By Mark Cameron, CEO of Working Three

The first half of the year has seen growing interest in social media as a marketing platform, with an ever-increasing number of success stories making marketing headlines. We are seeing all kinds of brands making social media marketing work,  and others want to enjoy the same success. As a result, Facebook ‘Likes’ have become the flavour of the moment.

‘Likes’ are the way a Facebook user shows their support for a brand or piece of content. While there is nothing inherently wrong with chasing these endorsements as a marketing tactic, it is worth understanding what such an approach delivers, and what it really costs.

At face value, the social web seems a bit like the wild-west of marketing – a virtual gold rush. There are hundreds of millions of people already actively engaged, and some of them are your customers. Without spending a cent, you can launch your Facebook page and start talking to an audience of unprecedented size, paying unprecedented attention. However, creating real momentum for your brand takes a considered and well executed strategy. When you are building your own strategy it helps to understand how the social platforms are making their money.

Social platforms – Facebook in particular – make money through targeted marketing. Platform creators develop a series of tools that allow users and brands to connect and share content. The underlying patterns of behaviour are then collated and analysed, and the data is then used to build targeted marketing data, which they offer to brands for a price. When used correctly, this data will help drive additional traffic to a page, which in turns adds depth and value to the original data-set. The cycle is self-perpetuating, and worth a lot of money to the people who own the data.

It’s a great business model – the more people use it, the more valuable it becomes and the more there is to sell. There is, however, a potential ‘hiccup’ on the horizon for brands using the connections and data that social media platforms provide. Currently the marketing data that brands can buy and use is going pretty cheap, but it is likely to increase in price. LinkedIn has already had it’s IPO, Facebook will not be too far behind. Once there are public shareholders putting pressure on management to increase returns, that data will start to come at a premium.

This leads to an obvious conclusion. Social media data is valuable, and is getting more valuable by the day. A lot of that additional value will come from the data generated, not just from the connections it provides. So it is a good idea to think about how you can get some of that data out of the social platforms, and into something you control. If Facebook can charge you money to know your audience better, then it stands to reason that spending some time getting to know them yourself is a wise investment. The data that individuals create from sharing their personal preferences online is quickly becoming the currency of the digital economy. The organisations that grasp this are preparing themselves for the future.

Social media is a true disrupter. It is just beginning to change the way we do business, and like the telephone it will completely transform communication and business models along with it. The companies that get on board now will be in a position to gain a true competitive advantage. But don’t fool yourself – in the online world, if something’s ‘free’, then you and your customers are likely to be ‘paying’ through the data you are generating.

So go ahead. Chase the ‘Like’. Just do it with your eyes wide open.