In the past month I have attended two webinars with thought-leaders from the social media marketing space in which one of the luminaries referred to Likes on Facebook as "vanity metrics" as if this were uncontestable common knowledge. This was troubling for three reasons. First, it reveals engrained prejudices about social media that are simply false. Second, it suggests a profound ignorance about the mechanics of social media platforms. Third, it indicates that direct-response thinking still dominates much of the discourse around social media marketing.
Likes are simply not "vanity metrics." The term "vanity metric" was first coined by Eric Ries in his 2011 New York Times best seller, The Lean Startup. In his groundbreaking treatise, Ries proposes that startups focus on "actionable metrics" that reflect core revenue generators and can inform business decisions. He juxtaposes "actionable metrics" to "vanity metrics" which depict the business in a positive light but have little impact on revenue. Facebook Likes do not fit into the vanity category for one simple reason that can be stated in one word: EdgeRank.
EdgeRank is the social media version of PageRank. As the PageRank algorithm is for the Google search engine, EdgeRank is the fundamental algorithm behind the Facebook platform. Just as PageRank determines what appears first in a list of Google search engine results, EdgeRank determines what the user sees and does not see in his or her daily newsfeed. While the PageRank algorithm generates search results based on variables like inbound links and keyword density, the EdgeRank algorithm determines what content the user sees in his or her newsfeed based on comments, shares, and (wait for it...) Likes.
This means that if no one Likes your content, increasingly fewer of your fans will see it in their newsfeeds. If Likes are a "vanity metric" for your business then that means that it is not important how many users see your content on Facebook. This begs the question: If it does not matter to your business how many users see your content on Facebook then why are you allocating resources to maintaining a presence on Facebook?
The reality is that most businesses that have Facebook pages are striving for their content to be viewed by as many users as possible. This endeavor may be tied to branding objectives in the case of B2C companies or to direct response objectives in the case of B2B firms. In all cases the businesses of these companies depend on their customers knowing about their products and services. Facebook Likes enable them to track and optimize this effort in real-time.
This is not to say that Likes are the only metrics companies should track on Facebook. Facebook actually weighs comments and shares more heavily than Likes in the EdgeRank algorithm. Moreover companies should also track referrals, leads, and transactions generated by Facebook if those correspond to their core business objectives.
Social Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not the blogs and forums of the ‘90s. They are highly engineered platforms that, much like the Google search engine, operate by algorithms. These algorithms, just as in the case of the Google search engine, determine whether or not users view your content. Most importantly, like PageRank, these algorithms function by the winner-take-all principle. In other words, the fewer Likes your content is getting now, the fewer the Likes it will likely get in the future and the fewer users will see your content. If this scares you even a little bit, then it would be advisable not to relegate Likes to the dustbin of "vanity metrics".