Why Those Facebook ‘Faces’ Just Might Matter

So do the social media ‘likes’ – all those faces in Facebook for example – have any brand or campaign value?  True, with SM now in the mainstream, all those ‘likes’ are simply-reported.  They add up quickly and they’re superficially reassuring.   Yet, according to many, their impact on consumer preference is often negliglible.  And the monetary value derived is minimal or non-existent.

Why so?  Some limitation in the social media platform?  Perhaps a subset of the ‘monetisation’ debate?  Or is it a lack of practitioner expertise in what remains a frontier medium?  Major new research (*) highlights expertise. It suggests that practical visual management of ‘similarity’ and ‘ambiguity’ may transform outcomes for both brand and PR campaign management alike.

How does this work?

Traditional social influence theory (SIT) suggests that physical exposure is required to exert, or interpret, a meaningful social impact.  This is a well-trodden, well-researched path.  It brings together multi-sense neuroscience findings with social psychology.  It underpins contemporary retail and service experience design. We apply SIT intuitively when we pop our head cautiously around an unknown pub’s door to check clientele.  Or when we retreat from a retail space where the average age or appearance of the ‘actors’ (staff and customers) creates immediate discomfort.

But what about all those Facebook or web page images?  Does ‘mere virtual presence’ (MVP) – the correct academic handle – work the same way?  Does it help or hinder a brand image?  Much?  At all?

Yes, say the findings, the faces can and do have a major impact IF…   If, for example, there is a clear target segment, similarity of brand supporters signals affinity to relevant new visitors.  Similarity facilitates liking and it heightens visitor purchase intentions.

Intriguingly a mixed (or heterogeneous) page can also function acceptably as the visitor typically anchors on some relevant images.   Even studied ambiguity (via e.g. silhouettes) may help although it is weaker where the visitor is exploring competitive brands.

But dissimilarity repels.

So, sitting back in the warm glow of many ‘likes’ – a digital THUD factor – is risky. Volume isn’t necessarily quality.  It may generate negative outcomes.  And it compels a re-evaluation of the innocent charm of open social media inclusiveness and interactivity – i.e. allowing any non-offensive post to have visibility.

To illustrate active planning, a brand entering a new segment will only release target images.  A second, uncertain of available opportunities, may choose studied ambiguity in the early phases.   A third running a major issues campaign will consciously display as heterogeneous a mix as possible to optimise potential support.

Of course this poses hard ethical questions.  Brands must notify selection via e.g. ‘fans of the day’ type features.  Otherwise they may fatally undermine the medium’s presumed transparency.

But, in short, those ‘faces’ in Facebook really can work for you.  With a little planning.

By Dr. Bill Nichols