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Forget the ‘likes’: the best social campaigns are smaller, engaged

facebook social media dislike

I was sitting in a strategy meeting the other day of a company that was scoping out media and platforms for its below the line spend. In the meeting, the brand manager repeatedly reinforced his wish for a greater number of “likes” on the brand’s Facebook page. The CEO heard that was the “new big thing”, so that was the directive. To be fair the brand guy didn’t agree with it, but he also hadn’t pushed back. So “get more likes” was the challenge put forward.

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It’s not the first time I have seen nor heard this request from clients. Can you conceptualize a competition or campaign that can increase the brand’s “likes”? My answer is generally, “probably” but why on earth would you want to?

It goes back to our unending need to drive the numbers up everywhere, sometimes regardless of whether it actually means a better result for the business. It is still a 90’s and early 00’s mentality to me. Media buyers demand return on investment, planners need to see numerical results and brand managers need something to put into an Excel spreadsheet as to why online and social media is so costly and why we need it so desperately. But let’s be completely honest: having 10 000 likes on your business’ Facebook page is irrelevant. It means nothing; if anything its a status symbol, but then so was having Anna Nicole Smith on your arm ten years ago. Now, like Anna, it’s dead and old news; at best a bit of dress up for reporting back to the boardroom. Another piece of mumbo-jumbo to impress the suits.

I am willing to bet that the majority of campaigns to incentivize or drive traffic to a Facebook page may well build up your “likes”, but do very little for your brand, if that is your main intention. Put simply, as a consumer we don’t care. To click “like” for a chance to win is easy (it’s also “Facebook illegal” but the loopholes around it are ever-present). We will do it all day long. It doesn’t mean we like you. It’s kiss-catch for the consumer. A quick chase for a chance of brief reward. Then on to the next one.

We go to the trough when something is on offer; after that we go wherever else new slops are dished. As a business you’re hoping that “x” amount of people consume or take note of your brand and you may even see it as a way to communicate with those 10 000 people who “like” you. But you are competing against a thousand other brands who did the same thing and even more recently than you; and in an environment where the average wall of a teenage Facebook consumer moves faster than a bribed politician. You are hit and miss at best. Bragging rights is one thing but as an actual brand loyalty exercise, it’s weak.

Quality or quantity?

They say in Texas everything is bigger. From houses, to ranches to shoulder pads, the bigger you do it, the better it is and in turn, the better you are. It’s much like the past 10 years on the web. When the web really became accessible to the world, suddenly we were all “connected”. Via Netscape Navigator (remember that?) and IRC we were suddenly one, joined via packets of data and badly executed html. It was also the era of the reborn snake oil salesman. This time emanating from the early uprising of Silicon Valley rather than the tumble-weeded wild west, anyone with a half-baked idea and a good pitch was given a corner office with a view, a Philipe Starke chair and the title of CEO. Once the IPO hit, the CEO retired and the stock went bust. The new Californian gold rush. But the fact remains that on this new frontier there was cash to be made and the bigger your idea, the more money was thrown at it.

As we evolved as humans on the web, we became more savvy. We realized that we didn’t actually want to buy pet food online. We also realized that money didn’t necessarily come from selling things but rather from advertising them. Our focus shifted. Traffic became the new “bigger-is-better”. Those old enough will remember this as a time when hits were everything. Not uniques — that number wasn’t big enough and in many cases not even understood. Hits and impressions is what we sold and we sold it hard. Where hits came from, who they were, didn’t really matter. Quantity at the expense of quality.

Numbers alone counted then, but if we look at it through the consumer’s eyes now, we have gone through the wow-stage of internet wonder. New generations do not know life without it. Like oxygen and iPods it was here when they arrived. We are all connected. So what? Haven’t we always been? Five thousand Facebook friends? Really? We either have to redefine our understanding of friendship or Facebook needs to change its labeling to “people we may know or thought looked hot in a bikini”.

Intrinsically, we are programmed with a sense of community in our DNA; things like Facebook and Twitter make sense to use because of it, but it’s getting tired. Just look at the Google+ take up as an indication that we may be growing wary of yet another way to “connect”. We very well may be over-connected; our communities too invaded.

Yes we want to be “liked”, friended and belong and within that “community”, regardless of platform, we like the status of numbers. But we also, brand and consumer alike, want to be heard. And in a very large crowd of people wanting to be heard, our messages sent and received are starting to look like a TV screen with the aerial unplugged; indecipherable.

Forget the numbers and go small

We thought bigger was better but we are wrong. Smaller and engaged is more valuable. Smaller lets us be heard. We get the buy-in we crave and the community around us then vouch and support us. Bloggers are a prime example of this. They are smaller than your average mass news sites but the have a loyal community that engages, listens and forms opinions — they are opinion leaders and disrupters in the mass market. If I wanted buy-in for my brand I would rather spend more money on a number of well positioned blog sites than a fistful of cash on mass campaign in commercial media. As an aside here too, media buyers and brand managers: let the blogs speak about your brand in their “speak”. Their message to their community counts for more than your brand and its heavily traded IP being “sold” to their market. Let go a little and let them make you cool.

Take a look at the real world around you right now. We started life in communities. Small, like-minded and caring. That’s a human trait, not one put upon us by anyone. We gravitate automatically to that way of life on and offline: a nuclear family, community protection and like-minded thinking. The problem with that is that inevitably if that community grows too large, it gets muddied with too much traffic and interference and war and confusion prevails. We become a blob of collectiveness that is nothing more than a very large and unmanageable mass.

But we are changing; seeking out new and “us” related products and interests. Within bricks and mortar retail we are seeing the return of the local butcher, the local baker and I venture somewhere in New York’s Village, the candlestick maker. Throw a stick in any direction and you will hit a micro-brewery. We are going back to small, to a community of intimate. Yes we have the world at our fingertips, but again, so what? We have it, so we are now seeking another “like”. “Like” minded without the grey-ness at the edges. It is a return to niche and what we know without the incessant messages, constant selling and bigger-is-better mentality.

Facebook? A safe place to keep your pictures and a cool spot to ogle your ex and tell people about your upcoming MMA fight. Why would a business want to exist there other than if they feel they should? If you need to be there, at least find a way to engage properly and create a relationship with your market. Offering a shiny-new-something to be “liked” is the same cheap trick parents use to keep their kids quiet; it may be a quick fix but longterm it doesn’t engender loyalty.

Yes it may mean smaller numbers, but if you can step outside of that “mass” thinking and see the value in quality and loyalty, the engagement and sales follow. Think loyal army battalion for your brand, rather than a rag-tag collective of conscripts who will fight for anyone and no one. And it’s quite okay to have numbers of small communities. Mass market is achievable in this model. But you have to be true to each one and not take a blanket approach. We won’t all like the same message. You need to tailor it.

In the past we went hunting in small groups to bring down a mammoth so we could eat. We would share those spoils with the larger community and neighbouring villages. Then we were sold the idea that it is easier to go and buy the mammoth pre-packed and marinated at Walmart in single size portions. It’s time to find some real friends and a mammoth for your business. But feel free to tweet about the hunt and post the pics on Instagram.

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