By @mhawksey

How do I ‘like’ your course? The value of Facebook recommendation

For the JISC Winter Fayre I was asked to fill in for a last minute drop out. My only brief was that the title – though not necessarily the content – should be a reworking of that shown in the programme: ‘CREATE, Reach and Engage’. Following recent conversations/presentations with/from Tony Hirst and Pauline Randall, I already had some ideas floating around about ‘search’ and ‘recommendation’ and their potential effect on course discovery and enrolment. The crystalisaton of these ideas came together in my presentation: ‘Cost, Reach and Engagement’.
Here’s the slidecast:

If you prefer to read rather than listen, here’s an overview of what I said (incorporating some new material towards the end of this post, with a survey of RSC Scot N&E supported institution websites and … my recommendations for what you might want to do):

In the beginning

The tools for Internet search actually predate the web itself. Tools like Archie could extract information from file servers, generating searchable indexes of stuff. At around the same time, directories of websites also emerged. Some of these were curated lists, others automatically generated, or even a hybrid of both.
A big turning point in web search was the increasing use of algorithms to rank the relevancy of results. Google’s PageRank method has arguably received most of the recent attention, using a wide range of factors including the number of inbound links, click-throughs, even page-load speed to rank search results.
More details of the specifics of this can be found on the Wikipedia page on the history of search engines.

Recommendation: trusted and crowdsourced

Recommendation is an incredibly powerful way to influence action. It’s even more powerful when it comes from a trusted source. Personal recommendations are probably the most powerful, people being more likely to accept a recommendation from a friend than a stranger. Other forms of recommendation include advice from an independent source like the consumer protection site ‘Which?’, and more recently ‘crowdsourced’ reviews which are commonplace on sites like Amazon and are at the core of sites like, where trust is replaced by volume.
Another way to receive recommendations is through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. In some cases these recommendations are explicit- Linkedin allows an option to recommend directly to your colleagues – but they are also implied, ‘I liked this, so might you’.
Recommendation has always been and continues to be an important part of how businesses and institutions market themselves, but what is the value of recommendations made via social networks?

The value of Email, Share, Tweet and Like

I’m sure you’ve seen these four buttons appearing on various websites including this blog. These buttons send out notifications via your social networks (if you are enrolled) to your followers. Media sites like the BBC use them mainly to get you to share news stories around your networks. But it doesn’t end there, manufacturers and utility companies are also using these types of buttons to get you to do their marketing for them, for you to make a recommendation about their product or service to your network.

Is there any value in this type of recommendation? Fortunately online event promotion and administration site Eventbrite has revealed the value of those four little buttons. Eventbrite make money by charging a booking fee for paid for events (2.5% of ticket value + $0.99 per ticket with a maximum fee of $9.95), as Techcrunch revealed in October 2010: For Eventbrite, Each Facebook Share Is Worth $2.52. Update: Revised figures have been published by Mashable in Facebook “Likes” More Profitable Than Tweets [STUDY].
$2.52 is the average return to Eventbrite each time that someone clicks the Facebook ‘Like’ button! The second best return is on email which has an average return of $2.34 per click, followed by Linkedin ($0.90) and lastly Twitter ($0.43). So assuming that the majority of paid-for events hits the maximum booking fee ($10) then someone clicking the Facebook ‘Like’ button has a 1in 4 chance of getting someone else to buy a ticket.
Quickly looking at what I think might be happening here: email is a highly trusted recommendation source but is usually a one-to-one distribution. Facebook is a less trusted source as your network can be diluted to a degree, but clicking the ‘Like’ button makes it visible to your network (one-to-many). Networks like LinkedIn and Twitter probably have less social cohesion, Twitter in particular will have more accounts designed to market businesses and brands, so while they are potentially bigger networks they aren’t as trusted.

How do I ‘like’ your course?

So for Eventbrite there is a demonstrable value in incorporating these buttons into its service, providing a mechanism for people to easily recommend events to their friends, thereby generating sales. So are institutions missing a trick? If I went to your institution’s website is there an easy way for me to recommend courses to my friends?
I’ve carried out a quick survey of institutions supported by our RSC and below is a table of the results. As can be seen, whilst the majority of them have a social media presence, only a minority have implemented a share button within their course information – and these are generally pushed inconspicuously to the page footer or sidebar. In a number of cases, even if there was a share option, bad meta tagging of the page name (which is often used by these buttons to classify what is being shared) meant that what was being shared was often meaningless. (As shown in the table, AddToAny and AddThis are share/ bookmarking services which provide widgets for your website with a collection of social media sites for the user to choose from when clicked upon).

Survey of social media presence and course recommendation buttons for institutions supported by JISC RSC Scotland North & East
Institution Social Media Presence Course Like/Share Buttons Prospectus Like/Share Buttons
Aberdeen None None None
Adam Smith None None None
Angus College Facebook, Twitter Email Via Scribd
Banff & Buchan Facebook, Twitter None None
Borders Facebook, Twitter None None
Carnegie Facebook, Twitter AddThis * ** Via Issuu
Dundee None Facebook, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious * *** Buttons in footer
Edinburgh’s Telford Facebook, Twitter None None
Elmwood Twitter None None
Forth Valley Facebook AddThis *** None
Inverness College None None None
Jewel & Esk Facebook, Twitter None None
Lews Castle College None None None
Moray College None None None
Newbattle Abbey None AddToAny None
North Highland None None None
Orkney Twitter None None
Oatridge Facebook None None
Perth College Facebook None Zmags
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig None AddThis *** None
Shetland Facebook, Twitter None None
Stevenson Facebook, Twitter None None
West Lothian None None None
Edinburgh College of Art None AddThis *** AddThis ***
Queen Margaret University Facebook, Twitter AddThis * ** Yudu
Scottish Agricultural College Facebook, Twitter Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon *** None
University of the Highlands and Islands Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn None None
* Page <title> doesn’t reflect page content – remains static
** Buttons in sidebar
*** Buttons in the footer

Surveyed 14th March 2011 – Data available in this Google Doc

My Recommendations

For reference, I’m talking about the course/prospectus parts of your website. For other parts of your site you might prefer the more subtle AddToAny/AddThis et al. widgets, but for selling/promoting your courses I think you have to be more brazen about it. The institutions that did have social media share buttons on their sites had them hidden away in the footer or sidebar. To maximise the potential of them being clicked I would prominently place the buttons next to the course title or at the end of the entry. Because sites like Facebook and Twitter want you to share information around their network (its precious data for them to target their own marketing), they all provide easy ways to incorporate their buttons. Here’s the page for creating Facebook ‘Like’ buttons and here’s the page for Twitter’s Tweet button

Right now I think there are two clear options for education in terms of button choices. The one you go for is probably dependent or your institution’s existing social media presence. For example if you don’t extensively use Twitter in your social media strategy you probably don’t want to use it as one of your share buttons as it’s harder for you to track comments. With regard to email, there are various options for sending via a webpage. The option I’ve gone for on this blog is to use the ShareThis Email chicklet, mainly because their popup window has the option to pull contact email addresses from Google and Yahoo. [You’ll notice I don’t use ShareThis for my other buttons. This is because their code requires an additional layer to get to the Facebook and Twitter pages]
At this point you might be asking why I include other share/bookmarking options in my blog. The decision to include other services is in part informed by CMO’s guide to the social media landscape which I picked up in Mashable’s article on Which Social Sites Are Best for Which Marketing Outcomes? [INFOGRAPHIC]

So you’ve invested a day or so implementing share/recommendation buttons into your course catalogue, how do you monitor their use before sending that memo to senior management to argue for more money for website development now that you’ve attracted students from around the world to study at your institution? I imagine most of you are already using some basic analytics to monitor page performance. Well similar tools exist for Facebook, Twitter, and, if you use it, the ShareThis email button.
Twitter’s official analytics service has been announced but isn’t available for general use yet, but fear not as there are a whole host of 3rd party Twitter analytics tools (Crowdbooster and TwitSprout are my current favs). More impressive is Facebook’s Insights for Websites which not only gives you an overview of how many clicks your Like buttons are getting, but also includes demographic information on age, gender, language and country (more information on this in Real-Time Analytics For Social Plugins)

So hopefully some Like buttons are going to start popping up at our supported colleges and universities (and if you’d like help or further advice on how to do this get in touch).
One final reflection is that this post began by looking at the history of Web search. That history continues to be written. Google’s recognition that recommendation through social networks is a very powerful way to leverage content is highly significant. Why rely on machine recommendation when your friends can do it for you? This is why Google recently announced that its search results will include data based on the indirect recommendations of friends (See An update to Google Social Search). Not only does this create an opportunity to improve search relevance, but it is another reason for including Like/Share buttons. If it is difficult for someone to share your course with their friends, potentially there is a negative secondary effect which means it might not be included in Google’s socially-enabled search results.
Final finally, would you recommend or share this post with your network 😉

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