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All those 'Likes' don't add up to real fans, Facebook exec warns brands

How can a brand reach genuine fans on Facebook and persuade them to go to a show, buy a product or otherwise support the brand? By paying, says Facebook's Niall Fagan.

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Star striker Cristiano Ronaldo may have earned Real Madrid millions of virtual "thumbs ups", but how many of them are genuine fans? Alex Caparros / Getty Images

Click "Like" to win! Click "Like" to find out more! It seems like we're forever being begged to Like pages on Facebook, whether they belong to a company, a band or a brand jostling for our attention. But a Facebook marketing boss has warned that blindly amassing fans is "the biggest mistake so many people are making" -- because "no one gives a s**t about your page!"

Speaking on a panel at music industry conference Sound City 2015 in Liverpool on Thursday, Niall Fagan, leader of Facebook's entertainment marketing vertical for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said, "I'd like to be completely honest, fans are not a metric that anybody should measure on Facebook. Don't go acquiring fans just for vanity reasons."

First introduced on Facebook posts in 2009, the cheery little blue thumbs-up of the Like button can now be found everywhere across the Web. As a social plug-in on websites, adverts and articles like this one, it connects your activity around the Web to a brand's page on Facebook. Companies, startups, celebrities and other brands launched a frenzy of urging customers to press the Like button on their page or products.

Fagan now admits, "It's Facebook's fault originally for making it a thing to do," but says, "It's the biggest mistake so many people are making."

That's because amassing a big pool of fans on Facebook, the world's largest social network, doesn't mean that in the future the brand will even be able to communicate with them. Facebook's algorithm tailors what shows up in our News Feeds, and a brand's post has a slim chance of making the cut. Unless they pay for it, but we'll get to that in a second. Last year, Facebook began reducing the number of showing up in users' News Feeds, meaning companies that previously sent ads from their free Facebook pages now face a harder time reaching fans.

In 2010, an Israeli waterpark gave visitors RFID wristbands to 'Like' their favourite rides. CNET

Fagan says there are simple ways to genuinely reach fans on Facebook. "If you are a musician or you manage a band, get that band to do a 20- or 30-second video clip of a well-known cover song, or just something a little bit quirky, a little bit different. If you run that video against an audience of people you are confident will love that video, you can build an audience off the people who watched it to the full length."

Shorter videos work better on Facebook, especially when it directs you to a full-length video on YouTube, a track on Spotify, or any other place where a fan watching and listening will actually earn you some money. While Facebook doesn't directly pay out when someone watches a video or interacts with a brand, it does give the opportunity to reach potential new fans are who are likely to spend money. That's through a feature called Lookalike Audiences, which allows brands to find people with similar interests or background to current fans.

"So if you ran that video against 100,000 people," explains Fagan, "and 10,000 people watched it right through to the end, Facebook will say, 'here's those 10,000 people'. And you can say, 'I don't want to target those 10,000 because they've already watched it', but you can use Lookalike Audiences to show you people similar to these 10,000: that live in London, that are over 18, that are male, whatever you want. It's targeted.

"And that's how you get awareness on Facebook -- not through 'Like my page'. No-one gives a s**t about your page!"

When that little truth bomb sent a ripple of laughter around the room, Fagan qualified his statement by pointing out that a Like clicked does not a genuine fan make.

"The truth is, looking at all football clubs in the UK or anywhere, if a football club has 50 millions fans, 25 million of those fans are fans of their biggest rival," says Fagan. "So if you're [Spanish soccer club] Real Madrid and you're posting about a player you've just signed, you have no control where the message is going to go. It may very well go to fans of Barcelona [a rival Spanish soccer club]. The only real way to reach fans of Real Madrid is, yeah, post on your page, but target people that are also fans of Ronaldo or things that make it obvious that they've been to [Real's stadium] the Bernabau, they're fans of [Real striker] Ronaldo, they're fans of a player that other teams wouldn't consider a hero. That's how you get to the real fans."

At the time of writing, Real Madrid's Facebook page has 82 million Likes.

"Most fan pages acquire fans in the wrong way, through competitions and stuff," Fagan said.

But while that gets people clicking Like, it doesn't go the extra mile to actually reaching genuine fans and persuading them to go to a show, buy a product or otherwise support the brand. How can a brand achieve that? By paying, obviously.

When I asked Fagan to qualify his statements, he said, "Having a page is important. Hosting a page and hoping everybody sees it is the problem. That's the myth...With the decline in organic traffic [people clicking on unpaid posts] you're just getting no reach. That number [of fans] might look pretty, but eventually none of them will see it, unless you pay for it."

Fagan reckons brands have to put their money where their mouth is to boost their posts into News Feeds, even if they're reluctant to pony up cash to a network that's supposed to be free.

"All the clients I work with, every single one of them, is very wary of spending money with Facebook," he said. "They appreciate that the platform is free for users and it always will be. But just like [ad-funded UK TV station] Channel 4 or any magazine, you pay to play: you don't just get free distribution. All Facebook is saying is 'Yeah, you're paying to get your content out there, but we're giving you the platform to do it on and be smart about the people you put it in front of.' The reason people pay such a high cost for an ad is because they're putting it in front of the wrong people."

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