It's a strange question to start off with because of course they do. It's what success in social is all about, getting people to follow you and in turn growing the 'value' of your social community. But are they really the main metric? I'd definitely say no.
I often speak to clients about what they want to achieve through their social presences and on a regular basis I am given a magical number of likes that they want to achieve or a percentage growth target for the community. I'm not saying that having an overall target for the size of the community is a bad thing, but I would say that a number plucked out of the air is often a vanity metric. It's something that allows our clients to say that they have the largest number of followers in their competitor set or to say 'look I have 100k followers on my Facebook page'. That's all well and good but it does come at a price.
Let's look at a hypothetical example...
We're starting a new Facebook presence with the sole aim of getting to a certain number of followers by a certain point in time. We set this out as the main goal for the account and we work out a growth plan to reach that goal. We identify our audiences and put together a content plan which focuses on growth (see previous post on setting out a plan).
Our page is set up and our content is now rolling out, we have ads set to encourage people to like our page, we have content going out with the sole focus of obtaining likes and shares. All good so far.
The thing is, as you may be aware the news feed algorithm doesn't care about audience size, it looks at engagement. Therefore if we put all our effort into getting new people to see us and like the page we're not concentrating on the community that we have built. This means that engagement rates will be low. Which in turn means that Facebook is unlikely to place any of our content in front of the audience that we have worked so hard to build unless pay them to do so. The result, we now have the vanity number we wanted but we've got very little engagement in our community and we have to pay Facebook for the pleasure of getting people to return. All-in-all a bit of a fruitless task I would say?
I know that some people would advocate the route above for initial rapid growth then followed by an engagement strategy to 'build the community' which may work. But I much prefer the following approach to starting:
I prefer to look at a dual approach, one that has a both an engagement and a growth element. Using FB ads we focus on attracting new audiences while on our organic stream we focus on engaging content. We grow slowly so that the size of the community doesn't affect the overall engagement rate. The result being that we maintain a high engagement rate throughout the growth period ensuring that our content is distributed organically keeping costs down whilst maintaining loyalty amongst our followers.
So to recap, do likes matter? In a sense, yes. But only if we consider them as a part of the metrics mix and not the sole metric for success. Only when you combine a growth and engagement metrics can you measure whether you are achieving what you need to. After all, what's the point in having one million followers and zero engagement?