One of my favorite bloggers, Jonathan MacDonald, has a regular category on the subject of fallacies. While not half as smart, I’ll try to write about a question posted on Quora, a common trap some marketers are prone to believe in: that what matters on Facebook is the number of fans (or more awkwardly, likes).

cc licensed flickr photo shared by jlz

Let’s start with a selected quote by someone (video below for RSS readers) who knows a bit about these things:

“It’s worthless to have a lot of friends on Facebook, because they’re not really your friends. They’re just people who don’t want to offend you by pressing the ignore button” — Seth Godin

For Facebook Pages, with a low friction to press the Like button, a brand can easily create the illusion that fans = consumers = sales. If you think that makes sense, better choose other career than marketing. And don’t even consider mentioning that PR stunt about the value of a Facebook fan.

“If numbers are your strategy to win at this thing, you’ve already lost. This thing is not a game. There is no winning. There is only mattering. If you don’t understand that, you aren’t making a difference.” — Jeffrey Zeldman

Zeldman puts it best, it’s the relationship that matters. The amount of influence you can have on your fans, the power to affect their behavior, and ultimately drive their purchase intentions, are achieved when you care about your fans and not by a shallow, quick fix numbers race.

I understand where this bias come from. Many marketers are sales driven. Ok, they’re sales people. But if the financial crisis has taught us something, is that volume and inflated results can be a a bunch of toxic assets. And when the truth is exposed, Facebook wise, brands end up with a portfolio of useless fans.

But if you really insist on going the volume road, there’s the right way and the wrong way to do it.

The wrong way involves some unethical tactics that I’ll never, NEVER, recommend, but nonetheless you should be aware of. From paying people on Mechanical Turk to cloaked Like buttons, or even some agencies using paid PR agents endorsing a page to their network, disregarding basic WOM disclosure ethics.

The right way are Social Ads. They’re the right tool for building the initial fan base on newly created Facebook Pages. Besides this regular advertising solution, Facebook also provides Engagement Ads, a different ad unit for a more hefty fee, but from my experience much more effective if fast acquisition is your main goal.

Many brands also use promotions to quickly acquire fans, seduced by multiple research reports that highlight coupons and promotions as the main reason to follow brands (what’d you expect? People saying they like higher prices?).

Instead of plain promotions, a slower but better choice would be to reward your engaged consumers and brand advocates, rather than to build up an army of zombie consumers, that will come back and haunt you if you’re not feeding them free stuff (believe me: I’ve seen plenty of fan pages with the regular contest mercenaries basically asking “do more contests and gives us free lunches”).

A brand should focus on true fans driven more by passion and less by extrinsic motivations, as they’re the ones creating content and interacting the most. They’re the ones improving the page’s interest, with qualified interactions influencing Facebook’s EdgeRank and determining how and what shows up on Top/Most Recent News feed.

In conclusion, quality fans always trumps volume: they’re the ones buying products and services, not the shallow free loaders. If you really need to focus on volume for your Facebook page — consider the alternatives, like customer insights or leads — at least focus on metrics such as active users and interaction ratio.

It’s kind of ironic that many brands end up behaving on Facebook as if they were on traditional media: Buying reach and frequency when they could be getting relevance and quality. And then talking about ROI as if they know what they’re saying.

8 thoughts on “The Facebook Fans Fallacy

    1. Thanks Jonathan. If you appreciated it, i must be doing something right 🙂

  1. This is a very interesting and current theme. To begin my personal ruminations on the subject, I think there are two questions that need to be addressed and discussed:
    1) Why should people "follow", "like" or be friends of companies/brands?
    They should like them because they use their products and services, hence have some sort of emotional bond? They should like them because they'll have exclusive content, access to first-hand information, freebies & promotions, because everyone is doing it ("herd effect")?
    2) What should companies do with their audiences or "legions of fans"?
    To answer this second question we need to understand the motivations behind the first question. I'm not a big advocate of the "promotion trap" to be honest. Once you start giving away "carrots" you know there's no coming back. That's what your audiences expect and maybe that's why they're interested in engaging with you. The "Godfathers of the Web 2.0" are always talking about engagement and conversation. How do you create a relevant and sustainable theme of conversation and audience interest beyond prizes, challenges and freebies? Should we go back to basics and start focusing more on the social CRM side of these platforms?

    Questions, questions …

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