Fake Followers: Machiavellian or Misrepresentation?
For many B2C businesses, the number of social media followers doesn’t just matter; it’s an obsession. Your social counts scream what people think of you NOW, and NOW is when decisions are made online.
From a follower’s perspective though, no one wants to be the first one at the party. If a potential follower checks out a Twitter page and sees low follower numbers (or low Likes on Facebook, etc.), unless they have a compelling reason to follow, they don’t. They are unimpressed, assume it’s a boring brand and move on. Anemic follower counts are more than just unimpressive to prospects. The social metrics can damage brand, lose customers, and cost marketers their jobs.
But, if the prospect sees an impressive number of followers, then they’ll take the split second to click follow. They will give it a chance and see for themselves what’s so great. They can instantly unfollow uninteresting tweeters, so they don’t overthink the decision.
It’s that very moment, that split-second when the person looks at the follower count and judges the brand’s follow worthiness, that has spawned a controversial, murky practice to increase follower counts any way possible in order to eliminate the hesitation, to seem follow worthy, and nab the new prospect.
When someone needs love on social media and isn’t getting it organically, some have turned to services to buy near-limitless quantities of fake fans, followers, and likes to give the impression that they are popular and get the monkey off their back of the defining metric.
For a few bucks, you too can have 1,000,000+ followers in a few days. The painstaking, grueling end-goal reached with a swipe of a credit card for about $20 give or take.
Tempting? While faking followers has been around for several years, faking is now abundant. Critics are outraged by the unethical, misleading misrepresentation of faking. Some are appalled and others are threatened because their own popularity was earned and fakers devalue their earned popularity stats.
The fast, easy, cheating path is never supposed to win over the hard-road earned. But, the toothpaste is out of the tube and unless the platforms fix the problem (e.g., report on the Twitter page a verified real followers %) or the audience refuses to follow brands that fake it, then what’s next? Who’s first to a billion followers?
Fake followers are bought from services that set up accounts in Twitter that will never buy from you, not read your posts, not have any human interaction with you. The robot accounts exist solely to follow others and inflate the follower counts on any Twitter page. It should be noted that deliberate deception of accounts is grounds for deactivation, but it exists nevertheless.
Fake followers are not the same as the games played by countless follow ‘rings’ where the word ‘follow’ is used in the # (e.g. #followback, #teamfollow). In those, people search for follow hashtags and then follow the accounts, often regardless of topic interest. Reciprocity is expected. If you follow, they follow. If you unfollow, they unfollow. It’s a numbers game many play, born from the obsession of the counts. They can build impressive follower counts in the 100,000s, even if no one is reading a darn word they tweet. Their near 1:1 follower to following ratio is an indication that they are in the game; links will dominate postings… earning $ for every click. Truly throwing it against the wall to see what sticks.
After a full-time social media specialist’s hard work grew her niche organization’s Facebook audience (Likes) to nearly 80,000 over several months, I was surprised to see the recent surge of their Twitter followers from 200+ to 40,000+ in a couple months. Something wasn’t right: there wasn’t enough time or effort invested in Twitter to earn the wild, enthusiastic following surges from their niche demographic. A quick click on their followers showed the new followers’ gibberish postings, symbol fonts, and fake account ratios (where followings exponentially exceed followers). Alas, the sudden popularity was due to a credit card swipe, not true love.
Brands fear that a real prospect may buy from an inferior competitor after the prospect saw more followers/fans/likes on the competitor’s social pages and followed them instead. So with that ongoing social pressure, the business spends as little as $20 (and less) to more than $1000 (still cheap) to quickly build fan bases to become socially followable.
Even legit businesses with great products risk reputation and trust by buying followers. Whether the marketers are trying to fool customers, bosses, friends, advertisers, or competitors, the pressure is huge to get the numbers. Fakers suggest other methods take too long, their execs don’t have patience or don’t understand it, their compensation is tied to it, they don’t have resources to commit to the effort, or they haven’t been able to build real followers.
So many say, ‘what’s the problem?’ At root is reputation and reputation in social is judged by number of followers. Reputation affects revenue. It’s their call and they risk a possible threat to brand reputation to get in the game. Once they get in the game and pass that follow-worthiness judgement, they know they can build real followers.
If they don’t get it organically, then they believe they must fake it to make it. They justify fake followers as a harmless, necessary seeding tactic so prospects don’t feel they are the first one at the party.
Will anyone care? When it comes to celebs, who knows or cares that Lady Gaga’s 39,434,000 followers gets an estimated 19% ‘good’ (real followers) rating from Statuspeople.com compared to Ashton’s 36%? People accept that celebrities are all about PR and rabid fans don’t care about exaggerated counts. But what’s notable are the non-famous like @jimmytatro who built his 276,000+ fans on his tweeting talent (earning 85% real, 5% fake, 10% inactive). Tatro is a true content king, where the other celebs are examples of Twitter obligatory PR. An industrious, real-follower builder is Erik Christian (@SimplyAfterDark), who built his reported 113,000+ followers (91% real, 1% fake) on reciprocity and numerous tactics he wrote about in his book (which I found entertaining as heck).
Maybe consumers won’t care about celebs, but will they cut slack to businesses for fake followers when they are exposed? If a business exaggerates followers, isn’t the next conclusion to doubt other claims the business makes?
Here’s the conundrum: does it violate trust with a prospect who doesn’t trust the brand in the first place (which is why they place importance on the followers stat)? Does it affect reputation and trust with customers who already trust the brand?
What’s your opinion? Are fake followers the Machiavellian-seeding stepping stone to grow the real targeted audience? Or, is it unethical misrepresentation that will ruin a brand?
In the Great Fake Follower Experiment, Twitter account @jillkeogh will explore the world of fake and other ways businesses are growing their followers. I am not hiding it. I’m not trying to fool anyone. I will fake and report about it.
Jill Keogh, Digital Marketer
Shoutout to @kellykayy19 – a super-savvy voice of Gen Y online behavior