measure value of facebook likesMarketers aggressively encourage Facebook users to like their brands. They believe that Likes prompt the brand’s updates to appear in customers’ news feeds and prompt engagement to appear in their friends’ news feeds. Some believe that a Like also prompts more purchases.

Researchers at Tulane University and Harvard Business School conducted 23 experiments over the past four years, involving more than 18,000 people. Through A/B testing, they sought to determine: if following a company makes people more likely to purchase its products, if people’s likes affect their friends’ purchasing, if liking affects other behaviors such as increasing engagement, and if boosting updates through paid advertising impacts customer behavior.

Researchers invited half of study participants to like a cosmetics brand and gave all participants coupons to redeem products. Those who had liked the brand were not more likely to redeem coupons.

The researchers found that liking a brand on Facebook does not increase purchasing or change consumer behavior. Marketers may confuse correlation with cause. People who like companies on Facebook may already be active customers.

“Social media doesn’t work the way many marketers think it does. The mere act of endorsing a brand does not affect a customer’s behavior or lead to increased purchasing, nor does it spur purchasing by friends,” the researchers write in Harvard Business Review.

Confirms Opinions of Measurement Experts

The research supports statements from measurement experts such as Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing, who have dismissed the value of likes. Marketers who measure likes as a predominant metric may wish to reconsider their strategy.

“Across 16 studies, we found no evidence that following a brand on social media changes people’s purchasing behavior,” the researchers state. However, paying to boost a post does convert likes into meaningful behaviors.

The Problem with Word-of-Mouth Marketing on Social Media

When people like a brand on Facebook, their like and other types of engagement with the brand can appear in some of their friends’ news feeds.

In classic marketing, word-of-mouth endorsements by peers have been shown to increase sales, but the value of endorsements may be lower on Facebook and other social media networks, the researchers say. Following a brand does not guarantee engagements will appear in friends’ news feeds. Some Facebook users like brands indiscriminately or for one-time reasons.

Researchers Like These Strategies

Instead of aggressively pursuing likes, researchers offer these recommendations.

Advertising is an effective strategy.  Likes can improve ad targeting. Supporting endorsements with branded content, however, can have significant results. And given that social media pages are gathering places for loyal customers, they can offer brands a unique source of customer intelligence and feedback from a crucial cohort.

Highlight the posts of engaged customers. Although Facebook currently does not offer that as an advertising option, savvy firms can overcome that obstacle by monitoring social media for endorsements and integrating those endorsements into their marketing messages.

Seed social endorsements by paying influencers to try the brand and send endorsements to their followers.

Choose online postings and other user-generated content that are more creative and meaningful than simple likes. Beware of privacy issues, however.

Conduct market research. Even if a brand does not spend money to advertise, it can use its social media channels to gain intelligence from its most loyal customers.

Bottom Line: Consumers who like brands on Facebook are not more likely to purchase their brands, contrary to marketers’ expectations. Still, brands can gain many advantages by listening to ardent customers and engaging with them on social media.