Do Facebook page likes matter? Probably more than you think

What matters most on Facebook? Is it page likes? Post engagement? Reach? Impressions? It's one of the hottest debate topics in social media, especially in the political field. The truth is that how much each metric matters largely depends on what you're trying to achieve with your Facebook page. Though it's worth keeping in mind that the publicly visible statistics of page aren't the be-all and end-all of how a page might be performing, but they're a useful starting point.

While some digital consultants might be quick to dismiss page likes as a "vanity metric", I'd be just as quick to dismiss them as having just demonstrated that they have no idea what they're talking about. Page likes are useful for a few reasons:

  1. Organic reach: The more page likes you have, the more people are likely to see and engage with your content without you having to spend any money to promote it, and with funding for social media always competing with other  
  2. Viral-multiplier: Other than ensuring a decent background level of visibility for your page, a page with more page likes is far more likely to have a piece of content go viral organically thanks to there being more eyeballs on it.
  3. Community support: Having more page likes means you have a larger community of supporters who are ready to engage with your content, whether that's reacting, commenting, or sharing it. The largely that community is, the more validation it gives to others who are part of that community.

As a rule of thumb I've usually found that page likes usually translate to a page reaching around two to three times that number of unique people each week - and that's without advertising money. So an active page with around 200,000 likes will reach between 400,000 and 600,000 people on a standard week. That's a pretty useful multiplier to get your content out there. And one of the basics of advertising is to get as many eyeballs as possible looking at your ads.

Other than understanding how large your potential organic audience could be, the more page likes you have, the more statistically relevant the demographic, geographic, and interests information you can pull from Facebook's analytics tool will be. Having a better understanding of who your core audience is, and then being able to break that down into more targeted information for advertising latter on, is invaluable to putting relevant content in front of people.

Which brings us to reach and impressions - essentially two sides of the same coin. It's useful to define both of these as they're often misused by people (usually to inflate their own success). Reach should refer to the number of unique users who have seen a piece of content from your page. Impressions should be the total number of times content has been seen from your page (e.g. often the same person seeing multiple pieces of content, or the same piece of content multiple times). This allows you to divide impressions by reach and understand just how often people are likely to be seeing content from you. Reach and impressions are useful for comparing social media with traditional advertising mediums, say TV spots or newspaper ads as you're able to use similar metrics to judge success.

For example, you could run an ad asking for donations simultaneously on social media and in print and TV advertising, and on each channel you could use a slightly different URL. Using that unique URL, as well as knowing how many people were likely to have seen the ad in each channel, you're then able to understand which was the most cost effective in driving donations (hint - it's almost always going to be social).

Like TV and newspaper ads though, reach and impressions don't necessarily mean that someone has actually noticed your content. Just as TV and newspaper metrics assume that because someone has seen a show or picked up a newspaper, and thus seen your ad, Facebook, and indeed other social media channels, assume that someone flicking through their newsfeed and seeing your content has actually noticed it. Often it'll be something they've shot straight past while scrolling down their feed without giving it a second thought. If you ever wonder why pages keep experimenting with differing video and graphic dimensions - it's because they're trying to maximise the amount of real estate they take up on your screen while you're browsing.

This is where engagement metrics come into play, as you can usually assume that someone engaging with a piece of content - whether it's clicking on a post, reacting to it, commenting, or sharing it, means that they A) Have genuinely seen it, and B) It actually held their attention enough for them to do something with it. While to some extent higher engagement rates do drive your post to have greater reach in Facebook's algorithms (though I've seen pieces of content with fantastic engagement reach tiny audiences relative to page size) at the very least it gives you the ability to understand see what content is attention grabbing enough that people stop and look at it.

As I said at the start, these publicly available metrics aren't the full story. Much of what goes on with social media advertising, especially Facebook, isn't visible. The notion of "dark posts" for instance (while the name is a bit melodramatic for me - it's like claiming a newspaper advert put in one local paper, but not another, or an ad put in the sports section but not the news section, is a "dark ad") is one area where a page might look relatively quiet from the general public's view, but in actuality there could be a whole host of activity taking place from paid advertising campaigns that aren't readily apparent.

This was largely the case in the United States 2016 election where the day-to-day content you saw posted on the main candidates' pages was only a fraction of their online activity. Even though, for instance, Hillary Clinton may have been posting upwards of six to eight times a day, she would also have dozens, if not hundreds of supporting ad campaigns running in the background with targeted messages for specific voting groups.

There's no doubt a similar approach is being used by all the parties in this election, though given our more restrictive election spending rules, much smaller size, and less advanced Facebook advertising tools, we're unlikely to see the same level of sophistication here.

In the end, Facebook page likes do matter, but a lack of page likes can be circumvented by spending money on advertising. They're not the only page metric you should pay attention to, but they're an easy top-line indicator of a page's health and potential audience reach. Page likes, and page like growth, are also two of the most popular metrics to appear in media reports on political social media, so it doesn't hurt to have both these figures looking healthy.