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Why do some social posts spread and others don’t?

Sometimes we post things on Facebook and they get NO likes.  And, sometimes they catch on like wildfire. Why is that?

Our intuition would say that the number of LIKES depends on the quality of  the post. Interesting posts should get more LIKES than non-interesting ones.

Researchers Egebark and Ekstrom had a different hypothesis. Instead of pure quality determining a post’s ‘like-ability’, they looked at WHO liked the post before people saw it. Are we more likely to LIKE a post if a stranger has already liked it? If 3 strangers? If our friend has liked it?

The test

To do figure this out they set up a randomized controlled experiment on Facebook. They had experimenters post updates about their life. For some updates, a stranger would LIKE the experimenter’s update immediately after it was posted. For some updates 3 strangers would LIKE it and for some a network-central friend would LIKE it.

They then measured how many total LIKES the post received. What they discovered is that Liking is contagious, But…only in some cases. If the social proximity is high (your friend likes a post before you see it) OR the number of Likers is High (3 strangers like a post)  we are 2x more likely to click the LIKE button then if just ONE stranger liked it.

The finding implies that we are susceptible to influence (even conformity!)  when we get a strong enough signal of something’s worth. This signal is best sent through close friends or lots of people at once.

What does this mean for product people?

Our customers follow the herd. A signal, as simple as a “LIKE”, will cause us, and them, to change behavior.  While we put an admirable effort into making the features perfect and the messaging sing, our customers may pay more attention to their peers’ behavior or the behavior of the masses.

Of course, we can only wonder what would happen if there was a dislike button. Would one person be enough to dissuade someone from LIKING it or encourage them to join in on the negativity? We may have to study YouTube to figure that out.


As a thought exercise, consider how your product displays social proof from friends or a group of people to your users?

How could this be amplified to include a “close tie”? Or include a higher number of strangers?

Mathias Ekström’s JOB MARKET PAPER (Revise and Resubmit at Management Science)

Johan Egebark and Mathias Ekström


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