What do people mean when they talk about the value of a fan?

It’s likely that when you hear this question, the phrase ‘ROI’ will follow soon after. Clients naturally want to know that a fan is worth the money they paid to acquire them, and it’s equally natural that as an industry we want to prove a fan will become a more valuable customer.

It’s important we do this. Social is changing marketing at a pace that sometimes masks our ability to demonstrate its value. A bubble made of “euphoria meets anecdote” (in Helen Edwards’ memorable phrase) bursts easily, and we must be tougher on ourselves. There’s an imperative to building the business case, evidencing the impact social can have on our clients’ business.

There are many ways to quantify value, and not all of them are transactional. What if the value of a fan lay not with the fan themselves, but with who the fan might influence?

Social networks are peer-to-peer echo chambers that magnify ‘social proof’, a phenomenon whereby people are unconsciously affected by the behaviour of others.

At Aegis we think this offers brands value. But it’s important to cut through the guesswork to understand what that value might really be.

For Social Media Week, a team of social and behavioural experts from across our agencies have been working with statisticians from University of Cambridge to empirically test our hypothesis.

Our experiment provides new evidence of the impact fans can have on the future behaviour of other people.

We invented a new brand, and told a story about its entry to a new market. Under the cover of market research, participants were shown different versions of this non-existent brand’s Facebook page. The pages were identical in every way, apart from the number of Likes each had.

We wanted to see whether perceived popularity — in the guise of how many fans the brand had — would effect how they perceived this brand on first contact.

We asked people what they thought of the brand. How likely would they be to purchase? How trustworthy was it? Would they say positive things about it? Would they encourage friends to buy too?

We then analysed people’s responses to see what difference there was.

So what did we learn?

1. Facebook Likes matter. The number of fans a branded page has does influence how people feel about a brand. The more fans were claimed, the more likely on average people were to consider purchasing the brand, and the more likely they were to say they could see themselves becoming loyal. Perceived popularity, it seems, does count.

2. More isn’t always better, however. The data suggested that fans deliver diminishing returns. A community of millions was no more likely than a community of a few hundred thousand to improve people’s responses to our questions.

3. More active users were more positively affected. Heavy Facebook users, the study suggests, are more likely to be influenced by high numbers of fans.

Social proof clearly has a role to play in changing perceptions, and our experiment is one first step in understanding this better. This was a pilot study; we’ll be looking to construct wider field studies in the near future.

But interesting implications arise. Does social proof differ from belonging? At what point in the growth of a fan page can people become disconnected from the group? If frequent users are more susceptible to higher numbers of fans, what does that mean for ongoing engagement with a community? And can be it as simple as there being an optimum level of fans?

This study barely scratches the surface. And, of course, it only dealt with Facebook. We’ve probably generated more questions that answers, but that’s how a scientific approach works. We’ve established the relationship we thought might be there and now we need to experiment further.

We hope you’ll join us on this journey. And we hope you’ll join us when we share and discuss our findings in more detail at Social Media Week.

This post was originally written for the Social Media Week blog. You can find out more about the experiment and register for the Aegis SMW session here