Tara Coomans’ article in Business2Community about buying Facebook likers offers an important cautionary tale about social media. She warns that marketers should not convince brands that fans are leads and that brands should not believe that fans will equal sales. She reminds us that relationships grown organically are the ones of lasting value.

But when Tara cautions, “Buying fans is a waste of money and probably a threat to your brand,” I am reminded about a social media (and universal) rule – few things are true absolutely.

After all, there is “buying likers,” and then there is “buying likers.”

Brands can (and unfortunately sometimes do) goose their social numbers by paying fees to third parties who in turn pay strangers (individuals with low potential brand affinity) to like pages and posts, comment and follow streams. This is the equivalent of paying shills. It is a practice that is not only unethical but potentially brand damaging. Its only “benefit” is to boost the apparent popularity of a social stream. This may attract a few legitimate likers but will do nothing to generate a true critical social mass.

However, “buying likers” by offering on-brand discounts and sweepstakes is a perfectly legitimate, necessary and even welcomed practice. Promotions are a time honored way to get potential customers (not strangers) to sample a brand’s wares. Good ones offer a sweetened version of the steady stream of “delights” that a brand promises will follow a “like.” Of course, long-term success depends on the brand’s willingness to follow through. In the social world, that means making sure the ongoing social stream is “delightful” and offers value.

P.T. Barnum, who knew a few things about big promises and following through, said, “Without promotion something terrible happens: Nothing!” When done well, social promotions enrich the brand experience. Here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Make sure your promotions align with your brand. It would be wrong for a fitness brand to give away “cake of the week” subscriptions, for example, or for a muscle car model to host a Hello Kitty sweepstakes.
  • Empower the people on the social front lines to have fun with fans/followers. Create promotions you’d like to engage with yourself, and manage the conversation as thoughtfully as you would any business effort you put forth.
  • Mix big sweepstakes and contests with social stream promotions, fun and games. Big promotions get lots of attention, but what will you do to entertain, inform or interact with fans when the bells and whistles aren’t going off? Have a plan for sustaining enthusiasm!

Social promotions are critical for creating excitement about a brand, building genuine relationships and demonstrating honest brand good will.