering free product; but what they cannot afford to buy from me is repeated real-world visits.

This is a really good point.  Especially as user-adoption of location-based networks (not just Facebook) rises, retail businesses will start to gain a new layer of analytical data about customers in real-time.  Foursquare is already offering an analytics package for businesses so this is possible today.  And while adoption rate for Foursquare is obviously not quite Facebook, if your business can start integrating and understanding how to leverage this data now, you’ll be positioned ahead of  competitors as Foursquare and other location-specific networks grow in popularity and Facebook’s location features get more use.  But as I indicated above, your brand shouldn’t wait on measurement, the web already makes it possible to get meaningful insights from data.  Start trending actionable metrics and build upon them as you go and new analytics emerge.

I’m not suggesting “Likes” and real-world visits are unrelated; for example, Einstein Bros. Bagels’ strategy of rewarding new Facebook followers can pay off if they convert those new followers into frequent customers who repeatedly check in.  But a year or two from now, which will mean more to a consumer—that a friend “Liked” Einstein Bros. Bagels or that they visited Einstein Bros. Bagels’ stores twenty times?

There are different behaviors at work here.  Just because I see a friend visited a retail location a certain number of times doesn’t mean much to me if I have no connection with that brand.  Especially as many areas of the web are trending to be more personal than social.  Social isn’t going away, just like search isn’t – but pay attention to the rise of personalization.  For example, what if I’m traveling and looking for a place to have dinner – a map service leveraging personalization could analyze that I like a brand and use that to suggest one of their retail locations close to me.  In that case, liking becomes more powerful and is the first, key action prior to actually getting me to check in (and ultimately make a purchase).

Also consider if I decide to like the brand digitally, I’m letting them into my stream.  Now I’ve given them permission to communicate with me over time which, if they’re nurturing me properly, should lead to continued affinity and many check-ins long term.

Button click aren’t good representations of affinity and advocacy; actual actions are.

Augie is wrong.  Button clicks are actions – ask any e-commerce site.  Ask anyone who has had to change their Facebook status from “in a relationship” to “single.” I think the problem here is that Augie thinks there is a divide between the physical world and the digital.  There isn’t. As William Gibson famously quoted:

Image credit:  Will Lion via flickr

Growing up using the web, I’ll say this is already true for myself and most of my peers – as noted in a post a few years ago on the business digital divide.

This is a lesson learned by Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell who couldn’t turn her massive advantage in Facebook friends into a massive advantage at the ballot box.

Well, that’s direct marketer thinking – that merely having more is better.  Unfortunately that’s not the way the social web works.  A group of connected, empowered and activated true fans would matter far more to your business.  Just because you have more doesn’t necessarily mean you have influence.

What do you think this might mean for “Likes” and check-ins in the future?  Will “Likes” be as important two years from now as they are today?

I don’t think it’s a question of which is more valuable.  They are two very different actions with different benefits to different companies. Frequently, they may even inspire each other.  Also keep in mind Facebook, despite their massive growth is iterating quickly – to try and predict what will be more important in 2 years isn’t going to bring you value because things may have shifted by then.

If you’re looking to succeed long-term, instead of worrying about whether likes or check-ins (in a single network) are more valuable, focus on building a community that is activated and passionate about your brand in a way that is as platform agnostic as possible.