Facebook 'like' symbol

Wherever you get your news, from television, print media or the Internet, there are lots of stories about how ‘social media' is changing our behavior as consumers. The leader in this media segment is Facebook.

A unique characteristic of consumer behavior on Facebook is ‘liking' a page by clicking on the thumbs-up symbol. Of those who visit Facebook, 43% have ‘liked' a page posted by a brand or company. This has become commonplace consumer behavior. Consider that Coca-Cola has 39 million ‘likes,' Disney 33 million, and Starbucks has 28 million.

But what does it mean to ‘like' a brand on Facebook? What motivates consumers to click on the ‘like' icon? And why is this important to the brand marketers?

At the most fundamental level, consumers really do like brands. Consumers' relationships with brands go far beyond functional product attributes. A number of studies have empirically shown that personality dimensions similar to those that are the foundation of human relationships are the basis for brand perceptions.

The reasons why consumers ‘like' Facebook brand pages can be explored by extending the human-brand metaphor to consider the psychological concepts of exchange and communal relationships.

In exchange relationships, the parties get something in return for their actions. In this context, the reason consumers ‘like' brand pages is obvious. Brands reward them. Here are some examples currently on Facebook. A consumer who ‘likes' the Alpo dog food brand page is able to print product coupons. ‘Like' the Domino's Pizza page and you are able to enter a sweepstakes promotion to win a VIP trip to a music festival. Estee Lauder offers a free color cosmetics "mood board" on its page, but to gain access to it the consumer has to click on the ‘like' icon. Studies show that 67% of consumers who have ‘liked' a brand page on Facebook did so to become eligible for offers.

Mark Valva, president of Revolution Digital, an agency that creates Facebook pages for a number of leading, national brands, says, "A coupon or other promotion is an incentive to get Facebook visitors involved in a brand's page. It rewards current consumers and motivates users of competitive products to try the brand. Hopefully, this will lead to the consumer participating in a conversation with the brand on its Facebook page."

Brand ‘conversations' on Facebook are expressions of communal relationships. The consumer's actions go beyond the self to express interest in the brand, just as they would about another person.

But how does the attraction of a consumer to a brand's Facebook page because of a promotion incentive grow into a communal relationship in which conversations take place? Brand personality, consisting of the human characteristics associated with a brand, is the DNA of consumer-brand relationships. And it is the basis for conversation.

The significance of brand personality has been demonstrated in research showing that the greater the congruity between personality characteristics that describe a consumer's actual or ideal self and those that describe a brand, the greater the consumer's preference for the brand. In addition, studies show that this self-expressive value of brand personality is a key factor in the development of brand loyalty.

Long before the advent of the Internet, consumers were connected to each other through brands. They may not have known each other directly; but they had some level of understanding of one another through a brand.

In some instances these connections were loosely organized but conceptually strong, as were the communal attitudes held by VW Beetle owners in the late 1960's and 1970's. In other examples, the communal association began in clubs organized locally in towns across the country, like the early ‘Mac' computer enthusiasts (and PC-haters). In still other cases, consumers expressed interest in a brand individually and then discovered other like-minded fans with whom they connected. This is how the M&M candy collectors club began, an organization that has now spread to a dozen countries.

Thus, a personal connection to a brand is extended to a bond with other consumers who share an attachment to the brand. This dynamic is the foundation of communal brand relationships in which interest in and affection for the brand are communicated in discussions, sharing of information, and concern for the wellbeing of the brand as well as for other like-minded consumers.

Valva says that the goal is to convert promotion-responding Facebook page visitors into brand conversation consumers. "A percentage of those ‘liking' a brand page also post comments, respond to questions about products or advertising, take quizzes, and answer polls. These consumers engage in brand communication and that is the key."

Facebook currently reaches 845 million users. Some are attracted to a brand page that offers a promotion incentive. The relationship of these consumers with the brand has the potential to go beyond coupons and other exchange benefits to encompass interest and affection manifest in communal behavior. Other Facebook visitors already are emotionally loyal to the brand. Even without an incentive, this group is primed to express their interest by posting comments and engaging in other communal activities.

Facebook describes its business as enabling marketers to "engage with interested customers." In social media lexicon, these consumers are referred to as ‘brand zealots' - evangelists whose ‘conversations' will increase loyalty among current customers and attract new consumers to join the brand's family. Facebook's marketing model is that the path to zealotry begins with a simple click of the ‘like' button.

About the Author

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D.

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., is principal of a consumer psychology practice in New York City. Dr. Murray's specialty is the psychological drivers of consumer behavior, with emphasis on emotion.

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