The Like Trap

The click is the original sin of online advertising. It was too tempting and has led to so many problems. What better way to introduce online advertising but to emphasize what it could do that other media couldn’t. The first banner ad boldly proclaimed, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.” It turns out most of us wouldn’t, at least that often and certainly not on banner ads.
There’s a danger the industry will not learn its Santayana and repeat the same self-defeating approach as it moves from what Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti describes as a Google era (defined by intent-based search) to a Facebook era (defined by social interaction). In the race to give marketers something they can easily understand — after all, web advertising’s other long-term problem is the crazy complexity — the digital ad world is replacing the click with the social media like. This is akin to trading a PC for a Mac: you’re just getting a different set of problems.
The danger is getting trapped in the same race again. Since the early days, the web has tried to extricate itself from the click straitjacket. It has kept the industry in a direct response ghetto. The one true advancement the Internet has brought to advertising is search, an empire built on clicks. This has made the medium trapped in a direct-response ghetto to this day. Even in an obvious brand medium like video, clicks are still often used as a measure of success. Witness the recent results from VivaKi’s effort to find the next great online video format. Its criteria measured clicks.
Likes or fans are the shorthand currency of social media now. Every brand has zeroed in on Facebook as an important platform. Agency people constantly roll their eyes telling me about the times clients demand, “What’s our Facebook strategy?” In the end, this comes down to getting more likes. Glenn Engler of Digital Influence Group brilliantly laid this out in a HypeBusters we ran earlier this month.
The like, similar to the click, is an easy way to keep score. Every brand has a number on its Facebook page. Much as they might deny it, brands look to that number as a modern-day answer to former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s regular refrain: “How’m I doing?”
But everyone knows likes don’t tell the whole story, or even most of it. The fact is likes can be bought. Facebook sells them, in fact, which is why it’s not exactly holding back the mania for them. It sells them in the form of its many ad products designed to get people to like brand pages on Facebook. Behind your competitor in likes? Facebook has a reach block that can solve that problem. Even better is the vogue brands now have for promoting their Facebook pages through TV ads. Free advertising for Facebook!
This is a dangerous game, as KickApps’ Alan Wolk pointed out yesterday. Brands are building their main conduit to their customers on a platform they don’t own and don’t come close to controlling. Facebook changes how these brands communicate with their customers in February with nary a notice. That’s scary. What’s more, as Wolk points out, all that data collected is Facebook’s, not the brand’s.
We’ve seen this movie before. Search was the easy mark on the “How’m I doing?” scorecard. All those many ads and visits to the website that a consumer did before that final click? Didn’t matter. The last click always won. This led to a malformed ad system where networks jockeyed to try to get credit for that last click. We’ll probably see something similar in social media, as brands clamor for likes. Google “get Facebook fans” and you’ll find one purveyor offering them at the bargain-basement cost of six cents per like.
There’s little doubt Facebook is a unique and important company that has enormous implications for brands. But likes and fans aren’t exactly as new as they seem. Cheezburger’s Todd Sawicki compares them to a modern-day email list. Back in the 1990s, you might remember there was a similar Gold Rush around building up those lists.
This mania too shall pass. It’s worthwhile to remember that likes and fans are a byproduct of social media and just one factor in gauging the health of a brand in social media. Otherwise, a decade from now the industry will complain about being held to like rates just as it now bemoans the click.

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