A client came to us recently for help building her social media connections. She already had a few thousand followers – a nice number! – that she’d gotten with the help of another firm.
But she’d become suspicious of their strategies and canceled her contract.
Two weeks after she came to us, more than 1,600 of her followers disappeared between breakfast and lunch one day. A couple weeks later, nearly 900 vanished overnight.
Our social media strategists did some sleuthing and quickly developed a theory. Since all of the followers who’d apparently fled were those our client had gotten through the previous firm she worked with, they were likely fakes – dummy accounts or “robots.” Those are accounts that aren’t attached to real people, and they’re used to make it appear that someone has lots of followers.
Our client’s previous firm could have easily flipped the switch on these accounts, so to speak, and “unfollowed” her, perhaps as punishment for the canceled contract. If the accounts were manned by real followers, it’s unlikely the firm could have organized such mass disengagements in such short amounts of time.
I share this tale because fake followers have become big business. With prices starting at $1 for 1,000 followers, a business can easily earn upwards of $40 million a year selling them, according to a New York Times article published earlier this month.
Twitter seems to have the biggest problem because it’s designed so that one person can have multiple accounts, says Jeni Hinojosa, our senior social media strategist. More than two dozen services sell fake Twitter accounts, and now, you can buy bogus Twitter retweets, too. But other sites are also vulnerable. Facebook, for instance, had a problem with fake “likes,” Jeni says. Last year it developed an automated system for identifying suspicious accounts and getting rid of them.
What’s the harm in having fake followers?
What happened to our client, for starters. But it gets worse. When others realize a large portion of your following is fabricated – and they do! – you lose valuable credibility. Fake followers also defeat the purpose of social media marketing: They’re not real people who are going to spread your message and might eventually do business with you. Their only value is in making it appear that you’re popular …. Until you’re not.
If you’re doing your own social media, don’t succumb to the come-ons for cheap followers. Even if it’s just a dollar, it’s a dollar wasted – or worse.
If you’re hiring a company to help you build a social media following, here are some tips for ensuring you’ll get what you pay for:
Ask about their strategies. Do they build connections organically by seeking out people who have interests related to a client’s topic? Are they interacting with people in interest groups, and looking at user profiles?
Check out their clients’ followers. Even careful social media users are liable to have some fake followers – high-quality fakes can look just like real people – so expect to see some. But a large number should be a warning sign. Ask for a list of social media clients and either spot check their followers manually by randomly clicking on individual profiles or run them through a tool like Status People, which will tell you what percentage on a particular Twitter account are fake, inactive and good. It isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it will give you a good idea of the numbers.
Find out who will be running your account. Your online reputation will be in their hands, so you should know their level of expertise. Find out if they are genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about your topic. Look at some of their posts and interactions to evaluate their communication skills. How many clients’ accounts will they be managing, and how much time will they devote to yours?
On another note, if you hire a firm to help build your social media accounts over a short period of time, you should have a plan for maintaining the accounts once you’re on your own. Otherwise, the money you’ve invested in them is wasted. Social media marketing is a long-term strategy; the best results come from building and maintaining momentum. So, either find a great firm and have it manage your accounts until you’ve met your goals, or watch and learn from your account manager, so you’ll know what to do when you’re in the driver’s seat.
Stories like what happened to our client can be scary, but they shouldn’t deter you from using social media to build your brand. The new media has become a critical component of every marketing strategy and there is honest professional help available if you need it. If you’re not on the playing field, it’s time to start.
Keepin’ it real,
Marsha Friedman launched EMS Incorporated in 1990. Her firm represents corporations and experts in a wide array of fields such as business, health, food, lifestyle, politics, finance, law, sports and entertainment. She consults individuals and businesses on a daily basis and is frequently asked to speak at conferences about how to harness the power of publicity.