Why Facebook's "Like" Button Is A Gateway Drug

by Tom Webster on Jun 30, 2010

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Recently I’ve had a number of my traditional media clients ask me for advice about integrating Facebook’s “Like” button into their site. Their most common questions are good ones: What is the difference between “Like” and “Share?” How do I explain this difference to visitors? In the end, which would I rather a visitor to my site do: “Like” my content, or “Share” the link?

Of course, from the perspective of the individual business, “Like” vs. “Share” is a false choice; Facebook has made it blindingly simple to integrate both, and that is, of course, the right answer. What Facebook has not made blindingly obvious, at least for businesses, are the features and benefits of each. In other words, given your druthers, which would you rather your site visitors do? Which action will drive the most traffic, and produce the most tangible business results?

The easy answer, for now, is that it is too soon to tell. While compelling research on the traffic differential between “Like” and “Share” may be available soon, for now the relative newness and unfamiliarity with “Like” would cast a considerable selection bias on that data – patterns would be unduly influenced by early adopters, while the “Like” button is actually designed, I believe, for more casual, “lean-back” consumers of social networking.

I’m kinda big on the whole Darwin thing, so I see the differential usage of “Like” vs. “Share” sorting itself out. What is important for businesses to realize is that they need to offer both, because after an initial period of experimentation, the choice between “Like” and “Share” is likely to reflect differences in the segmentation of your own customer base. I’m not the first to suggest that the web comprises three sorts of user: creators, curators and consumers. Creators actually generate the content, in the form of blogs, podcasts, videos and other primary content. Curators aggregate, share and give meaning to that content, and much of these early days of social media have been focused on providing curators with the tools to manipulate and manage that content.

Proportion of frequent social networking users in AmericaWhat Facebook and other major players understand is that creators and even curators do not comprise the majority of potential users, and their future growth depends upon attracting broader segments. For that reason, the consumers – the “lean-back” users of the social web – represent the next undiscovered country for social media. Not only will this segment grow in number, but as social networking becomes more and more ingrained in mainstream society, it will also become proportionally larger as well. In our most recent study of social networking in America, “The Social Habit,” Edison looked at the segment of social media users who used social sites and services multiple times per day – now nearly 39 million Americans. These are the creators and even curators, actively posting content, sharing links and composing status updates on sites like Facebook and Twitter. These active social networkers, however, represent a minority of social media users in America. Today our research indicates that nearly half of social networkers don’t post status updates at all, and certainly the vast majority of social media users aren’t creating blog posts or videos. Even Twitter, with its seemingly low bar to content creation, has attracted at least as many consumers as creators and has settled into being more of a broadcast medium for the web.

Frequent Social Networkers Also More Likely To Update StatusFacebook’s “Share” feature allows active users to curate media – in fact, the sharing interface practically compels it by presenting sharers with that big empty box in which they not only post the “what” – the compelling link, the funny video – but the “why.” Facebook’s sharing feature allows curators to add value to what they share, and in fact create content of their own around shared items. For the creators and the curators, the “Share” will continue to be the conduit of choice to promote and pass along content. But not all the users who wish to share have any desire to “curate.” Certainly my parents aren’t going to blog, and they probably wouldn’t consider themselves “curators” either. The “Like” button, however, gives them and other consumers the chance to “play along” with the social web – to pass along photos, funny videos and interesting sites – without the onerous burden of “adding value” to the transaction. Anyone who writes for a living knows that the empty page – the blank submission box – can be a great demotivator. The “Like” button allows the consumer the chance to fully participate in social media without any of the pressure to add value, curate or otherwise justify their selection or promotion of a given piece of content.

So, back to the original question(s): which will drive more traffic? Ultimately, if social media continues its hockey-stick growth, the “consumers” will vastly outnumber the creators and curators, and the “Like” button is tailor-made to encourage these users to express themselves online without friction. It will be the “Share,” however, that provides the compelling reason to even bother clicking – the contextual wrapper that tells the “friends” of the sharer that the link is worth their time. While my research brain tells me that a lot more work will have to be done to even hypothesize about this, my gut tells me that the ratio of “Shares” to “Likes” of your content over time may indeed provide a crude heuristic for engagement, with higher “Share” ratios indicating either that your content was more attractive to curators, or – the real prize – actually motivated more consumers to engage with your content and cross over into the rarified air of curation.

In that sense, the “Like” button may in fact serve as a gateway drug for the “Share.” “Liking” your content is an easy on-ramp to social media interaction, and as social networking’s lean-back users become more accustomed to the mechanics of content sharing, they may find themselves compelled, every now and then, to “Share” their thoughts about that content. In any case, the addition of the “Like” button doesn’t only provide your content with the potential for a greater quantity of traffic, it also provides a vehicle to encourage an entirely new segment of user to interact with your content than previously afforded by the “Share” button alone. Knowing this, the savvy business will not only offer both options, but perhaps even investigate differential landing pages or other means to segment and engage with the “Likers” and the “Sharers.”

That said, I hope you both like, and share, this post :)

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