Facebook hijacking “likes” to sell ads. Is this what social media has devolved to?


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I get it. Social media sites need to make money. Actually, any free website needs a revenue stream, and a common strategy is selling ads or sponsorships. (CustomerThink is sponsor supported.)

However, it’s a delicate balancing act to know when to say when, to advertising money. Apparently Facebook skipped that class, because when you “like” a product on Facebook, you are potentially serving up yourself as an endorsement for that product.

As reported in the LA Times, Facebook attempted this first in 2007, when it “launched ads that notified friends what users were buying on websites.” After blowback from users, it pulled back, but still, “when a user likes a brand’s page, his or her name can be used in ads seen by friends.”

This follows Facebook’s “two steps forward, one back” strategy on shifting its privacy policy. Push the boundary well beyond what users think is reasonable, back off after they protest, then settle on a new position that has (surprise!) advanced towards Facebook’s goal. Rinse and repeat.

Google is following suit, turning “+1” clicks into endorsements that can run in ads. Coming soon, your reviews, ratings and comments will also be turned into endorsements. At least Google gives users the ability to opt out.

The problem is that Likes don’t mean very much at all. Many brands are stimulating users to “like” them on Facebook in return for deals. In fact, consumers see discounts as the top benefit of participating on brand social media sites.

So let me get this straight. Brands encourage consumers to “like” them to get a discount, then can turn around and buy ads on Facebook that present these likes as endorsements. You can’t make this stuff up!

Think about where this is headed. Let’s say you’re interacting with a web site that enables conversations about products. You post something positive about a solution you’ve used, add comments to a conversation or click on a rating widget. Then the site runs an ad for that vendor featuring your smiling face as an endorser. How would you feel about that?

The answer is obvious, which is why I can confidently say that CustomerThink and other responsible web properties will never be a party to such a breach of trust. It’s sad that the two largest Social Web providers in the world can’t use a little commonsense, and stop this devolution of social media to crass marketing, without users’ explicit permission.

Further reading:


  1. ….”creeping meatballism”, namely devices and ideas that are undermining civilization and civility as we know it. This latest compromising of social media objectivity by non-strategic mercantile forces follows on the heels of such great (and sneaky) online marketing concepts as outright buying of product and service recommendation by subsidizing those who recommend. From my perspective, calling such approaches ‘crass’, ‘devolution’, and a ‘breach of trust’ are just the tip of the meatball of how they should be labeled.

  2. Turn the social networks into paid advertising networks and get the same consumer trust level as TV (4%).

  3. Bob: there’s a lot of digital ink given to paradigm shifts and ‘disruptive’ business models. But you’ve hit on a bigger piece of financial opportunity, ripe for exploitation. One that doesn’t involve building from scratch.

    It simply takes a company to find an assumed boundary, and recognizing that by nudging it just a little, they can reap serious revenue. A ‘like’ becoming a full-fledged product endorsement? C’mon – it’s not that far removed!

    What about a slight shift in what, precisely, constitutes a purchase transaction. “Well you didn’t specifically opt out of the trial offer, so that makes you a customer.”

    These tactics, and others, are purposely subtle. And while they are not necessarily illegal, I find them pretty squirrley.


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