The value of Facebook "Likes" is supposed to be clear: My friend likes something, and that is valuable and persuasive information for me. This is the idea behind Bing launching social search — if my friends have liked something for which I'm searching, that will be more relevant and helpful information than just another one-size-fits-all search engine results page. It's also the idea behind Facebook's Open Graph — if you visit a site and see that a friend has "Liked" it, you are more likely to pay attention, spend time, and complete a transaction.

But as we all know, a "Like" (with quotations) does not necessarily signify a like (without quotations). An interesting ExactTarget study demonstrated that people may "Like" a brand for a wide range of reasons: to learn about discounts, to earn freebies, for entertainment, to gain access to exclusive content, and — of course — to show support for the company to others. Just look at the list of companies you follow on Facebook — do you like them all equally? Are there any you've followed even though you really aren't a true fan of the organization or its products? The disconnection between “Like” and like will only grow greater in the coming year, as brands looking to expand their pool of Facebook friends reward new fans and followers (an activity I compared with the “black hat” tactic of buying links in the early days of search engine optimization.) 

So if "Likes" are not a true signal of an individual's actual affinity, what is? Facebook's (and other location-based services’) check-ins seem poised to become the new standard for indicating true affinity. Brands may reward me for liking them on Facebook; they might even get me to drive to a store and check in once by offering free product. But what they cannot afford to buy from me is repeated real-world visits. Consumer check-ins are not (yet) available for every brand — I can’t check in to a can of peas in the grocery store aisles or an online-only retailer — but for real-world businesses, consumer check-ins will become the new gold standard for broadcasting social affinity.

I’m not suggesting “Likes” and real-world visits are unrelated. For example, Einstein Bros. Bagels’ strategy of rewarding new Facebook followers can pay off if it converts those new followers into frequent customers who repeatedly check in. But in a year or two from now, which will mean more to a consumer — that friends “Liked” Einstein Bros. Bagels or that they visited Einstein Bros. Bagels’ stores 20 times? 

Button clicks aren’t good representations of affinity and advocacy; actual actions are. This is a lesson learned by Delaware’s Christine O'Donnell who couldn’t turn her massive advantage in Facebook friends into a massive advantage at the ballot box. What do you think this might mean for “Likes” and check-ins in the future? Will “Likes” be as important two years from now as they are today?