What's a Facebook Fan Worth? Depends on How Many Friends They Have

Brands Are Reaching More Friends-of-Fans Than Fans Themselves, According to ComScore Study

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Online analytics firm ComScore and Facebook set out to answer an old question once more: What's a fan worth? Their answer: A fan is worth the sum of his or her friends.

For example, Facebook mega-brand Starbucks reached 8% of all U.S. internet users in May through unpaid posts and the majority aren't even fans of the brand.

How's that work exactly? When Starbucks posts to its Facebook page, only a portion of its 24 million fans are actually online or paying attention to their news feed to see that post. About 3% of all 216 million U.S. internet users were in that camp in May, according to ComScore's new social-measurement tool based on its 2 million-person global panel. When those fans like or comment on Starbucks' post, their friends -- an additional 5% of all U.S. internet users -- see the brand pop into their news feeds and, boom, Starbucks gets even more eyeballs without having to cajole their friendship in the first place. (The average Facebook user has 130 friends.)

All that comes at no media cost to the brand, considering that posting updates to Facebook brand pages is free to advertisers. Of course, Facebook execs called the brands in the study -- Starbucks, Southwest and Bing -- major advertisers and many use paid media on the site to amass their followings. Facebook made nearly $2 billion in global ad revenue last year, up from $740 million in 2009, according to eMarketer.

In all fairness, Starbucks is somewhat of an anomaly on Facebook, considering its massive fan base and the fact that many U.S. consumers visit its stores daily. But even brands with fewer fans, such as Southwest and Bing, reach more friends of fans than fans themselves via Facebook posts. Southwest reached 917,000 fans through posts in May, but 1.1 million friends of fans. Similarly, Bing reached 1.2 million fans and 2.2 million friends of fans. The study also found that the majority of those views don't happen on brands pages, but in users' own news feeds. The most activity, 27% in May, happened on Facebook's homepage and in the news feed. Profile views accounted for 21% of activity and photos 17%. Only about 10% came from apps or tools.

The study also aims to put social-measurement tools in the language of media buys in general, namely gross ratings points and frequency. Starbucks, for example, reached both fans and friends of fans about three times on average.

"The default assumption is that when you publish [on Facebook] you're hitting 100% of your fan base all of the time," said Brad Smallwood, head of measurement and insights, Facebook. "That's not the case. When you publish you have the same tendency to hit the same fans again and again."

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