I Like you. I just don’t Fan you.

Facebook recently unveiled a variety of new features. Among the changes was a subtle but important shift in the way Facebook lets users express their affinity for a brand. Prior to the update, users clicked the “Become a Fan” button in order to connect their Facebook profile to a brand’s page. That button has now been replaced by a “Like” button. Here’s what Facebook says about the change on their consumer-facing information page: “We believe this change offers you a more light-weight and standard way to connect with people, things and topics in which you are interested.”

If the change from “Fan” to “Like” is intended to make things easier for users, what does the shift mean to brands? Is this an opportunity for deeper or wider engagement? Or is it a harmful modification to the existing system?

Why this matters

Facebook assumes that consumers feel much more comfortable liking a brand than they are declaring themselves brand fanatics. In some ways this goes to the heart of the brand/consumer relationship, which is frequently a tumultuous and uneven affair. Brands hope for long-term consumer commitment. On the other hand, consumers are fickle – “brand loyalty” is more often “brand that I’m loyal to, so long as I’m not swayed toward a competitor’s offering for any one of an almost nearly infinite list of reasons.”

It’s worth noting that the “Like” concept and functionality is becoming an important tool both on and off Facebook. Consumers can already “Like” almost anything within the Facebook domain, ranging from friends’ status updates to Facebook ad units. Outside the domain, Facebook’s new social plug-ins allow nearly any publisher to embed a Facebook-linked “Like” button on their own site (more than 100,000 sites have already installed a Facebook social plug-in).

What it means to brands

The use of “Like” is compelling because it creates the appearance of a relaxed commitment. From a consumer standpoint, the arrangement is far less formal and therefore easier to cross any perceptional threshold. Consumers would therefore be more willing to opt-in and sample the content or services on a brand’s Facebook page. It then becomes the brand’s responsibility to seize the opportunity and transform those who simply “like,” into consumers who “love.”

(Although the verbiage on the button has changed, brands will likely continue to refer to respective Facebook audience as Fans, simply because “Like” is a verb and “Likers” just sounds ridiculous.)

Depending on how a brand’s Facebook page is currently being used, it’s possible that these changes may inspire a reevaluation of existing Facebook strategy. For example, content focused on activating the evangelist behavior of a brand’s most passionate fans may not be appropriate if pages now cater to consumers with a lower level of brand investment. If pages were previously designed with the fanatic in mind, it might now make sense for the pages to offer a wider array of content that addresses a wider variety of consumers. However, this is not a requisite strategic shift, as each brand must define Facebook strategy based on how consumers are driven toward the brand’s Facebook page, how they’re communicated with while on that page, how they’re driven from the page and how Facebook fits within the overall brand/marketing communications ecosystem.

The value of a “Fan”

This change also further reminds marketers that there’s work to be done after consumers have opted-in. Many Facebook marketers have been content to simply accumulate “Fans,” an action with little inherent value. It’s what happens after consumers become Fans that finds value in a brand’s Facebook presence; the true value proposition for Facebook interaction is the opportunity to further engage consumers after they have opted in. Without that subsequent engagement, Facebook Fans are simply a metric that validates some previous marketing function. In other words, a marketing dead end that confuses transactional accomplishment with robust marketing strategy and an eye toward increased ROI.

Marketers opposed to the Fan/Like switch are concerned that the change erodes their ability to differentiate between the brand fanatics and those with an idle interest. However, that perspective again overemphasizes the intrinsic value of a brand follower. Research has shown positive correlations between Fans and purchase behavior or brand sentiment, but the Fan status is only a placeholder for potential next steps. A Fan’s value is only as good as the engagement of communication facilitated via the Facebook page. Otherwise, the semantic shift is irrelevant.