(this is part 1 of a 3 part series on social media manipulation, hopefully.. *)

Since industrialisation introduced the need for marketing (when production and necessity were separated) – social proof has long been part of every brand marketer’s armoury.

Documented evidence as far back as the 18th century shows early marketing relying on social verification, for example extolling the virtues of the latest wonder ointment by printing success stories from “normal people” detailing the fantastic success they have had curing any range of ailments.

old-marketing

This trend continued into modern marketing.  How many of us remember the 80’s campaign for the whiskas brand “8 out of 10 cats prefer it“?

whiskas-old

While firmly tongue in cheek, is just another side of social verification, after all, if 80% of cats do indeed prefer that specific brand then who are you to argue?

Fast forward another 30 years or so to the present day, and we arrive in the age of the internet.

Guess what, this angle is still effective, so its hardly surprising that brands big and small have continued to use it.  The primary difference being, its now through the medium of “likes”.

Even those whiskas people have moved on with the times, but instead of relying on third hand information from cat owners, they are able to manipulate their audience in social media to the same effect.

whiskas-new

The above banner launched on Facebook is no different to what they were doing back in the 80’s, its just the medium that’s changed.

Its no surprise then that a black market in false social verification has sprung up, with people and companies offering thousands of fake facebook likes, tweets or whatever else is the social media outlet du-jour.

But what does this mean for your business? Is it worth it?  Is it likely to get found?
Will you look stupid or greedy, or is it an acceptable risk?

 

Fake Facebook likes / fans

facebook-likes

Facebook like buttons are a double edged sword – if you have them plastered around your website, yet nobody has liked any of your content or products, it certainly sends out the wrong signals.

Consumers will assume one or both of the following, either nobody else has ever bought your product, or worse still, nobody liked it.

Neither of these are good for sales, but I come across examples of this every single day.  Social verification does work both ways, and having plenty of people liking your products is a great thing, but don’t underestimate the hit in conversion rate if it sends the wrong message.

So, you want the benefits of having plenty of likes, but you don’t have the time, inclination, or traffic to get a reasonable amount – what are you to do?  Buy them?

Pragmatically speaking its certainly an approach you could take.

Some years ago it was actually really easy to see if likes were faked just by clicking through on the number that appeared next to the button, it gave you a list of who exactly had clicked it and if a thousand people in Dhaka, Bangladesh liked a plumbers in Durham, it was pretty obviously manipulated.

This function was dropped though in 2010 due to privacy reasons though, thereby enabling the fake like industry to flourish.

facebook-blog

Excerpt from the facebook official blog, April 2010.

Personally I wouldn’t recommend you take this route however – as its likely that the above privacy control might change or an easy to verify set of aggregated stats published at page level.

Its also possible that accounts with fake likes might get banned en-masse in future and pages that featured them may also get penalised in some form by Facebook.

What this might look like is anybody’s guess, but for a company that in any way relies on e-commerce its a short sighted strategy.

Fake Twitter followers

twitter-followersAnother recent vanity metric is an individual’s or company’s twitter following.  Having a brand that nobody follows gives the impression that it has little authority, regardless of how well entrenched it is in its given industry.

Sadly, buying faked, bot driven followers on twitter is about as easy as buying fake facebook likes.

This tactic however is really quite easily to pick apart simply by running the account through any number of online tools that analyse followers for common traits of bots – low social scores, low follow counts, similar creation dates etc.

The screenshots below from StatusPeople show two accounts, firstly my personal account which it reveals that 81% of my followers are “normal” while 15% are dormant, although those are most likely just people that haven’t tweeted in a while:

my-followers

The tool does point out that 4% of my follower count are fakes.  For the record, I’ve never bought any followers (well not for my personal account anyway) so these are likely to be false positives that happen to match the criteria that this tool defines bots by.

Compare the above to an account which looks suspect, and you see an immediate difference:

fake-followers

So establishing whether an account has relied on faked or bought twitter followers is actually really easy, quick and free.  Given the trifecta I’d suggest doing this for your business is a downright stupid idea.

How do I get fans without looking stupid?

Like most things in life, Im afraid to say that acquiring things of value isn’t something you can take shortcuts on – unless you’re willing to pay top dollar.  Both Facebook and Twitter have paid options to attract likes and fans, both platforms allow fairly robust targeting.  You do pay in both though, arguably far more than they are worth at a macro level.

There are of course practices that can be adhered to that maximise your return on invested effort, I presented a whole session at A4U London last year on precisely that subject (titled: Social Media Manipulation), and I spend a long time tinkering with new ways to build social media presence…

*if there is enough reaction to this post then I will do a follow up with some actionable hints and tips to build your presence.

 

Leave a Comment!  Would you buy social media followers?  What are your tips to build a presence?

 

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MartinMacdonald

Founder of WebMarketingSchool.com and a career professional in SEO and web marketing. Experienced in travel, gambling & entertainment niches. Former head of SEO for Omnicom UK, Inbound Marketing Director at Expedia & current Senior Director for SEO at Orbitz Worldwide.

MartinMacdonald

@searchmartin

Head of SEO & Content for @orbitz & @cheaptickets. Blogs @forbes, @huffpost 40+ global conferences & keynotes

@ingobousa @Andrew_Isidoro yup. - 12 hours ago

Categories: Opinion

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38 Responses

  • Laura Hampton

    Hi Martin,

    Really interesting post, thanks for sharing. Social validation is so important in my opinion and I think your example proves that it’s not a ‘fad’ or internet driven behaviour and that Whiskas in fact made use of it (as many brands did) long before the world wide web.

    The concept of ‘buying likes and followers’ is very similar to the concept of buying links for SEO purposes – in the very short term, it might work for you but the ramifications of it would be potentially devastating if you find your business penalised by the likes of Google and social media.

    Like all things in digital marketing, social media is about the steady increase in brand awareness driven by high quality content and relevant engagement. Perhaps it’s because I work in digital marketing, but when I see a high number of likes or follows, I assume it’s because the brand has put a lot of time and energy into building those communities and actually, when I see lower numbers, I assume the business is smaller and simply doesn’t have the resource available to build huge followings. But that doesn’t put me off.

    I’d be interested in other people’s opinions on this, yours too Martin. For me, the greatest tip for building a social media presence is engagement – and that can more often than not be achieved by these simple steps:

    1) Listen. It’s so important to listen to what your potential customers are saying before you get involved. Much as you wouldn’t walk into a dinner party and just start broadcasting about yourself, in social media you should take the time to feel the mood of the room, identify the topics in which people are interested. It’s also a good idea to see who’s saying what – who’s the influential person in the room, what are your competitors saying etc.

    2) Respond. Getting involved in existing conversations is a great way of becoming part of the community. Think about that dinner party analogy again – what are people discussing around the table? What can you add of value?

    3) Share. Start to introduce your own topics – and make sure they appeal to the interested of your communities and that what you have to say is worth them hearing. It might be information that you share, you might give away tips and advice or you might simply want to say something fun that reflects your brand’s personality.

    Social media is a conversation. For me, buying follows and likes will always be a no-no – even if it doesn’t get penalised, I don’t believe it does enough for your brand to be worth even trying.

    August 5, 2013 at 9:05 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey Laura,

      awesome comment, thanks!

      While I was drafting the post in the first place I was going to concentrate on how buying social citations is pretty much on par with buying links, but it got dropped in the edit (the post started at 3k words!) as I was really aiming more at a non-SEO audience with this one – having said that Im in total agreement on that point. Buying links was de-facto, its now dangerous. Buying social citations is currently de-facto for many and I see it growing, but I’ll give you great odds that in a few years we’re talking about how you get penalised for falsifying these metrics!

      On your other three points, yep – having a social presence is not about having a broadcast medium, its about getting involved, rolling your sleeves up and being a member of a much wider community. If you preach and don’t listen, you will find yourself talking to thin air before very long.

      Sharing is also important, but the message needs to be highly tailored to the medium. I share a lot of SEO stuff on twitter, but rarely anything personal or amusing. That goes to facebook almost exclusively.

      As for G+, I guess Im still trying to find my voice on that platform, but then with a few exceptions so is the rest of the world.

      What I do find really interesting is the field of mass manipulation through social media, something Ive done a lot of testing on and will be publishing more thoughts soon enough 🙂

      thanks again for the comment!

      August 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm
      • Praverb

        Google+ is an awesome platform Martin. It took me awhile to get used to the platform. I would suggest taking the time to follow Martin Shervington, Mike Allton and others. I learned how to use the platform by following them.

        August 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm
  • Yousaf

    I think the question that needs to be asked is, does buying followers help you achieve a business goal?

    Artificially inflating your followers does not add any value what so ever. In some cases it might have a psychological effect but even that doesn’t accomplish any real business goals.

    So don’t do it…

    August 5, 2013 at 9:06 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      Kind of agree, and for one Im sick of companies setting KPI’s around follower numbers, likes etc. (hey, who HASNT sat through a meeting when someone has put down an objective of “x followers by y date”?).

      The numbers themselves arent representative of anything, thats for sure – but if you can increase your CRO by a few points through having even faked credibility, then a lot of businesses would currently argue its worth it.

      That Im afraid is my point, and I wouldnt be surprised if there are the social equivalents of penguin updates in a few years 😉

      August 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm
  • Richard Baxter

    Buying likes is a fool’s errand – it’s pretty unlikely any of the people paid to like are connected with your target market.

    According to their T&C’s, If Facebook detect extreme levels of like velocity on a fan page, they simply ban the account or remove the like button:

    https://www.facebook.com/help/281084665319172

    I helped with a Channel 4 News short documentary about this last week: http://www.channel4.com/news/facebook-likes-hacking-fan-data-internet-how

    They actually hired socialbooster to fake a load of likes with hacked FB accounts. It’s a good expose of artificial like buying.

    Thanks for posting, Martin!

    August 5, 2013 at 9:13 am
    • James

      I thought that if a company gets low shares/comments/likes for its posts, everyone gets reduced visibility of their posts in their feed because of how Edgerank works.

      So if 50% of your followers are fake, you’re effectively halving your potential engagement rates (or “network reaction”, w/e) and the other 50% who are real are effectively less likely to see them.

      If any of the above is correct, why is this even a question?

      August 5, 2013 at 10:45 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      You’re welcome Richard, looking forward to the documentary this evening as well – hope it tackles the issue from a business owners perspective, and offers a balanced view…

      August 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm
  • Ian

    You can also buy real followers using the advertising platforms of Facebook/Twitter etc. The volume isn’t as great, but you’ll get people that actually interact with you.

    I spent £5 on Facebook and got 100 likes that to this day still engage with me. Rishi has it down to a fine art and does even better.

    The Status People tool can be manipulated now too. You can buy followers that are “technically” not fake and will return a 2% fake rate on the tool.

    Of course, you do get followed by One Direction fans, Beliebers and, oddly, lots of rappers!

    August 5, 2013 at 9:19 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      Agreed – and the twitter paid follower options work pretty much the same. Ive tested it on several business accounts and my personal one as well.

      Based on twitters own analytics, my paid follower campaign netted ±100 followers, at a cost of $2 each, but guess what – they were mainly in the Philippines.

      Annoyingly (again according to their own stats) nearly all of my far eastern asian followers were paid for.

      Im yet to see twitter followers provide any value (the bought ones that is), so for now am still not recommending people go down that route.

      August 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm
  • Dan Thornton

    Nice post – and well-timed. Having been working with brands on social media for several years, I’ve spent a lot of time counseling them that unless the followers etc you attract are actually going to potentially engage with a business objective (Buy something, read something, share something, recommend something etc), then they’re pretty pointless.
    You could argue that in the early stages, buying some fans gives you social proof to encourage more people, but you could invest in advertising and marketing to get real fans at that stage as well!

    August 5, 2013 at 9:30 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey Totally!

      I would so much rather brands invested whatever money they might be thinking on spending on this kind of stuff into good content production, even if it is broadcast to a much smaller audience.

      An engaged decent follower is worth about a billionX a non-engaged follower, bot or otherwise.

      Interested in whether you’ve got examples (perhaps from your previous world?) of publishing companies brands absolutely nailing social? Im yet to see one that I thought was amazing…

      August 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm
  • Jamie Knop

    They will never get rid of blackhat techniques, it is always evolving.

    You should watch this tonight “Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans” Channel 4 8pm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jer2HH8HHfQ.

    Will a follow up post arise around how many followers you gained from using your auto fav bot? 🙂

    August 5, 2013 at 9:48 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey Jamie,

      yep, thats the plan for post #3, but a quick heads up on my personal account about 2.5k, but on some test accounts into the 10,000s (didnt want to push things that far on my own one though, for fear of being filtered).

      August 5, 2013 at 1:15 pm
  • Marcus

    I think Richard put’s it best with ‘buying likes is a fool’s errand’.

    Whilst folks still see SEO or even marketing as a series of tasks that must be completed in a paint-by-numbers fashion then we will always have people willing to buy these services (and many more looking to sell them).

    We have had some success trying to educate smaller businesses and paint the ‘like’ as something they can grasp on to – as a bookmark, as a customer adding you to a favourites list, as a way to reach out the connections of your connections & as a way to stay in touch with your audience and hopefully get them to do more of what you want over time.

    Often, when explained in simple terms, the desire for more raw numbers, which must tap into some human ‘bigger is better’ mentality can be overcome with a common sense that ten real prospects a month is better than 10,000 artificial numbers. And anyway, who ever came across a local plumber that had 10,000 likes – what could he possibly be doing to make that many customers happy? 😉

    We all have a responsibility to try and educate but in my experience the cheap and cheerful approach to links & likes is a mistake some people have to make before they can dig in and ‘stop taking shortcuts’ to acquire real likes with real value.

    Looking forward to the follow up.

    August 5, 2013 at 10:13 am
  • James Dunford

    A really interesting post, and at first I was expecting it to be about the “real” ways of building followers!

    In my opinion, it’s good to see the industry metrics changing and it seems we’re at the early stages of using engagement as a metric. Again, it can still be faked – but looking at comments/shares/likes on individual posts does start to make it harder to cheat.

    I’ve built several medium sized communities (10K likes/follows) using the official technique (on FB at least – ads) and have converted them into really interested fans of the specific page.

    August 5, 2013 at 10:21 am
  • Jakub Gajdamowicz

    Hi Martin,

    Great post and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Sorry I digress a little.

    What do you think about creating fake online personalities?

    Imagine this situation. You read Mr. Smith’s blog, you know him only from the Internet but you already know that he’s got a wife, two kids and loves dogs. Every last friday of the month he goes fishing with his mates from high school sharing photos on Instragram. He runs blog, he tweets, he makes relationships on Facebook. He has his problems and happy moments just like you.

    However the truth is that Mr. Smith is not real person. It is online profile run by Mr. X from Agency Y like hundreds of other online personalities waiting for a client who pay to advertise his product.

    After a few days you read on Mr. Smith’s blog that his cat really likes new Whiskas. It’s full of valuable nutrients and cheap.

    Everything is well prepared and it’s part of strategy. Except this little ad everything is very honest and valuable.

    But… it’s still manipulation.

    Thanks,
    Jakub.

    August 5, 2013 at 10:39 am
  • Charles Floate

    Great post Martin, I was using a social media tool myself and because I didn’t know how to use it ended up spamming my own twitter with a couple 1,000 fake twitter followers. Luckily for me however, I managed to set it straight after figuring out the tool (but that was 2 months too late).

    I’d love to see a follow up to this post with some good tips as well!

    August 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm
  • Terry Van Horne

    Yes I agree that FB is one way to “buy fans”, however, that does not work well when FB throttles your reach to these fans if they do not stay engaged. For that reason (Mark Cuban is of the same opinion) even FB advertising is not really a solid way to “buy fans” unless you are very careful that those that do become fans stay engaged so it should be more about finding potential conversions then just getting fans to like the page…all that does sometimes is increase FB’s paid post inventory.

    August 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm
  • Tom Thirsk

    I like Jakub’s comments above; I’ve had similar issues while prospecting for external sites to review products. These were created to bring exposure to targeted audiences and back links.

    Doesn’t matter how you pay, it’s still manipulation.

    One separate note I would love to create a throwaway account and buy some of Fiverr’s finest followers to see how soon I get caught. I’ll ass it to my list of experiments I have no time to set up!

    August 5, 2013 at 3:35 pm
  • Adam Sherk

    Re: the StatusPeople tool, I ran a bunch of legit Twitter profiles through it the other day just out of curiosity, and as I recall they all had 3-4% fake figures, as yours did. So as you indicated that must be about as clean as any profile can get in their system.

    August 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      Good to know – Ive run a few people through it and come to the same kind of results. I’ve not however put any effort into actually measuring its effectiveness other than the odd check for screenshot purposes.

      My preferred method (to re-iterate the twitter conversation) is to use a tool like followerwonk and download all followers, then sort by social authority and look for large clumps of similar scores.

      August 5, 2013 at 6:45 pm
  • Jen Sable Lopez

    It looks like your next post will be about how to actually go about building a community on social. I look forward to reading about all the organic ways to do this. 🙂

    August 5, 2013 at 5:22 pm
  • Doc Sheldon

    Great stuff, Martin. I think you’re spot on here:

    “That I’m afraid is my point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are the social equivalents of penguin updates in a few years.”

    As the influence of entity authority increases, social interaction is likely to be one avenue of conveying authority, but I suspect only between verifiable entities. That would pretty well necessitate a social version of Penguin.

    A transition to authority as a powerful ranking factor would have the benefit of being much more difficult to game… you can earn authority, but buying it will be extremely difficult (I’d love to say impossible, but we both know THAT’S not true).

    I’d say that folks that have been accumulating phantom likes and followers may be in for a rude awakening someday.

    As an aside, I think the whole “Social Media is the New SEO” mantra is a bunch of crap. Any channel that gets abused eventually gets a lot of scrutiny. And when the lazy shortcuts lose their effectiveness, the popularity of the channel begins to fade.

    August 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      re. “I think the whole “Social Media is the New SEO” mantra is a bunch of crap. ” << LOVE that comment! Great having you leaving a comment on my blog as well Doc, it always makes my day when recognisable industry figureheads leave a note 🙂 As for buying authority, yep - it IS very difficult, and to be honest even with a TV budget it is more often that not wasted, my strong opinion on the matter is that you can BUY real followers (ie. TV ads) but unless you still put the effort in and interact, you quickly lose the authority.

      August 5, 2013 at 6:42 pm
  • Keith Horwood

    I have run quite a few official twitter ads over the last few months. Well worth it for new brands and products. It is quite a new system but you can target who your ads are targeting, so you don’t end up with tons of fake followers.

    Although there will be a few fakes (you cannot filter it by follower counts / egg pictures etc) mostly you can target it fairly well.

    I will write up my findings soon as there is not much decent information on this yet.

    Expensive, but it is possible to ‘buy’ followers if you go through official twitter channels. You need to spend quite a wedge to be able to do this….

    August 5, 2013 at 7:29 pm
  • Rick Noel

    Awesome topic and post Martin. The temptation that can be created by lack of necessary social proof frustration mixed with the droves of spam received via inbox, twitter, facebook, etc. to buy 1000 of fans for follows “just like me” for peanuts is understandable.

    But when something is too good to be true, then it is and I believe these practices put buyers in violation of the TOS which means risk of profile/page suspension. For churn and burn, ok. But if you have invested in building “earned media” then it is not worth the risk.

    Social proof is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Its hard to get fans/follows until you have fan and followers. I have seen accounts that I have followed/followed me with over 1 million followers get suspended with over 9000 tweets and 400 days old. Unless that was a bot, that was quite a sunk investment by some folk(s) to be flushed away when account was/still is suspended.

    I see Twitter accounts get suspended everyday while monitoring drops for our corporate account. It seems to be waves of suspension, I suspect when Twitter is tweaking their suspend algorithm. There is no proof that these suspends are a result in fake followers or perhaps are fake profiles themselves, but how much you wanna bet buying cheap fans/followers leads to a dead end every time 🙂

    August 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm
  • Dale

    The documentary never detailed how many fake watches they could have sold off the back of the celeb endorsement or indeed any commercial pay off whatsoever (I think he did mention he had a brief spike of visitors to his site). Which leads me to wonder what is the value of a tweet/like regardless of whether its real or fake?

    August 6, 2013 at 9:12 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      We’ve been trying to measure that since tweets/likes became a commodity to be fair 😉

      Ive seen measurements from fractions of a cent, up to a few dollars. The point is though, that un-engaged followers on any platform are just a number. Engaging with them, having an open line of dialogue, THATS got value. Having a number, no matter how large doesn’t.

      The waters are muddied a bit by a potential uplift in conversion rate with the social verification of having more followers, thats where the problem really lies. Just how much do you attribute to the social side of things? Its a tough question…

      August 6, 2013 at 9:39 am
      • Dale

        You’re right, we are swimming in data and attribution IMO is still a major problem (I know a lot of analytic companies and consultants would argue this point!). It’s also hugely product/service dependent.

        I don’t think external agencies are best placed to tackle it as they don’t see end to end and haven’t got access to all the relevant data sets – only their bit (whether it be tweets, likes, backlinks or ad recall metrics)

        August 6, 2013 at 10:16 am
  • Spook SEO

    Great post. While others still claim that there are tons of benefits to be had from buying likes (like the psychological effect it brings), I still think that the value you’ll get from it isn’t worth it.

    I haven’ really given it enough thought but buying likes does seem like having fake credibility. Just my two cents though.

    August 7, 2013 at 8:01 am
  • Estudio34

    Another great post Martin! The bottom line is that a lot of businesses especially SME’s look at it as an economical way forward whereby time being is a cost that can be reduced by taking a shortcut i.e. buy the social.

    There is no long-term view of effect/repercussion and misses what many professionals like Richard above (Buying likes is a fool’s errand) or Will Critchlow / Rand Fishkin have said before -BUILD A BRAND for Petes sake!

    I really like a quote from Rand “You can’t buy me love” that in a nutshell summarizes this example very well and what social should be about. Getting users to fall in love as opposed to prostitution I guess.

    August 7, 2013 at 9:25 am
  • Ksenia Dobreva

    I totally agree with all the statements in your article and all the comments above. This is a hot topic, and a lot of marketers are writing about this.

    For me the main point is attitude. I would never buy followers or likes, and in fact I can’t blame people for doing this. Their problems, their business. The more they do wrong, the more opportunities are available for me.

    But if I see that a company buys fake Twitter followers, it means they don’t care about building real followers (or care but not enough). They don’t care about faking things. So, an expected question is: why do I care about this company?

    There are customers that don’t care about fake followers, or don’t know they exist, or cannot identify them. But I will never be a customer just because they think I won’t notice. Maybe I’m too critical, and one might think it isn’t a big issue, just Twitter, just followers, but to me it is an important sign of the attitude.

    August 8, 2013 at 12:05 pm
  • Anca Dumitru

    Not at all, as much as I was tempted/advised to do that. I’d rather grow my following slowly yet organically. Looking at my Twitter account, for instance, with StatusPeople I’m more than OK with the fact that I have only 4% fake followers and 78%. I’m just wondering what the margin error would be for accounts with a smaller following.

    Great series, Martin! Looking forward to the next parts.

    August 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm
  • Lindsay Wassell

    Your comments on social proof and how long it has been a marketing strategy had me digging into some old magazines. I have a stack of “My Magazine” from the early 1900s. This one, from 1920 gave me a chuckle.

    August 21, 2013 at 3:03 pm