The Variables of ‘Like’

Back in 2006, Mentos became an early leader among brands in social media when it capitalized on two performance artists posting videos of what happens when you put the candy in Diet Coke. (Explosions.) After the resulting YouTube viral phenomenon, Mentos embraced the creators and rode a wave of viral buzz while Coke issued a dour statement that it wasn’t amused.

Fast-forward to 2010. Coke now ranks as the third most popular brand on Facebook with 11.3 million fans. Mentos, as of March, had only 10,000 fans. But then its agency, Isobar, in an effort to play catch-up, paired a two-for-one offer with a pricey reach block on Facebook — it can cost over $500,000 to reach every Facebook user for a day — and Mentos saw its number of fans grow to 120,000 in a single day.

Brands that are only now establishing themselves on Facebook are playing a desperate game of catch-up. They’re pulling out the stops to rack up what Facebook now calls Likes, social actions by which consumers express interest in a brand. To get Likes, they’re going beyond ads and bartering for friendship with offers of exclusive content, discounts and special offers.

“As you get up the chain at organizations, bigger is better,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. “It’s a sign of virility when you’ve got a lot of people who like you on Facebook.”

The rush for Facebook connections heated up in April when the 500-million strong social net shifted from brand fan pages to Likes. It also released its Like button into the wild, letting any site place it next to content.

Beyond simply showing off — look at how many people like us! — Facebook Likes have a critical practical purpose. Once a consumer likes a brand, a message is sent via his or her News Feed to their friends, generating earned media impressions. Updates from the brand can then appear in the user’s News Feed. Additional interactions with the brand lead to more earned media, netting more fans.

Such a network effect is of critical importance to brands in a world where users now spend more time on Facebook than any other site. Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, which builds tools and provides strategy for brands on Facebook, says the social network can act as the hub for an ongoing dialog with consumers.

“Every brand has a social graph,” he said.

Incentivizing users is a legitimate strategy, according to Lazerow, although paying them is forbidden by Facebook.

Playboy had a solid fan base on Facebook in July, with Likes growing a few thousand each week. It then decided to give visitors who hadn’t yet liked the page a compelling proposition: “Click Like for sexy pics, videos and more.” The day the overlay was published Playboy had 1.7 million Likes. Two weeks later, it had 2.1 million.

And three weeks ago, Borders had about 50,000 fans. It then offered a 33 percent-off discount in return for a Like. Its community now has 265,000 members.

But such ploys can backfire. Matthew Szymczyk, CEO of Zugara, says these aggressive strategies can pile up Likes from people who don’t have true brand affinity. In this way, he believes the Likes are tantamount to “false advertising” because a message goes out from the user who just wants to see a video or play a game-not because he’s interested in the brand itself.

Lionsgate, for example, is running a Facebook promo that requires liking the page for the summer blockbuster The Expendables in order to play a game related to the movie.

“You’re almost building a Ponzi scheme with Facebook Likes,” said Szymczyk. “Would you rather have 100,000 liking and broadcasting it or 5,000 who are real brand advocates?”

The payoffs can be short-lived. Search engine Bing ran a promo with Zynga in March that gave 80 million FarmVille players a deal: become a Facebook fan of Bing and get free virtual currency for the game. Bing’s fan count went from 100,000 to 500,000. It now tops 1.1 million fans.

Yet not all fans are created equal. Bing continued to provide FarmVille-related tips through its page, yet since the Zynga promo Bing has seen much lower activity levels on the page compared to communities of a similar size. A typical recent post got about 100 Likes and slightly fewer comments. Brands with similar-size audiences get more, according to Lazerow, who believes the kind of incentives offered by the Zynga program have been “voted off the island” as far as Facebook tactics go.

Mentos is well aware of the perils of losing its newly acquired community and has a content plan in place to continue its growth path. The Mentos community is now over 180,000. It is putting out quirky updates regularly and holding contests, such as a recent challenge to design a Mentos tattoo.

“The value of fans is zero unless you do something with them,” said Kerry Lange, client partner for Isobar North America. “We got them to the playing field; now it’s a matter of giving them something to play with.”

See also: “Facebook Doubles Down on Social Actions”