Dissecting the Social Media ‘Like’

It’s time we recognize that the “like” in social media has overtaken several long-standing social interactions in our culture. In the same way that email replaced hand-written snail mail, the social media like is challenging the existence of traditional interactions such as the handshake, the hug, or if you prefer, the hug and handshake combo.

If over 1 billion people around the world are using social media, you can’t deny the copious amounts of likes being dished out on a daily basis. And while these quick clicks may seem trivial and artificial compared to face-to-face, skin-on-skin contact, they now represent the complex social fabric of our Internet-enabled lives – between close friends, acquaintances, strangers, and brands.

Likes are happening everywhere you look on the Internet now. From a music video on YouTube to an artsy photo on Instagram, we have slowly stumbled into a new universal language of approval. You’d be hard-pressed to find a news site or an e-commerce shop that doesn’t have a full array of buttons on the side asking you to share the love on your favorite social network.

And it’s no surprise why every business is jumping on this bandwagon. Studies are beginning to validate the business case behind the chase for likes, by correlating them to positive net promoter scores, dollar values, or equivalent GRPs

So from a marketer’s perspective, we tend to attack the opportunity like this:

  • Lots of people like stuff online.
  • Getting those likes is worth something to our brand.
  • Let’s create a plan to win more likes.
  • Why do people like things to begin with?

And it’s on this last point that we tend to get lost because we don’t have a clear answer to the question.

So I’ve come up with a thinking framework that might help you understand the motivations behind the like. It works like this…

Imagine you’re at a party, a meeting, or a small gathering with friends. The way we act in real life social encounters has a direct correlation to the way we behave when dishing out likes in social media. These are the eight user scenarios I’ve observed. They’re not mutually exclusive and there may in fact be more:

The “let’s get to know each other” like
I just met you and I find you interesting. I want to stay in touch with you because this relationship has potential. My like represents my intention to stay in touch with you by giving my contact information.

The “high five” like
I’m celebrating the moment. If my favorite basketball team just won the championship, I’m giving high fives to anyone wearing the same colored jersey. This can happen with close friends or complete strangers. My likes represent my happy mood and you might be a part of it.

The “applause” like
I just saw or heard something from you I liked. It may have been a work or art or an inspiring speech. My like represents my standing ovation for you and others to hear.

The “head nod” like
You said something and I’m acknowledging that you’ve been heard. Sometimes it’s as simple as a head nod across the room. This generally happens between closer friends. My like simply says that I’m listening.

The “networking” like
This is similar to joining a book club. There’s a certain category of interest I belong to and I want to connect with people of a similar mindset. Online, I may like an article about politics to open up interaction with friends that also want to share their views on politics. My like is an open statement to the world.

The “make me look good” like
This is the equivalent of shaking hands with the cool guy at the party. I want to be seen with him, and I’m getting more out of the connection than he is. My like is a step up in social status.

The “snapshot” like
I want to remember this moment in time. I could be looking at photos from a birthday party or a special vacation. My like is to remember that I was here five years from now.

The “business deal” like
You have something I want to buy and I’m meeting with you to discuss it. When I shake your hand at the end of our meeting, there’s a good chance I’m going to talk to you again to close the deal. My like says that I’m sold.

In conclusion, I want to demonstrate that not all likes are equal. Each type has it’s own motivation behind it.

And as marketers, we probably aren’t focusing on all of these different cases. To create great social content, we need to understand why our audience would like us and what they’re expecting from us moving forward. We can’t always just chase the applause and call it a day.

If they’re looking to get to know us better, are we developing content that keeps them interested in this behavior path? Or are we flaming out after the first encounter?

If they’re simply giving out high fives because they’re happy, why were we a part of this celebration? And how can we be a part of the next one?

If they’re seeking a business deal, do we recognize this statement of intent and are we actively trying to close the transaction? Or do we let them slip away to buy it for cheaper on Taobao.com?

Chasing likes is not simple but it’s not impossible. With handshakes, we had the luxury of reading body language for added context. With likes, the same context exists in the surrounding digital environment. You just have to be looking for it.

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