NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Facebook has been collecting thumbs up on everything from Levi's black denim leggings to Sarah Palin videos since April. But where do all those clicks of approval go? And when are brands going to benefit?
When the social network launched its open graph and "like" buttons that could be seeded anywhere across the internet, it began to layer brand and media preferences onto its more than half-billion user profiles. At the time of the announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg evangelized about a web that could morph to suit individual users' likes and social networks. In exchange for hosting its like buttons and spreading the gospel, brands and publishers could gain access to approving users' Facebook feeds, but not much else -- until recently. Now, some new programs from the likes of shopping search engine TheFind and Urban Outfitters point to a future where brands can actually flip the pipe to use all that data to personalize their own websites.
TheFind recently launched a search option where users could refine searches based on stores and brands they've liked elsewhere on the internet. After logging in with Facebook credentials and searching for products, users can visit a "Shop Like Me" tab to see results only from stores or brands they've liked elsewhere. Facebook Like lets the site tailor search results to user preferences without having to collect that information itself, said Siva Kumar, CEO of TheFind, which had 13.7 million unique visitors in July, according to ComScore. Having users list their own preferences at TheFind is "a lot of work for people," he said. "We looked at likes and what was attractive is that there are 500 million users that have done a lot of that already." Two million of Facebook's users, for example, have liked Nike, 1.6 million have liked Walmart and 1.2 million have liked Best Buy.
"Facebook is becoming the loyalty card of the internet, just like your key chain," said Tom Wentworth, VP-web solutions for technology company Ektron, which is developing products for corporate websites to tailor visits based on the user's social graph. Mr. Wentworth says Home Depot is considering Ektron's technology to better send its consumers down the paths that suit their interests, whether they be gardening or contracting.
Levi Strauss integrated Facebook likes into its website shortly after the open graph launched. Rather than having consumers simply like the brand, users can like individual products and styles on jeans. There's also a friends search tab, where, once signed in with your Facebook login, you can see all the jeans your friends have liked.
But Mr. Zuckerberg's vision of a personal web doesn't come without hurdles. Levi's likes for individual products took a lot of custom-designed technological tinkering -- it wasn't as simple as dropping the thumbs up in a line of code. Bookseller Borders has also implemented likes for individual titles on its site, and Urban Outfitters recently began to rank products based on likes, displaying the most thumbs-upped products first. But most use of the feature still focuses on affinity for the overall brand, vs. distinct products or services.
"Adding the buttons is easy," said Mr. Kumar. "But the second part is using that information for a better experience, and very few sites have done that."
Beyond search, one Facebook software firm, Vitrue, is building tools to let marketers send distinct messages to its fans based on their likes and preferences. For example, it hopes to slice and dice Levi's fans based on products they've liked to serve legging coupons to legging likers, rather than all sales and promotions to all likers.
"The hurdle with large brands is one more of coordination between the marketing department and the IT department," said Vitrue's Mr. Bradford. "Marketing owns the Facebook pages and, in many cases, IT owns the website."
There's also the question of consumer adoption -- do people think of likes as a way to catalog the boots they loved in Vogue, when we're used to using the like button to applaud Facebook updates on promotions at work or changed-relationship statuses? Also, what happens when likes paint us into corners that limit our web surfing?
"It's both about not scaring people but the other area to watch out is, if you personalize too much, it can be dangerous," said Ektron's Mr. Wentworth. "You don't want to make premature assumptions about somebody."